GTA V and Hating the Things I Love

As nerds of colour, we’re all too familiar with the conundrum: what do we do when our geeky fare is both awesome and offensive at the same time?

It’s a problem born of the simple fact that the creative teams behind some of our favourite nerd  media — comic books, video games, board games, and movies — tend to be overwhelmingly White and male, fostering a sort of nerd-bro culture that too often gets the voices and narratives of women and people of colour horribly wrong (an issue well-discussed on last week’s epic Hard NOC Life podcast episode featuring industry insiders Larry Hama and Joe Illidge). Often, the arguably racist or sexist mistreatments of non-White, non-male characters — while offensive — is a symptom of a much larger weakness in a comic’s creative team, resulting in a book that can be easily dismissed as universally bad. Take, for example, the much-anticipated upcoming Mighty Avengers book, which Illidge predicted in last week’s podcast was unlikely to succeed due to both racial as well as creative problems. On the flip side, a book like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese gets things right on all counts: it is on the one hand both well-written and well-illustrated, and on the other hand a compelling exploration of the Asian American identity.

In short, things are easy when the politics of a book also fit the overall quality of a book.

But, what happens when a favourite comic book or video game is both incredibly good, and pretty racist? Or, vice versa, how are we supposed to react when the politics of a book are compelling, but the execution leaves something to be desired?

Put another way, what happens when we find our identities as Nerds and People of Colour at odds?

This conundrum was brought to a head for me this past week when J. Lamb and I snatched up our copy of Grand Theft Auto V.

A little back-story: I am an RPG-er while James is an FPS-er, and ne’er the twain shall meet. We rarely game together, but on occasion we find a game that satisfies both our styles. When we do, we play a joint story mode for as long as the two of us can stand it (or each other). The GTA franchise is one of the titles that James and I have made a tradition of playing together, and we do a pretty good job of sharing the responsibilities without throttling each other: he is Shooter-Guy and I am Driving-Girl, and we pass the controller between each other as the gameplay requires. (And, I also do my best to suppress my RPG urges to save every three minutes, or to replay every mission until I get a perfect score before moving on, or to explore every square inch of the map for collectibles.)

Jenn: "Yeah, I know we're supposed to be shooting the rival gang-members ... but what if there are PEARLS or something down here?!"
Jenn: “Yeah, I know we’re supposed to be shooting the rival gang-members … but what if there are PEARLS or something down here?!”

Through this kind of co-operative play, we beat GTA III, GTA San Andreas, and (almost, we’re stuck on the last mission) GTA IV.  So, we were super-psyched when GTA V dropped last Tuesday.

20% into the game’s story mode, and I can safely say that GTA V is phenomenal. Rockstar has ironed out many of the flaws that plagued earlier titles, including the long load times, the seemingly demented camera (that occasionally got stuck behind your head particularly during intense firefights), and the often inane and pointless mini-games (which have been better integrated into gameplay or removed entirely).

When the fun of bowling is too much for real-life.
When the exuberance and adrenaline of bowling is too much for real-life.

The entire guns/targeting/shooting mechanism seems to have been lifted straight out of Rockstar’s recent foray into the Max Payne series, which Rockstar recently acquired and reintroduced to the gaming market with Max Payne 3. The police chase algorithm in GTA V also seems to have been completely revamped; whereas, it was once fairly simple to evade a 3-star wanted level, I now routinely get my ass kicked by the cops with a 1-star wanted level in GTA V for doing something so simple as jacking a parked car in daylight. And, of course, the graphics (which Rockstar has never really been known for) have been hugely improved; while the character rendering isn’t on the level of, say, Square Enix, it’s certainly far better than earlier Rockstar iterations. Rockstar has also added mid-mission checkpoints, a feature that the franchise sorely needed, to eliminate the tediousness that came from slogging through the first 75% of a long mission in order to get one more go at the part that has you stumped.

GTA V also added some really well-done new bells and whistles: for the first time, players are able to switch between multiple main protagonists, each with their own unique story arcs and side missions. Many of the missions also require you to switch between these playable characters to complete a single mission. It’s hard to fully describe without playing the game first-hand, but it works. And, most importantly, the storyline (again, at 20% in) is really compelling — far better than GTA IV (which I also thought had a really awesome story), and a little bit like watching The Sopranos in video game form.

In short, GTA V is by most objective standards of gaming purely, criminally awesome.

But then, there’s the sexism (and racism).

It goes without saying that a Grand Theft Auto title will toe the line of political correctness. This is, after all, the video game franchise that encouraged players to have sex with a prostitute, then beat her with a baseball bat and run her over with your car to get your money back. It’s no spoiler to reveal that this remains something the player can do in GTA V; there would be gamer riots in the streets if Rockstar took this out.

GTA V also expands the strip club gameplay.

"The strip clubs in GTA games are feminist," said no one, ever.
“The strip clubs in GTA games are feminist,” said no one, ever.

Whereas in previous iterations, the player could purchase a private dance and passively watch a scantily clad stripper in string bikini and thong grind on your avatar for 5-6 minutes, now the private dance is a mini-game wherein your goal is to increase the (now fully topless) stripper’s “Like” meter by either flirting verbally with her or physically groping her while the bouncer’s back is turned, because, y’know, all strippers want you to sexually assault them. If the stripper’s “Like” meter is filled, you have an option to try and take the stripper home with you. To say this is all a bit “rape-y” would be an understatement.

