Critical Digressions: Gangbanging and Notions of the Self

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

We got a tattoo on our back the other day – a serpent wrapped around a large Gothic cross. Then we dropped by the barber’s down the street for a blond Mohawk. In the afternoon, we pumped some iron and went shopping and in the evening, we jacked a car and took out a couple of gang-bangers before retiring to a strip-club for the remainder of the night. You see, for last fortnight we’ve been navigating the streets of Los Santos in a low-rider – with spiked custom rims and a mad stereo system – listening to Eric B. and Rakim, wearing a wife-beater, a green bandana and a sneer.

GtaYou can too. Rockstar Games’ wildly popular videogame “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” allows you to summon your inner gangsta. You “control the main character…CJ, who has just returned to his old neighbourhood after learning of his ‘moms’ death. However all is not well as he drives into his old town, framed for the murder of a [cop] and unpopular with his old gang CJ must not only win back the trust of the gang but he must also learn exactly what happened to his family and return his jaded gang back to the glory days.” As in most role playing games (RPG), you may adhere to the plot or just hang out.

Unlike most RPG games which are typically set in the distant, mythical past (Diablo) or several millennia into the future (Final Fantasy) – games in which you assume the persona of, say, a barbarian, wizard or dwarf – “San Andreas” doesn’t offer temporal escapism: it’s grounded in contemporary America and in Americana, an unusual premise and conceit. The game, for instance, features the voices of icons of pop culture: Samuel L. Jackson (as a corrupt cop), Ice T (uncharacteristically, a rapper), Axl Rose (a chilled out radio DJ) and even Peter Fonda. When driving, you can turn to one of many radio stations that play country, classic rock, old school gangsta rap and eighties nostalgia. We’ve been listening to Bob Dylan, the Isley Brothers, Kool and the Gang as well as Snoop Doggy Dog and Cypress Hill. There’s even a talk-show station. A reviewer writes that “the most impressive thing about the talk station is that the news breaks update as you play the game…you’ll also hear a sports show, a matchmaking program, and a gardening show, whose host is played by the never subtle Andy Dick.”

Maxpayne2 Moreover, and more interestingly, much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, San Andreas is a fictional reconstruction of California. “San Andreas’” virtual cantons correspond to L.A.’s Compton, Verona or Beverly Hills and as the game progresses you may venture into San Francisco or Las Vegas. Topographical correspondence aside, the personality of the Los Angeles changes from Compton to Beverly Hills: the cars are bigger and better, the shops chicer, and the barbers have lisps. Women no longer stomp around in tracksuits; they slink around in Sharon-Stone-in-“Basic-Instinct”-like dresses (and, on the beach, they’re clad in thongs). A reviewer claims that “San Andreas’…oozes much more atmosphere and feels far more realistic than anything we have seen before.” We almost agree. “Half-Life 2” is a remarkable, atmospheric game that gives “San Andreas” a run for its money. And Rockstar’s “Max Payne 2” is a masterpiece, a game that possesses the texture and trajectory of a novel.

“San Andreas” is also a commentary on California, Los Angeles, Americana, the gangsta life, popular culture, gender relations, race relations and class, analagous in ways to the satire characteristic of “Simpsons” or even to the sensibility of contemporary American fiction: think David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis (who has also made his audience empathize with a psychopath), even Don Delillo (circa Mao II or Americana). The meta-commentary is not only explicit on the whimsical billboards, the “Ammu-Nation” storefronts and army recruitment adds on the radio but implicit in the plot and the choices you are presented with as a protagonist. CJ, for instance, overhears the following conversation between his brother, Sweet, and sister, Kendl:

SWEET: I’m tired of you not listening to me, girl.
KENDL: And I’m tired of you acting like you own me. I can see who I want to see.
SWEET: It just ain’t right you seeing some cholo mother-f*cker.
KENDL: Ohhh, what – a no good narrow minded hypocrite gang banger telling me what is right and what is wrong. Let me guess, Sweet – senseless killing right, but a boyfriend from the Southside, wrong?
SWEET: Some things ain’t just meant to happen. I mean what if ya’ll have kids. Leroy Hernandez? That don’t sound good, girl.
KENDL: His name ain’t Hernandez.
SWEET: Or Lopez, either, you racist f*ck! That ain’t how Mom raised us.
SWEET: I ain’t racist. I just know how they feel about you. And look at you, you’re dressed like a hooker!

