Grand Theft History

'GTA: San Andreas' captures the essence of L.A. circa 1992. Today, that's as good as a dissertation.

Last night I dreamt I went to Compton again.

I cruised the streets of South Los Angeles while the orange glow of the ocean-fed sunset lit up the Watts Towers and delayed the plans of graff writers. Everything was different, and yet nothing had changed. Sweet was rolling die with Big Smoke at the old playground, but my brother was strategically MIA, weakening the Grove Hill Families through incompetence and inaction. The cops were running our neighborhood like their own corner store, taking what they wanted, and always on credit.

But the Los Angeles I dreamed of was no more real than the estate Manderley in Rebecca, the novel from which I cribbed the opening line of this article. My Compton was a fictionalized neighborhood in an animated version of Los Angeles called Los Santos, one of three cities in San Andreas, the most thoroughly realized virtual world yet in the tremendously popular Grand Theft Auto video-game series developed by Rockstar Games and Rockstar North.

San Andreas was the top-selling console game of 2004 according to industry analyst NPD Group (Xbox and PC versions were released this month, guaranteeing San Andreas healthy 2005 sales as well). Enthusiastic fans bought more than 5 million copies, and many proceeded to rave about it in the blogosphere. "The best game ever made," Jon's Blog concluded succinctly, awarding it five out of five stars. Other sites waxed ecstatic over details that might seem odd to the casual observer. "We're not sure if this has been covered before, but apparently you need to keep your eyes open for fast-moving fires in the California countryside," wrote "You can also have some fun with a crop duster, a longtime dream for many of us. Can this game get any more exciting?"

In fact, a lot of the activity in San Andreas has little to do with prostitutes and drive-by shootings, the most controversial elements of prior GTA editions. The main character, the player's identity, is Carl Johnson, aka CJ. He has to eat regularly, just like you do, and if he eats too much fast food (for instance at Cluckin' Bell, a San Andreas chain) he gains weight that he can then work off at the gym. Judging from the many San Andreas-devoted blogs, a lot of players spend extra time in the vast mountains, forests, and deserts between Los Santos, San Fierro (a virtual San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas, natch) dodging those brush fires and trying to find evidence of aliens in Area 69, a restricted military zone that UFO buffs and Close Encounters of the Third Kind fans will quickly equate with Nevada's infamous Area 51. Rumors of San Andreas Big Foot sightings kept real-world bloggers buzzing last fall until a Rockstar denial was deemed authentic.

San Andreas is America at its weirdest, most outrageous, and, in many ways, most accurate, and players appear to be interacting with it that way. "Sure, you can jet from one mission to the next in record time and finish the game in about 25-30 hours, but you'd miss out on the 'experience' that is Grand Theft Auto. You can literally spend hours just cruising around the city, getting into mischief, exploring, playing minigames or interacting with citizens," raved David Stoesz, writing on, criticized the bare-bones animation, but, "It scarcely matters, though, because no matter how San Andreas looks, it feels real."

In the tradition of Gangs of New York, the 1927 popular history by Herbert Asbury that Martin Scorsese adapted for his 2002 film, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a myth based closely enough on reality that people will play it and think, if only subconsciously, that they have experienced the essence of the real thing - Southern California and to a lesser extent Vegas and San Francisco circa 1992. This feeling is no small part of the game's success. "I really think the thing that ultimately made `San Andreas` a big hit is that the city was so cool and big and open-ended," says Everything Bad is Good for You author Steven Johnson, citing the same qualities that made Los Angeles the archetypal American city of the second half of the 20th century.

Like Gangs, which focused on the Five Points immigrant neighborhood in New York at the turn of the 20th century, San Andreas' narrative is driven by larger-than-life characters who are forced into the underworld economy by circumstances beyond their control, characters whose exploits would not save them from historic oblivion because they never signed the Declaration of Independence or ran for governor of California. In place of textbook-worthy feats, Asbury and Rockstar North give us colorful personalities who refuse to accept the terms of a society that deems them ultimately disposable, and cityscapes that seem as vast as a Jules Verne universe. Where Gangs gives us copious lists of characters, gangs, and local wards, San Andreas uses the latest technological advances to give us a visual lexicon. The romantic and emotional impact is the same.

As the publication date of Asbury's Gangs indicates, it's hardly new for popular culture to take history as its subject. More recently, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (also made into a film) closely tracked the meteoric career of the controversial populist governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long. Warren did such a good job of capturing the way in which absolute power corrupts absolutely that his book became a metaphor for Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who titled the factual chronicle of their investigation All the President's Men (made into yet another film).

Harry Kreisler, executive director of the Institute of International Studies in Berkeley, believes popular adaptations of history are as valuable, on their own terms, as academic histories. "You have created a fictional narrative within the historical milieu," says Kreisler, who has interviewed numerous film directors on his weekly Bay Area television series Conversations with History. Kreisler cites a scene from Oliver Stone's Nixon, in which Nixon admits to H.R. Haldeman that he really isn't in control of the mechanisms that continue to propel the Vietnam War; the implication is that he's not really in control of his administration. Kreisler recalls listening to a panel of historians after the film's release complain that that exact conversation never took place. The details can always be faulted, he says, "but on the other hand, `artists` can really lead you to truth. In the end, you're left with some sense of history that gives you some insight."