Robin Thicke would be proud.
Robin Thicke would be proud.

Personally, I prefer my “Blurred Lines” a little nerrdier.

While the over-the-top racial caricatures that prominently featured in GTA: San Andreas are more muted in GTA V, the cast of non-White character remain a veritable who’s who of the seedy underworld: Asian ricers are introduced alongside Black and Latino gangbangers, strippers, and drug addicts. One rampage mission challenges the White male protagonist to mow down Spanish-speaking  “ese’s” with a machine gun (although to be fair, another rampage mission involves the mass murder of “rednecks,” and a third requires the character to defend himself against hallucinated aliens).

On the other hand, the Black characters are far less one-dimensional than in previous iterations. Lamar, pictured above in concept art, is hilarious.
On the other hand, the Black characters are far less one-dimensional than in previous iterations. Lamar, pictured above in GTA V concept art, is a fully-developed non-playable character, and hilarious.
... and then we have Tonya, the crackhead.
… and then there’s Tonya, the crackhead.

While I thoroughly enjoy playing GTA V, I can’t help but shake the disconcerting feeling that I’m perpetuating some pretty racist and sexist video game tropes as I do so. Yet, on the flip side, I have a hard time dismissing GTA V as a “bad game” because it offends my political sensibilities; divorced from all of this stuff, GTA V is easily the best game I’ve played all year.

We have a tendency to view political identity and creative quality through the same lens, as if the two are inexorably linked. And sometimes, things are exactly that black-and-white — bad things are also racist (or sexist) things, and it’s easy to dismiss them as sort of universally terrible. But then, there’s this whole grey area that we progressive NOCs sometimes forget to talk about: the great pieces of nerdy media that are still pretty overtly offensive, and the cognitive dissonance that comes when we try to parse out our nerdy enjoyment against our “of colour” sociopolitical authenticity.

Yet, it’s precisely in this grey area where I enjoy writing, because it’s here that we get to truly dissect and weigh the qualities of various media that we consume. We get to interrogate exactly why we find a thing offensive, and whether or not it crosses the line into untenable, in so doing we get to better understand our own identities. This has led me to the realization that very few things are unquestionably “offensive” or “not offensive;” most media is somewhere in the middle — “kinda offensive” but not so much so as to invalidate the media’s other positive attributes. Further, when it comes to this “kinda offensive” stuff, it is impossible to expect everyone to view and interpret the level of offensiveness the same: everyone differs in where we draw our lines. The exact same thing can be “kinda offensive” for some, while being “all-out, this-invalidates-anything-positive-about-this-media offensive” for others. The nerd community, for me, is about appreciating as a whole how individual people find a particular thing offensive (or not), and learning how each person reconciles that individual interpretation with the base enthusiasms of our inner fanboy/fangirl. Through this process, we produce a holistic representation of how various nerds build relationships with the nerdy stuff we enjoy.

In short, no two nerds are alike, so no two interpretations of nerdy media will be alike as well. Everyone brings their personal and unique history to media; it is through the process of sharing and discussing and questioning and understanding the unique and often dissimilar interpretations that each of us holds that allows us to gain a special appreciation of the fandom as a whole. Moreover, it is through the process of both presenting our own perspectives as well as having those perspectives challenged by others that allows us to fully appreciate how varied and multifaceted our special community of nerds is, and how it includes people who fall everywhere along the spectrum of both “nerd” and “person of colour.” And it is precisely these differences that brings our NOC community together.

That is why I believe in, and write for, The Nerds of Color. And, that’s also why I play GTA V, and kind of hate myself for loving it.

Cognitive Dissonance is an ongoing feature that will explore all the nerdy media that we both hate to love, and love to hate.

6 thoughts on “GTA V and Hating the Things I Love

  1. Awesome analysis. I had always been similarly curious about rap music. I’d asked a feminist recently if I could support feminism, but also really love Snoop Dogg’s anthem “Ain’t No Fun”. She actually had no clue. She said in part that media’s a slippery fish and that you can indeed appreciate something with a bad message without supporting that bad message. I won’t go all white-male-comic-writer-guy on this and say “it’s not bad because it’s mirroring reality!” But as you mentioned, we can use this space to dissect why we see images as good or bad and really use it to look at how it does or doesn’t reflect something inside of us.

    In any event, GTA V is getting incredible reviews across the board. But we should all continue to have this conversation. Thanks for giving it all thought.

    1. Hi Zach, thanks for your comment. Sorry I missed it earlier — was away from the computer for the weekend! Thanks also for your insights on what this post was about (and hopefully what the ongoing CD feature will be about), dissecting media we love for when it slips up racially and gender-wise.

      I think rap is a really great medium for this. Rap is almost inherently racist, sexist and homophobic, and any connoisseur would need to acknowledge its history in these cultural tropes even if the music is moving away from it and becoming more progressive. I still think Eminem is a almost a lyrical genius, despite how problematic he is from a political progressive point of view. It’s just not that black-and-white. A rapper’s skill can be appreciated even if one criticizes his message.

  2. Don’t have any personal skin in this game, as I am not a gamer, but I was just talking to a coworker, who has stopped buying games that have explicitly misogynistic/racist content, and your article has him groaning with need. 🙂 Sounds like he can’t play that many games. 🙁

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