A commentator notes that “Anyone who has steered away from the series because of its unethical moments will not be surprised to learn that San Andreas is more of the same. With drugs, gangbanging, drive bys and the largest profanity count in console history it’s quite obvious that…San Andreas deserves its 18 certificate. It’s obvious to anyone with common sense that the humour is satirical…” To be expected, “San Andreas” has stirred controversy in America. An 85-year old grandmother has spearheaded a class-action suit against Rockstar Games, citing false advertising, fraud and abuse. As a rule of thumb, grandmothers should not play MA or mature rated games. We believe those quick to offend should stick to activities such as basket-weaving or boulles. But since gaming has become a larger industry than Hollywood, it now attracts great scrutiny. As usual, controversies in popular American discourse – whether it’s about movies (“Team America”) or music (2 Live Crew) – do not concern violence, misogyny or racism so much; controversy mostly concerns sex. The US Congress is investigating the infamous “Hot Coffee” modification. “In the unmodified version of San Andreas, the player sees an exterior view of the girlfriend’s house while hearing the muffled voices of [CJ] and his girlfriend as they engage in coitus. However, the Hot Coffee modification enables a minigame which allows the player to actually enter the girlfriend’s bedroom and control [CJ]’s actions during sex.”

Psygnosis_1 We’ve been weaned on the Amiga – a machine than was arguably two decades ahead of its time – on games that include the seminal “Shadow of the Beast,” the infinitely playable “Xenon 2,” “Speedball 2” and “SWIV 2” and the arcade hit “Ninja Warriors.” We’ve been weaned in simpler times: videogames did not antagonize grandmothers, galvanize the Congress or demands exegesis, philosophical inquiry, then. On the other hand, San Andreas begs the attention of academics and cultural critics as it raises questions about the relationship of the virtual universe and medium to reality, about representations and construction of the self. Our very own Descha Daemgen poses an interesting question about virtual money: “Does this new emergent virtual online gaming economy mark a threshold in how we have come to transmit, to produce, and to imagine value?” You bet. We can answer this question, simply, anecdotally: when we make moolah in “San Andreas,” we feel quite pleased.

Boys and girls, Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is not merely a video-game. It is, to be trite, a way of life. The thug life. We identity with our virtual Doppelganger. In the virtual Compton, for instance, we’re always looking behind our back because the Ballas, a rival gang, are out to gun us down. Outside Compton, we feel freer. Cruising by the sea at dusk, we aspire to leave the hood, to buy a nice place on the beach and start a family. But we keep getting pulled back in.

NwaIn the preface to The Broken Estate, James Wood writes, “Fiction is real when its readers validate its reality; and our power so to validate comes both from our sense of the actual real (‘life’) and from our sense of the fictional real…” In real life, when idling in Karachi traffic or chatting with somebody we’ve just been introduced to at a dinner or before turning in for the night after a few drinks, we find our self mulling whether we should earn our gang’s respect or just cruise around Beverly Hills; whether we should place our hard earned paper on Donner’s Kebab or One-Eyed Warrior (at 10 to 1 odds) at an OTB or earn a pittance shaking down some honkies and crackers on the beach; whether we should put in requisite time and patience to court a girlfriend or just pay for a ho. If self perception contributes to notions of identity, then, boys and girls, we’ve virtually become an OG, an original gangsta. So although we’ve been listening to NWA’s anthem, “F*ck the Police,” since we sprouted chest hair, we only now appreciate the pathos that suffuses the lyrics.

Other Critical Digressions, yo:
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
Live 8 at Sandspit
And the OCD, the original Critical Digression