Grand theft autonomy.

“I loved gaming when I was younger, but as I got older I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t a world that loved me back.”

Laura Beck

I can’t find fault with Laura Beck’s statement. In fact, it is a statement I have made myself in regards to other mediums where race is concerned. But I feel that Beck’s exasperation with the three male leads in Grand Theft Auto V is misplaced. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor exist, not because Rockstar is fearful of a female lead, but because Rockstar Games is determined to retell the cherished stories of GTA’s past. Grand Theft Auto V is not about innovation, but renovation—replicating the very same characters and situations that brought the company its previous success. Michael is Tommy Vercetti, Franklin is Carl Johnson, and Trevor is Phil Cassidy. Niko of course, is a modern-day Claude Speed, which is why he was chosen as a stand-alone character to launch Grand Theft Auto IV in the same manner that Claude, and Claude alone, championed the new sandbox version of the Grand Theft Auto franchise we have all come to love with Grand Theft Auto III.

I’ve discussed this at length before, but a quick summary is in order: Claude and Niko represent the poor white immigrant’s journey through New York City’s underworld; Michael and Tommy are symbols of established and firmly entrenched organized crime; C. J. and Franklin represent wayward but hopeful youth trapped in inner-city black communities decimated by the emergence of crack cocaine. The comparisons between lead characters can be taken even further, playing upon the similarities between Victor and Luis, young Latino men with family obligations thrust into a world of debauchery and excess, and Johnny Klebitz and Toni Cipriani, low men on the totem pole in criminal organizations chock full of duplicity and double-crossing.

Rockstar brings nothing new to the table, but what is brought is so comforting and satisfying that the complaints are few. That said, there are clear issues regarding gender within the GTA franchise. I hope, just as the time between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV allowed Rockstar to fix the glaring racial stereotypes found within the franchise, so will the time between Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V allow Rockstar to rectify its skewed depiction of women. However, clues to Rockstar’s enlightenment will not be found in Grand Theft Auto V‘s lead characters, but in its NPCs. Specifically? Its sex workers.

The obvious omission of male prostitutes from Grand Theft Auto IV proved that Rockstar’s desire for an element of realism was not to be had at the expense of alienating sexist players who could not handle seeing men placed in a sexually submissive role. Male hustlers are an obvious fact of life in New York City—and in Los Angeles. Should their presence be lacking in Grand Theft Auto V, kowtowing to bigoted players will likely be to blame. And I will certainly not be sticking around for the next installment of the series.

But unlike Beck, I feel that Rockstar is laying the groundwork for a new female lead character. After all, they have almost run out of characters to recycle! I believe that in a year or two we will all be lining up to purchase Grand Theft Auto: The Legend of Packie McReary, featuring Patrick, a Korean protagonist clearly reminiscent of Huang Lee, and a female drug runner and madam of Mexican descent. After all, to have a story set in a city suggestive of Los Angeles that does not feature Latino and Asian communities is criminally stupid—just as it is to have a story focused on crime that does not involve women. Women are notorious for being drug mules and participating in illegal sex work, and have been a part of Los Angeles’ street gangs for decades. Plus, the addition of female thieves to be used in heists in Grand Theft Auto V is likely Rockstar’s attempt to ease bigoted fans into a more progressive and inclusive stance regarding female protagonists.

But the question is not whether fans will purchase a game starring a female lead. We know they will. Lara Croft is a testament to that. The question is whether the boys’ club at Rockstar Games can provide a female lead that is well-rounded, well-written, and fun to play. A female lead will need to focus more on stealth, speed, and firepower instead of street-brawling skills demanding of upper-body strength. Will Rockstar make the adjustments necessary to accommodate this? Plus, given the mockery of trans women (the deep voices of the prostitutes Niko frequented were inserted for amusement) and the flat, stereotypical depiction of women in Grand Theft Auto IV, I’m not confident a female lead would be given the fleshed-out personality provided to male leads. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is populated with shrill harpies and dim-witted party girls. We really haven’t come that far from Catalina and Maria, and the blame can be laid squarely on Rockstar’s writers for that.

