Since the release of Grand Theft Auto 3, GTA games have made a reputation for being both wildly successful and gratuitously violent, and the fifth installment of the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, is no different. The game has sold a reported 27.5 million copies since its 2004 release, making it most successful game ever made for the Playstation 2 platform, and one of the best-selling games for any gaming system. Using an open world style of play, the game puts players in the shoes of Carl “CJ” Johnson, as he returns home to the fictional city of Los Santos, and is gradually pulled back into the life of street crime he led prior to his departure. True to GTA form, San Andreas encourages its players to steal, intimidate, kill and generally show a disregard for human life. Missions commonly include assassinations of previously unknown characters, burglarizing houses and killing hordes of rival gang members.
What is interesting about the game is how it refuses to justify its protagonist’s actions, and yet makes it feel as though these actions are permissible. Unlike other games, where the lines between villain and hero are clearly spelled out, in San Andreas every character, including your own seems at best morally grey. Yet even given this, there seems to be something off about applying our moral norms to the world of San Andreas, even in the same way we apply such norms to other fictional norms. When a player commits some brutal crime within the world of the game as CJ, it doesn’t seem as though CJ is a moral monster. I believe, and will argue in this post, that this inability to apply our moral norms to the world presented in the game is caused by the imitative qualities of the world in San Andreas. The game’s landscapes, characters, and story are either imitations of, or derive from, the early nineties street gangs of Southern California, and the way the game uses these imitations to create its world, makes the game a form of parody, and further works to create a context where the protagonist’s immorality is acceptable.
Parody is firstly an imitation, or a work which intentionally resembles a source, but does not identify as a representation of that source. So much is the case with San Andreas, which while bearing striking similarities to actual places and people, avoids claiming to be actual representations of those places. More specifically, parody is a work of transparent imitation, meaning that the resemblance of a parody to its source is not meant to be obscured or hidden from view; rather a recognition of the resemblance of the work of parody to the thing it is imitating is necessary for one to feel the full impact of the work. This transparency is clearly a feature of the imitations in San Andreas, for the world of the game isn’t subtle in how it imitates real American cities. The world of the game spans over three cities, Las Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, which besides phonetically resembling Las Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, resemble the cities correspondingly. Las Venturas is located in a desert and features the only casinos in the game; San Fierro has a bridge which bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge; and Los Santos features a version of the Hollywood sign, over its ritzy district, ‘Vinewood’. Even the name ‘San Andreas’ is a reference to the fault line that stretches down California’s west coast. These are just a few examples of the way the makers of San Andreas communicate to players that the world of game is an imitation of real life places, but they are important not just for the way they imitate real places, but for the way they imitate the sort of features which are easily recognizable to players, because they imitate the salient features of the cities, making it easy for players to recognize these structures as imitations. That is, players seem to be meant to see the world of San Andreas as an imitation of the real world.
The other core feature of parody that San Andreas exemplifies is the exaggeration of a characteristic of the source. Parody is an imitation which takes one feature of the imitated work and intentionally misrepresents that feature in a hyperbolic fashion. It is important to notice here that parody doesn’t add new features to a work; it rather portrays features which are exemplified by the source in an exaggerated fashion. This is what separates parody from an homage or a realistic imitation. One is not trying to create an accurate recreation of a thing, when they imitate it via parody, they are rather working to produce a warped, or slightly altered version of the thing. And San Andreas presents just such an altered version of the real world via its demented representations of common social entities. In the game, there are debating political commentators that advise utilizing tax breaks or organ donations to a caller who confesses to burning the bodies of immigrants in his backyard; there is a new anti-smoking legislation being proposed which would give people the right to shoot smokers dead; and much like Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, there is a casino in Las Venturas that references the palace of a Roman emperor in its name; “Caligula’s Palace”. This is just a sample of the myriad of ways that social fixtures and conventions in the world of San Andreas take on a Swiftian level of vicious absurdity. It should be noticed that none of these exaggerated imitations represent adding something to the game’s world which isn’t in our own; political commentators really do debate on the radio, and field calls from hateful people on immigration; anti-smoking legislation really is proposed more and more often. The exaggerated representation is thus not that the world exemplifies properties which our world does not, but that the properties in the world of the game are far more brutal and amoral in nature than in the real world.
Viewing the world of San Andreas as a parody of our own where brutal criminality, which the game makes its focus, has penetrated every facet of the world of the game, instead of being a relegated to a subculture as it is in the real world (at least to some extent), we can now see how the game makes its protagonists own criminality seem acceptable. For a world where brutal criminal behavior is greeted with nonchalance, and known mass murders lend their name to successful casinos, one person’s own criminality no longer seems blameworthy, since such behavior seems expected from members of the community. (For a practice which members of a community openly participate in can generally not be considered blameworthy.) Thus, CJ’s rampant criminal behavior in the game doesn’t seem despicable, as it would were it to take place in real life, because the world of the game sanctions this behavior; in fact to a certain degree CJ becomes heroic: he does what everyone does, he just does it better.
It should be noticed that making criminality the norm, would be much more difficult to accomplish if the game did not imitate the real world. For its method of producing this culture is to portray societal fixtures which players are likely to consider ordinary, like radio debates, or anti-smoking legislation as being entirely brutal in nature, because doing uses the players preconceptions about these fixtures to enforce the heightened relationship between brutality and banality within the world of San Andreas. But if the game did not work hard to imitate real structures and practices, then they could not use the fixtures which players consider to normal to create this atmosphere. That is, if the game didn’t use social fixtures commonly known to its players to reveal the criminal nature of the world of the game, then it could not work to marry banality and criminality as it does in the game, and thus, the imitative quality of the game seems necessary for the game’s ability to make a life of violent crime permissible. The game would also struggle to make criminality acceptable if it tried to be more representational, say by calling its cities Las Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. For if the game represented real cities, rather than fake cities based off real cities, then the casual brutality of the culture would take on a much more satirical, dystopic feel, and players would feel an urge to fix the city in some sense, rather than an urge to indulge in the criminal behavior which manifests itself at every level of the city’s culture. By using a fake city, the designers don’t allow any positive, or compassionate feelings toward the environment, to enter a player’s experience: they are dealing with an entirely made up, and dysfunctional landscape, and this gives them the context they need to act destructively.
The great success of San Andreas is the way it makes the life of a criminal, which by nature has the virtue of being exciting, also seem utterly justified. And the game accomplishes this by parodying the real world in such a way as to create a culture where criminality is neither heroic nor villainous but rather the norm. This is different from saying that the game encourages a player to pursue criminal behavior in general; the game simply succeeds at providing a context where such behavior isn’t blameworthy, or is at least less blameworthy than usual.