Gamers' Intersection
'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' Plays To a Generation From the Streets to Suburbia

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.

"San Andreas" was last year's best-selling video game, so far selling more than 6.6 million units despite or perhaps because of a recent flap over a hidden sex scene. "Liberty City Stories," the latest in the series, will be available next month.

For gamers, the beauty of the "GTA" titles lies in the staggering scope of their meticulously detailed and open-ended environments. When you steal an expensive car, you hear Mozart on the radio. When it rains, the screen blurs and the road becomes slippery as you drive. When you beat someone with a baseball bat, blood spurts with astounding verisimilitude. In more conventional games, you go down a specific path, Level 1 to Level 2 to Level 3, to complete the mission and defeat the enemy. Then you're done. In "Grand Theft Auto," as the gangsta, you have the freedom to go where you want and do as you please.

Tito and Brendan are part of the "GTA" generation -- 17 and 16, respectively, deemed too young by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to play "GTA" but too resourceful not to get their hands on it anyway.

The difference is that South Central Los Angeles is where Tito has grown up, in a cramped bedroom that he shares with his older brother. In his own bedroom in McLean, the fictional "South Central Los Santos" is the closest Brendan can get to a place folks call the inner-city ghetto.

In their bedrooms, hands on the controllers, Tito plays a game that mirrors his life and Brendan plays one that has nothing to do with his.

All About C.J.

When Tito starts talking about Carl Johnson, better known as C.J., he sounds as though he's referring to a cousin or a next-door neighbor. "His mom got killed in a drive-by shooting," says Tito, hair buzzed, shoulders stooped, his low, quiet voice trailing off, almost skimming the words. "He's gotta get even."

But C.J. is a leading video game character, a black street thug at the very center of "San Andreas."

It's nearly 9:30 p.m. in South Central. A school night. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Tito just got off work. Long day at Jefferson High. Long night at Foot Locker. He's a salesclerk, clocking at least 20 hours a week, working weekends and a few weeknights. His older brother, Francisco "Cisco" Ortiz, 23, is plopped down on the other twin bed, tongue hanging, controller in his hands. "Why are you tryin' to fight me, dawg?" Cisco yells at the big-screen TV, as if the gangbanger he's stabbing on the screen would talk right back. A childhood friend from the down the street, Danny Ibarra, also 23, is waiting anxiously. Never mind Tito's ringing cell phone; just give him the controller.

"I'm next," Tito tells Danny.

Danny gives Tito a "yeah, right " look -- jaw locked, brow curled, lips tightly pursed. "Nah, nah, I'm next," Danny, a senior at Cal State-Los Angeles studying business management, finally says. Then he bursts out laughing. "Just kiddin', Tito. Just kiddin' . It's your house."

Danny, Cisco and Tito, all sons of Mexican immigrants, grew up together on West 47th Street. ("We don't say we're from L.A. We say we're from South Central," says Cisco.)

Though the Ortiz family -- Mama cleans houses, Papa recycles scrap metal -- lives in public assisted housing, their two-bedroom apartment has two big-screen TVs. There's one in the living room, with Mama falling asleep on the couch, sitting a neighbor's two babies. There's another in Cisco and Tito's room, with posters of the rapper Tupac Shakur and the film "Scarface" adorning the walls. There's no personal computer, no laptop, no Internet connection. Just a PlayStation 2, a few games, and stacks and stacks of CDs, from Biggie to Mos Def.

"It's a game, just a game , right? But at the same time, it's more than that. There's reality to it," says Tito, jumping off the bed, now sitting cross-legged on the carpet.

Is it any wonder, he asks, that most of the characters in "San Andreas" -- the gang members, the corrupt cops -- are blacks and Latinos?

Is it at all surprising, he asks, that you don't see a white person in the 'hood, either in the "South Central" of the game or the South Central he lives in?

"Even down to the choppy Spanglish, the ' Ora le, homes ,' that some of the gangstas say," Tito goes on, "it's all realistic." The other guys who aren't in South Central "won't fully understand. For them, it's just entertainment."

Cisco, a pharmacy technician who recently lost his job, cuts Tito off.

"The game's violent, yeah. It's dangerous, yeah. It's a stereotype, yeah," he says, staring straight at the TV screen.

Finally, Cisco hands Tito the controller.

"Respect. San Andreas is about respect," says Tito, still on the floor, way too close to the TV screen. "When you start out, they dawg you, they rag on your tattoos, they hate on your clothes. That's the way it's like in real life."

For an hour or so, Tito, who became a dad in July, gets to be C.J.