It can also be laid on the writers that inspire Rockstar’s writers. After all, the Grand Theft Auto series borrows heavily from America’s most beloved crime dramas, dated dramas that focus on the lives of men. If Rockstar wishes to venture into the uncharted waters of a female GTA protagonist, it will need new source material. Celebrity, technology, and changing social mores have revolutionized the roles of women in criminal enterprises. Twitter, Instagram, and reality television allow high-end call girls to discretely advertise to wealthy clientele—and contraband can easily be shipped right along with the woman a lovelorn musician, CEO, or athlete has unwittingly paid to transit. Finally, all one needs is a pretty girl and an iPhone to obtain the layout of a mansion for a later armed robbery. Three crimes for the price of one—and one hell of a fun GTA side mission!

Unlike Beck, I will be purchasing Grand Theft Auto V—and I will be closely examining how the game lays the groundwork for the next GTA installment—an installment that hopefully makes Beck and her peers finally feel welcome.


Payned reactions.

Max Payne 3Lord knows, you can love a work and yet find it immensely problematic. Though I enjoyed Max Payne 3, Rockstar’s latest release in the Max Payne franchise, I have to admit that concerning matters of race, I find the work unsettling. A white hero slaughters endless waves of black and Latino men, his only allies a fair-weather friend who is on the take and a cop who is too cowardly to effect any change in a society he admits is riddled with corruption. He asks Max to act in his stead, essentially begging a white man to do his work for him.

As I said, problematic.

Of course, we do not expect Raul Passos to save the day in a game titled Max Payne 3. However, I think the work provides a classic example of a larger problem in video games and in geek culture in general where race is concerned. For the most part, men and women of color are sidekicks, not heroes. And yet in regards to villainy? That is the moment when it seems all too easy to include us in droves—as zombies, as faceless military grunts, as gang members, as savages.

Balance is needed. I am reluctant to set aside Max Payne 3 as an example of the problem when Rockstar Games has done such a credible job in the past of bringing racial balance to its selection of heroes—Luis Lopez, Carl “C. J.” Johnson, Huang Lee. Though, to be fair, I have just listed a selection of criminals, criminals placed in a positive light, but criminals nonetheless.

Other companies, such as Ubisoft and Valve, have followed Rockstar’s lead and should be commended. However, I generally identify Rockstar as a trailblazer in regards to race due to their selection of lead characters that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be identified or classified as white. For even when protagonists of color are presented to fandom, skin colors are lightened and features are often “softened” to ease race past more bigoted consumers. Yet the problem does not merely reside with the maker of the game but with the player as well. I clearly remember fan requests for “white” player skins in order to cloak the blackness that racist players apparently felt was too offensive or jarring to endure while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

And yet I see no demands for brown or tan skins for Max Payne.

Perhaps the “shock and awe” method enacted by Rockstar is the best method to push change? “Here’s our lead. He’s black. Deal with it.” Of course, making said change is a lot easier when done from the safe cocoon of a lucrative franchise. It’s something to think about—not only in blogs, but in boardrooms as well.


Auto motives.

For those who bemoan the fact that characters from the Grand Theft Auto III era have not and will not appear in Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, I present to you the fact that they have appeared and will appear—simply in different incarnations. Rockstar Games has once again presented to its fans the world it built during the Grand Theft Auto III era. Yes, there is a new engine. Yes, the graphics have improved. However, the stories? The stories are the same.

This is far from a complaint. I was lamenting the lack of a female protagonist when I realized why we were not provided with one. Adding a lead character of a different gender would be a deviation from the pattern previously set forth. Rockstar Games has done an astounding job of updating the stories we all once gravitated to for this new era. And technology has advanced enough that providing an old story in a new way makes the story itself seem novel as well.

However, we still have a hard, quiet man of action struggling to make sense of the big, Northeastern American city. Claude’s story is Niko’s story—that of a young newcomer wading through the refuse of Liberty City’s underworld. We see them both form friendships that cross cultures, discover rich patrons, and bounce back from the duplicitous actions of former tentative allies—all in all, the immigrant’s rise to riches, the outsider made good.

Grand Theft Auto V brings us newer versions of Tommy Vercetti and Carl Johnson. The names and decades have changed; however, the premise remains the same. C.J. and Franklin are both young black men living in Los Santos and engaged in small-time criminal activity. They will both likely provide a bridge connecting the worlds of inner-city poverty and wealthy celebrity. Finally, Tommy and Michael are both men who were deeply enmeshed in the world of organized crime and had to take drastic measures to sever ties. Both were successful and managed to benefit financially afterwards.

The characters even resemble each other physically to the point where fans questioned if they were actually seeing a return of the characters they once loved.

For the most part? They are.