Race, Class, and Gender in Grand Theft Auto V

So, I’ve been meaning to make a more “serious” or “adventurous” post about things in gaming for a while and well I guess now is just as good of a time to do so. Decided to take a look at the these subjects because I was a little interested in them. Mind you this isn’t the most “scientific” observation but it is a look at some of these themes in the game and how they are approached. Time to look at Grand Theft Auto 5. Who knows, if this catches on I may do more editorials on things like this.

                                      THE BIG ONE!

GTA, the game series has its fans, its detractors, and has managed to make its mark on pop culture and culture as a whole. Politicians hate it, much of the gaming public loves it, and the effect it has made can be seen from references and name drops to whole sale rip offs. For the uninformed, Grand Theft Auto is a series from Rockstar Games that allow the player to have almost complete freedom to go and do what they want in a fictionalized world based off real locations. Due to the game having a slight base in reality, no matter how audacious it becomes, many of the problems that are pervasive in society today exist in the game’s world. Being the developers that they are, Rockstar has also taken note of this and have played with the tropes surrounding them. The interactions between class, gender, and race has been involved in the games since the second GTA was released in 1999 and has only become more complex as the game series continued.

                                                                We have come so far

To be clear, much of the world of GTA is satire, dark and harsh satire, but satire nonetheless and that has to be addressed first. Many of the themes in the world are taken to extremes and, while not necessarily untrue, are harsh in many of their portrayals and has created a fair amount of controversy in their representation of people and proliferation of stereotypes. The game makes fun of many groups of people and professions but even with this there is some truth to many of the parodies created. Before getting into that, lets take a look at the place that GTA V

Los Santos and Blaine County are the places that most of GTA V takes place. Los Santos is a doppelganger of Los Angeles including places like Vinewood (Hollywood), Davis (Compton), Little Seoul (Koreatown) and many other cities all pushed into one island state. Considering that, the cities take on many of the tendencies of the real life locations. Racial make-ups, the monetary divide, and even the gender gap are placed in this world. However, unlike the real world, Los Santos is a place of fiction so more focus and enhancement of these elements can be made to argue a point, to make fun of, or even take a stereotype to their logical (and sometime illogical) extreme. One of the places to look at this is the financial divide that exists not only between the playable characters but the city itself.

The world of GTA V takes place in about 2013, it is rarely stated what year the game takes place but just by looking at the sites around the city, the player can tell that it takes place in a post-recession time period. For sale and foreclosure signs litter the city’s buildings, the homeless population in the game is rather large and the divide between the areas of the city with and without money is jarring. The player starts the main story of the game as a character Franklin, a black male trying to get out of the hood through legal and illegal means… Well mostly illegal but the first mission the player does is a repossession from wealthy psychologist that lived above his means and never paid the owner of the dealership you work for. He lives in a very nice house/home office right beside the beach.

NO ONE LIKES YOU! I hope everyone that got to the end of his story offed him.

As you are driving back to the dealership you see the varying areas of the city and the wealth contained in them from huge mansions with giant gates to lower end housing where Franklin calls home. He lives in Chamberlin Hills, which is comparable to the Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles. It is lower end housing that many of the expected types of people would call home. Gangsters, drug dealers, drug users, and people that just do not have the monetary resources to get out live there. Distinct divide from where one of the other playable characters, Michael, lives. A former bank robber, Michael lives in Rockford Hills, the game’s version of Beverly Hills. The best way to describe this area comes from the manual of the game: “Playground for the rich and famous – and for fat Midwestern tourist to come and gawp at the rich and famous on bus tours – Rockford Hiss has the highest concentration of silicone and new-money douchebags in bad marriages trying to spend their way to happiness in Los Santos.” Mansions, expensive and exotic cars, and the riches of the rich live in this area if not surrounding areas of it. The stratification of the haves and have-nots are visible everywhere you look in the city as the districts are as densely packed around one another as in the real world. On one corner you will see person of pure decadence, wearing overpriced clothing and getting into a high priced car and a few streets over you will see a dealer on the corner selling his wears to the closest crack head.

Meet Tonya, Franklin’s childhood friend and local crack fiend. She requires you to do some favors but eventually you can buy her basehead boyfriend’s business. Money is king.

As in the real world, people use money as a way to control others and get them to do their bidding. A major portion of the game is doing missions for people who are supposed to provide a payday but often getting screwed out of it one way or another. The person being screwed over the most is Franklin as his entire want is to make money and get out of the hood while becoming successful at whatever he does to make money. This becomes very apparent when a character by the name of Devin Weston gets involved. Devin is a multi-billionaire that has stakes in many business in the city. Besides owning major share in a Private Military Company he does extra-legal deals to get richer and in the good graces of politicians, international and otherwise, to make his invested companies bigger. He often promises Franklin money for the jobs that are done for him but much like his repossession boss, he screws him out of the money in a few different ways, one being stocks in some of his companies. Devin also interferes with the dream of Michael as he wants to be part of a movie studio. The studio Devin introduces him to he owns and is soon planning to shut down to get an insurance payout. Devin tries to own everyone he meets and if they are not to his liking, he will pay to have them disposed of.  Devin is also a parody of a pseudo-upper class liberal. He does yoga, is passive aggressive, drinks fancy coffee and yet practically owns a PMC. Truly a villain for the modern age.

