May 5th, 2008

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about how Grand Theft Auto IV is racist, or even how it has racist imagery. And you were all ready with your angry comments, weren’t you?

As predicted, the latest installment in the GTA series is already stirring up controversy. Is it too violent? Is it corrupting our kids? Is it horribly sexist? The ability to sleep with prostitutes–and to kill them–is definitely back (though all online video clips have been removed). What I want to talk about isn’t the mind-numbingly overdone sex scandals associated with this wildly talked about game though. My question is simple: what does it mean that our new protagonist is white?

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas raised eyebrows with its black protagonist–in particular, it’s pairing of violence and race. While black characters are hardly unheard of in video games, they’re certainly rarer than their white counterparts. And given the inflammatory nature of GTA itself, the gun-wielding CJ couldn’t help but incite the question, “As a contemporary American, what does it mean to play a black male in a world based around violence?”

With Grand Theft Auto IV, however, the next major series release from Take-Two, we’re facing the opposite question. Instead of an African-American protagonist, we have Niko, a Serbian immigrant. Because of his nationality, he still comes weighted with stereotypes, but he is most certainly white. So what does it mean for us as players–or for the game’s designers–that our avatar has switched races?

Maybe it means nothing (as if anything ever meant nothing). After all, there are still black characters in GTA IV who are also involved in the world of crime. Maybe the race switched occurred just to mix things up, not to make players less racially uncomfortable–or even suspect. Readers who’ve been playing the new game, any thoughts on how it feels to play this time around?

Tags: controversy, race

6 Responses to “Race in Grand Theft Auto IV (Yes, *That* Can of Worms)”

  1. Soulofaqua Says:

    It is interesting you talk about going from black to white because in GTA 1 you had the option to choose you’re character from a small array of criminal wich only wore different color clothing with the exception for one being black, in GTA 2 you no longer had that option you where a white guy in black so also in GTA 3(though you could change clothing) and in GTA: Vice City you was a white guy in a hawa├» shirt and in GTA Advance you also where a white guy, so the only GTA games with black main characters where GTA 1 and GTA: SA so the major racial twist actually was with GTA: SA and not with GTA IV.
    This change mostly came because of the booming popularity of Rap music and the content of it’s lyrics. GTA: SA was made to appeal this generation by making them able to do things that are similar to what most “Gangsta” rappers sing about.
    Both GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas(and some count GTA: London as a full game to) where made different to there predescessors GTA 1,2,3,Advance whom where set in a metropolitan city to be specific Liberty City with the exception of GTA 2 wich was set in Anywhere City This is why the count goes from GTA 1,2,3,VC,SA and back to 4.

  2. Tim Says:

    I dunno if it means much. I don’t think they changed it because of anything anyone said about SA. I suppose they might have been aware that having two black protagonists in a row might be seen as a trend and would just confuse message of the game (whatever that is). The mainstream media probably only has a memory big enough to hold the last two games of a series. I think it’s probably them just doing the rounds of pop culture versions of different cultures.

    But I’m pleased to be asking, why is my black video game identity not black this time? Rather than why is the hero always a white guy?

    I really liked CJ, I identified with him. I’m sure I’ll like Niko.

    The world is a multicultural place, maybe in the next game he/(she?) will be an asian american. That would be fun.

    In it’s crude cartoony way, we get to experience a distorted version of parts of pop culture. That’s pretty cool.

  3. Brett Says:

    It’s arguable that Rockstar thought pretty hard about Niko’s origin and this wasn’t tied to him being white.

    Choosing an immigrant culture that is an NYC underdog was important, for one. (Many of the other groups you work with are NYC underdogs.) Also Niko’s war experience – and experience living in a world has nothing in common with America’s safety and excess, is a deep part of his character as well. Most importantly, he had to be from somewhere that had mixed feelings about America and the west, and it makes sense that a former socialist country now “emerging to” the west would fit the bill pretty well.

    One of my favorite conversations between Niko and his cousin Roman (from memory):

    Roman: “Niko, you should watch some of this american TV. It’s great! Better than the crap back home.”

    Niko: “But all we watched back home was american TV.”

  4. The Guy Says:

    It’s all about the story. San Andreas was about a west coast gangster in the 90s, and so a black guy suited the story. This one is about what it means to be an immigrant in America, so Niko’s character fits the bill.

    Furthermore, you can play just about any race and both genders in online mode.

  5. apple blog Says:

    Hey Guys how is the GTA V? Any latest news? I am excited for that to release. how about you guys? :)

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