Gamers' Intersection

Robert "Tito" Ortiz, 17, left, Danny Ibarra and Tito's brother Cisco play "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" at the Ortiz home in South Central Los Angeles. (By Carlos Puma For The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

One from McLean, one from South Central, both street thugs.

For a few hours, Robert "Tito" Ortiz masquerades as a car-stealin', drug-dealin', gun-totin', bad-as-I-wanna-be street gangsta on the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The same goes for Brendan Golden. For a couple of hours, Brendan, too, takes on that role.

Brendan is a junior at Langley High in Fairfax County, a school of about 2,000 students, 75 percent white and 18 percent Asian, almost all headed straight to four-year colleges. The cars parked at Langley's football-field-size lot -- BMWs, Infinitis and Benzes among them -- are the makes you'd be stealing if you were playing "San Andreas."

Tito is a senior at Jefferson High in South Central Los Angeles, a school of about 3,800 students, 92 percent Latino and 8 percent black, where only a third of the incoming freshman class makes it to graduation. Last spring, brawls erupted there three times ("Brown on black! Brown on black!" one student yelled out), two of them ending in campus lockdowns.

The fictional "South Central Los Santos" -- the ghetto at the heart of the "San Andreas" game -- is modeled after Tito's world.

They're playing the same game, and in that way they're tied together. But what they get out of it -- the "game experience," it's called -- varies with who's sweating on the controller.

Where Brendan sees a game carved out of fantasy, Tito sees a game that's reflective of his reality. And where fantasy and reality meet, two game players who have never met, and probably never will, cross paths.

Ghetto Chic

Now a lot of us think we know the ghetto. Not know it, know it, especially those of us who've never stepped foot in one. But we think we know it because we listen to hip-hop albums, watch music videos, go to movies and now -- most intensely -- play video games.

In the next few months, at least half a dozen games set in the virtually gritty, rough-and-tumble streets of the inner city will hit the market. "50 Cent: Bulletproof," due out in November, stars the hip-hop superstar 50 Cent in a "ghetto to glory" shooting spree by Terry Winters, a writer for HBO's Emmy-winning series "The Sopranos." "Fear & Respect," the much-ballyhooed collaboration between Hollywood director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood," "Four Brothers") and rapper-actor Snoop Dogg, comes out two months later.

"A lot of game makers are capitalizing on what the current MTV generation can't seem to get enough of: hip-hop and urban culture," says Dan Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly. These competitors make no secret of their desire to pop a cap in "Grand Theft's" auto.

The "GTA" franchise, worth about $1 billion in U.S. sales alone, has cashed in on the sex-drugs-and-violence fantasy of livin' in the 'hood and earning street cred. To millions of young and not-so-young men, it's a singular entertainment experience, far beyond chanting along to Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause." ("Where you never been, I'm in.") It's completely different to be a gangsta wreaking havoc in "San Andreas," listening to that same Public Enemy song on the radio of the car you just stole.

The third game in the series, "Grand Theft Auto III," explored the East Coast mobster setting. "Vice City," which followed, headed south for a 1980s "Miami Vice" vibe. "San Andreas," the fifth in the series, the crown jewel of the franchise, moved the action out west -- with a flavor of the West Coast hip-hop scene circa 1992.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company