This guy exhumes evil but a modern day evil. While sipping a soy frappe. And trading millions in stocks on the BAWSAQ (yes that’s the stock market in the game and you can profit if you play it).

This discrepancy between the 1% and poverty would be enough for a game to focus on but GTA does not only see that as enough but also adds in matters of racial and social standing. Many of the locations in GTA V have not only imbalance in wealth but also in race. The populations are skewed to look more like their real life counterparts where in which many of the people in the lower end neighborhoods are minorities, mostly African American, while most of the people in the high end areas are of some variant of Caucasian. It is striking when walking around Franklin’s house in the game that you will rarely ever see a white person unless they are homeless. There are also rumors in the game that if you are playing as Franklin, you are far more likely to deal with far more aggressive police than the two other playable characters who are white. Depending on the area you are in, the people will take on different personas and or stereotypes. In Chamberlin Hills, the people you run into on the street will be more likely to spout racial epithets when referring to one another, sound more stereotypically gangster, and often are more aggressive about terrain.

Chamberlin Hills, where Franklin lives. The guys in the green are part of the Grove Street Families. Franklin is affiliated as a member of the Forum Street Families. And this is a bit of an Easter Egg: Welcome Back to Los Santos

While in Rockford, mostly you will hear vapid conversations about money or some trendy diet. The section of the game that has the most stratification of race would be Blaine County. Blaine County is made up of rednecks primarily. It is rare to run into many other races in that area and many of the people there are rather racist and extremely nationalist. One of the billboards you will find that litter the desert and countryside there says “America is for Americans PERIOD.” Some of the missions you partake in there are for “border patrol” which is basically for a fanatical white American that his attacking and deporting people who are of any kind of Hispanic dissent. The last mission you do for this person is actually hunt him because one of the people he tasked you to deport actually has been in the country longer and has a family lineage of being in the country unlike the character you are playing at the time Trevor who is originally Canadian. Many of the characters in this area will also attack Franklin, the black guy, when in that area if you are just driving around.

Not the most flattering car in the picture but this is Rockford Hills. Congrats, your starter kit is: 15K, hipster clothing line, and douchebag survival kit including a $30 Bean Machine Coffee gift card and pretentious scarf.

Errrrmmmm… I don’t think I have to say anything on this one.

From the perils of money to the blatant racism, GTA’s Los Santos is sounding like a true haven to live in. Isn’t there something missing though? Something that tends to cause tumblr to go up in arms over debates? Something that has been a problem since the beginning of time as soon as people were able to differentiate themselves? Oh, yes, gender. Not just male/female representation but the Trans community as well. Even as they are represented it is not quite the… most favorable. The player can find members of the community around Los Santos but the largest concentration is around a purchasable bar by the name “Pitchers.” For those who do not know, a “pitcher” in the gay community is the person that is dominate during sex. Not to mention that the name of the parcel service in the city is called Post-Op. To say that some of the jokes made are tasteless is to speak lightly of it but again, a world of parody. When Rockstar wants to make a well-rounded non-heterosexual character than can with great depth. Anthony Prince aka “Gay Tony” from GTA IV was an extremely well created character that was dynamic and actually changed with character development as the game went on. Out of many of the elements that make up to world of GTA V this is the one that seems like they could have treated a with a little more delicacy than they did because it seems like more of a series of cruel jokes than parody.

Trans members outside of Pitchers on the left and Post Op advertisement on the right.

The real question that tends to come up when with both dissenters and fans of the series is “Does this matter?” and personally I believe it does to an extent. Race and representation in games is a big topic now and people expect more out of their games than just a simple story and some moderate gameplay. They want to have a character to relate to and be able to see and a possible avatar for themselves. There was much outrage about one of the three playable characters not being a woman before the game came out and Rockstar basically said in response that they will create a female narrative when they feel as if it is right to do so and they want to treat the subject matter with the same level of respect that they do for the characters that they have made so far. They could have shown a little more respect to those not of the gender binary as the jokes made feel like cheap shots to those in the community. I am pretty sure that the team at Rockstar are more than capable of doing a better job with the material than that. I am impressed that they went the direction that they did and decided that what they were doing with implementing elements of race, gender, and class inequalities and presented it in the fashion that they did. Some were caricatures, yes, but overall they represented a lot of the worst elements of the US and especially some of the West Coast culture in a rather funny but critical light.

If you guys managed to make it down to this I greatly appreciate you reading it and leave some feedback please. If you want to see more let me and give me some suggestions to try and work on.