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GTA San Andreas and the Legacy of Playing as a Black Guy in Video Games | Black Writers Week


When would a Black protagonist have a chance to be featured in their own original video game?

The answer to that question was part of what made “San Andreas” so groundbreaking when it was released on October 26, 2004. Set in the state of San Andreas, a fictionalized mashup of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas during the 1990s, “GTA: San Andreas” tells the story of Carl Johnson, aka ‘CJ’ who, after some time away from his family and friends, returns home after the death of his mother who was killed in a drive-by shooting. Along his journey, CJ must contend with crooked cops (who set him up for the murder of another police officer as soon as he arrives back home in the game’s opening), rival gangs, and betrayals from those closest to him while trying to rebuild bonds with his family and homies—all in the name of his ‘hood, Grove Street. 

That description sounds like the plot for an early ’90s hood movie, only shown in theaters with metal detectors. Or, like the type of material a West Coast hip-hop artist featured on the cover of The Source Magazine, while holding a gun to their head, would rap about on their way to a 4.5 mic, multi-platinum album.

This was neither of those things. This was something new. It was the premise for a video game, and for this story and setting, only one type of playable main character could make sense. But though the mechanism of social media as it is known today did not exist back then, online chat rooms and message boards were home to  vicious sentiments about our choice of protagonist leading up to release, which can be summed up with the following sentence:

“I DON’T WANT TO PLAY AS SOME BLACK GUY!!!”

Along with derivatives of this that included the N-word, ‘gangbanger’, or any other derogatory phrase you can probably imagine.

Admittedly, I was not privy to any hard data on how pervasive this sentiment was, and as far as I was aware, this did not appear to be a majority opinion either in the mainstream or these online forums. Nevertheless, this was a real sentiment expressed during the lead-up to the game’s release and something that put the GTA series, which was already considered controversial for a variety of reasons, in new territory.

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