Say what you will about its lackluster story, offensive stereotypes and occasionally clunky mechanics, Grand Theft Auto V is unequivocally one of the most detailed video games of all time. Its emulation of sunsoaked SoCal is a masterpiece of painstaking and precise world design, from working tidal systems to near-perfect recreations of landmarks to the exquisitely rendered scraps of trash on the side of the road.
While Rockstar has denied the existence of “programmed racism” and an isolated anecdotal case hardly makes a scientific study, there is some statistical evidence that the in-game police act far more aggressively toward Franklin (featured in the video) than to the two white player characters within the South Los Santos region of the game, GTAV‘s analogue to South Central Los Angeles.
This sort of profiling and aggression toward an African American is, of course, completely rooted in reality, especially in the area of Los Angeles GTA is approximating. Assuming that this light study does in fact prove a significant association between police aggression and the race of the player character, this creates a disconcerting quandary: when representing reality, at what point do you draw the line?
The simple answer is “You draw the line about a mile before you wind up penalizing a player for being black, dumbass. GTA isn’t realistic enough to get away with this.” It is a good answer: though its city design may be best in class, GTAV is still far from a realistic representation of the world, with its deliberately flamboyant stereotyping and gleefully immature parodies of advertising and the first world hedonistic lifestyle taking away any sense of credulity the instant you look at a billboard. From a mechanical standpoint, the age-old video game cliches (regenerating health, bullet time, etc.) further undermine any of GTA’s claims to realistic representation. Punishing a character because of real world racism cannot be defended with the “realism” argument in this case, and the presence of such a system calls into question the prejudices of the developers.
But at the same time, police aggression against black people is a very real, very prevalent issue, one that cannot and should not be ignored by media, entertainment or otherwise. Though I admit this idea of blatantly prejudiced design gets dangerously close to the ridiculous argument of “there shouldn’t be playable female characters in an historically/militarily based game because women aren’t involved in major historical events [because the history was defined by a patriarchal society]/in the military [this is just flat-out false],” there is a significant semantic difference. Police aggression is exponentially more relevant when representing the quasi-realistic life of an African American in Los Angeles than maintaining an all-white-dude cast is to a playable Michael Bay film or science fiction story about ancient aliens and genetic memories. In fact, choosing not to represent such a prevalent prejudice for the sake of player comfort could act as a form of erasure in and of itself, downplaying an urgent societal issue and further perpetuating the false idea of a post-racial world.
My own two cents on the matter: putting aside the monumental issues of digital phantasm and stereotyping endemic to the context of this design choice, from a detached point of gameplay mechanics and balancing, increased police aggression acts as a check on Franklin’s special ability. Some background: each of the three playable characters in GTAV has a unique power that differentiates their gameplay style, and Franklin has far and away the most useful one: the ability to slow down time while driving. This “Bullitt-time,” if you’ll pardon my pun, makes driving in general much simpler than with the other characters. In order to balance out this overpowered ability, increased police presence and aggression when playing as Franklin makes sense, making car chases more difficult relative to the characters’ respective driving proficiency.
A disclaimer: I have played at least a hundred hours of GTAV on two different consoles, predominantly playing as Franklin because of his car ability, and I have never experienced any negative emergent situations that stood out to me as being caused by my character’s race. Granted, I’m not the sort of player to run up and harass NPCs, especially NPCs carrying guns, so I might just not be doing the right activities to trigger this sort of response.
At risk of an unsatisfactory conclusion, what do you all think about this? More so than any other issue I’ve touched on in my blog posts, I feel this one warrants the most discussion.