McLean to L.A.

So what if everything is peaceful and bright and quiet in McLean? Why not go to the game world of "San Andreas"?

Forget that it's a humid, sticky, sunny afternoon. That's outside. Inside is a different story. It's 10:29 a.m. in loud, foulmouthed, exciting "San Andreas," and Brendan -- shaggy-haired, a tight ball of energy -- is driving around aimlessly in the fictional town of Las Colinas. Right now, Brendan is C.J. Every time he steals a car, after shooting or punching or stabbing its owner, the name of the car flashes on the screen.

First a car named Willard, low on sex appeal but featuring neck-snapping acceleration. Then a car named Cheetah. ("Chicks dig it. They don't come much faster than this!" exclaims an ad for a shop that pimps your ride.) Then a car called Flash, dark-colored, close to the ground and, yes, flashy.

"There's so much you can do in 'San Andreas.' So much ," says Brendan, sitting on the edge of the twin bed, hands on a controller, eyes fixed on the TV screen. "It's got like 200 hours of game play. It kinda never ends."

His friend Cyrus Movaghari (everyone calls him Cy) lounges on the computer chair, snacking on Chips Ahoy, looking a little bored. They're chilling out in Brendan's bedroom, a pad with no fewer than seven posters of the rock band Motley Crue, inside a three-story, three-bedroom house so big it goes up a hill in McLean. (Mom works in investments, Dad's a lawyer. He's an only child.) Brendan works part time at the Safeway and saved up for most everything in his room: PlayStation 2, Xbox, iPod. His desktop computer, a Mac, is playing "Church," by the New Orleans jam band Galactic.

Brendan's cell phone rings. It's their friend Hon, asking for a ride.

"Hon lives, like, five seconds from your house," Cy sighs.

"You know Hon," Brendan sighs back. "He doesn't like to walk."

They're too busy playing to pick him up.

Brendan, who describes himself as a "white mutt," and Cy, who is Persian American, are 16-year-old juniors at Langley High, the kind of high-achieving sanctuary that features not only a robotics club but a philosophy club. Cy, who's vice president of the Class of 2007, is quick to describe Langley High as being not "too far off from that high school in 'The O.C.,' but not with that many hot chicks." Suddenly, while Brendan explores Las Colinas driving a Hermes, a sign pops into view. "There's a girl nearby. Go pick her up." So Brendan tries. But he can't seem to locate her. "Where's the chick they're talking about?" he asks.

She's on the TV screen, in the video game, nowhere near McLean.

In Control

Rockstar Games, the publisher of "GTA," repeatedly refuses to comment on "San Andreas," saying only that "the game speaks for itself."

So if "San Andreas" does indeed speak for itself, what is it saying?

"See, playing 'San Andreas' is not like listening to a rap album by the Game or watching the movie 'Boyz N the Hood,' " says Kurt Squire of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is researching how African American boys between the ages of 10 and 14 play "San Andreas."

"When you play 'San Andreas,' you are in control of the symbols all around you, all of those symbols that we think of when we think of the ghetto -- the guns, the violence, the drugs, the gangs, the women. See, you're not only listening to what's going on, you're not just watching what's going on, you're in control of what's going on. That is a big, big difference."

"To become. To become. To become. That's the key here," says David J. Leonard of Washington State University. A game such as "San Andreas," he says, can be linked to the history of minstrels, "of whites impersonating, trying on and becoming the other ," and to era of the 1920s and '30s when New York whites went slumming uptown to Harlem to hear jazz.

"Video games, like no other medium, provide that sort of experience where one transports oneself from his home and goes to this other world constructed by game designers. In 'San Andreas,' the ghetto is a playground. But you and I both know that ghettos across the country are clearly not playgrounds."

To Brendan, "San Andreas" is a fantastical virtual playground, his way out of the suburbs, a form of escapism. But "San Andreas" is like a fun house mirror to Tito, an exaggerated yet still realistic version -- the dueling gangs, the racial tension -- of his everyday life.

"San Andreas" confounds their expectations of reality.

Tito is certain that "San Andreas" was designed by "gringos." "Don't we gotta be some sort of gang-bangin', PCP-sellin' Mexicans who like to shoot? Isn't that what people think?" he asks.

Brendan thinks that "a diverse group of guys, blacks and whites and Latinos" ("and some girls"), came up with "San Andreas." "It's gotta be made by people who know what they're talking about, right?"

With the help of a tattoo artist, a screenwriter and a rap photographer from Los Angeles, "San Andreas" was actually developed in Scotland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company