Once you get over the joy (or dismay) of the many Los Santos chop shops that will modify your vehicle (lowriders go to Loco Low Co.; Arch Angel Wheels services street racers), and the steady stream of violent encounters, San Andreas offers plenty of insight into South Los Angeles circa 1992. Consider this excerpt from a 1996 Los Angeles Times story: "More and more gang killers - responsible for about 40 percent of Los Angeles County's murders - remain free ... As gang killings have soared, police and prosecutors increasingly have taken steps to break the cycle. They have set up special units to investigate such cases ... And police and prosecutors have learned to settle for less evidence."

Compare that to CJ's plight in San Andreas: He escaped the city's violent gang culture five years earlier only to be drawn back to avenge his mother's murder and rebuild the gang his brother has mismanaged. Upon CJ's return, crooked cops who are part of the CRASH gang unit frame him for murder. The Eastside Hollenbeck division of the LAPD disbanded its real-life CRASH unit in 2000 following the Rampart Scandal in which cops from a similar unit were engaging in drug-dealing, perjury, improper shootings, and a host of other crimes.

Of course, "ripped from the headlines" has been the mantra of non-reality-TV shows since Law & Order hit the streets, but scholars and academics increasingly think that gaming requires us to interact with the information electronic games provide in a significantly different way. In Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson argues that gaming fosters such beneficial mental exercises as systems analysis, probability theory, and pattern recognition. "I'm very confident of games' ability to train the cognitive building blocks of thinking and problem-solving," says Johnson. "It is totally wrong to think of TV and video games as the same kind of screen time."

Trinity University professor Aaron Delwiche says that these joystick-aided skills may in turn have real-life applications. "What `game-players` are learning is this meta-level awareness. You can go into this game and change the rules. Eventually you realize that life, this particular culture ... it's a social construction."

Johnson agrees that the potential for fostering real-life critical skills through games exists, but the connection is still tentative. "The question is, are they getting information about the real world that they can then apply these skills to solving?"

Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky argued in Manufacturing Consent that it is the function of mass media "to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of larger society." It's difficult to look at San Andreas critically and not ask whether, like mainstream rap, it is romanticizing gangsta life as an alternative to addressing underlying social ills, at the same time promoting NOS-boosted stereotypes of blacks and Latinos.

It's an important question because, Delwiche says, "Video games are potentially the most effective propaganda medium." Electronic games offer a total immersion in another world and a false sense of control that lower our critical barriers, he says, and the medium's interactivity means that Big Brother can be playing with you. "You can always tell what the user is doing and you can adjust the message on the fly."

Delwiche and his students have also documented what he calls the "weird racial stuff" present in more fantastical games such as World of Warcraft, in which the Westernized Alliance battles with the tribal Hordes. That description sounds damning on its face, but, says Delwiche, it's up to the player to place moral and qualitative values on the two factions. You can decide with whom to identify; maybe the white Anglo-Saxon types are the bad guys. Delwiche adds that he doesn't think designers consciously put Western ideology into games.

Rockstar's team, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, was consciously trying to push the envelope in game design, however. "It is vital to get the style and feel of the time and the place right," CEO Terry Donovan told Electronic Gaming Monthly in January. "We genuinely believe this is an incredible piece of entertainment that challenges the limits of what a game is and where gaming belongs in the spheres of media and art."

Rockstar's developers consulted with a variety of people with firsthand knowledge, or at least more L.A. street cred than Scots, including tattoo and rap artists. The characters were voiced by Samuel Jackson, Ice-T, and the up-and-coming rapper Chris "Young Maylay" Bellard, among others. Like the earlier GTA: Vice City, San Andreas also offers a separate soundtrack featuring songs that played on area radio stations during that time. The soundtrack package includes a DVD short film that provides a compelling backstory for CJ's San Andreas quest. Ultimately, Rockstar's desire was to create an engrossing game that paid homage to a culture it idolized. "We love L.A., and the whole gangbanging vibe, and the street culture. That time `early '90s` in L.A. is so important and we knew a long time ago that the franchise needed to end up there," President Sam Houser told EGM.

Even if you think San Andreas' values are misplaced, Kreisler says there is "still insight beyond the insight `the designer` intended." Consider D.W. Griffith's racist film treatise Birth of a Nation, widely considered an early cinematic masterpiece. "His history becomes distorted because the theory and meaning he brings to the facts are a failure," says Kreisler, "but the individual sections capture the essence of an experience."

Johnson thinks that the empathy and cognitive leaps required in adopting a character or world very different from our own can also teach us valuable lessons. "Like rap is a reenactment of what it's like to be an urban black American ... There's in a sense a class-structure role-playing going on. There's an opportunity for something very powerful to come out of that."

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how comfortable Delwiche, Johnson - or you - are with a generation of Americans absorbing history lessons from electronic games. The California State Assembly recently voted to limit the size of history textbooks. Shorter books would be supplemented with a website reference section. And, as any parent with middle- and high-school children knows, many teachers regularly supplement their sociology and history syllabi with film. As games such as San Andreas become more sophisticated in their representation of the real world and game sales outstrip box-office receipts, it's a small leap for us to begin to see games as historical and anthropological representations.

Not only is this development unavoidable, it's also not the end of the world as we know it. Kreisler says he looks to popular culture "to provide some history to a population that will never read historians." Besides, he observes, academics have their own shortcomings. "A historian brings to the problem of organizing facts notions about the way the world works ... or even biases," he says. "And what he says will be reinterpreted in later generations when the power configurations have changed."

Last night I dreamt I was in the car with Bobby again on our way to his office to meet the Soviet ambassador. Jack was at the Oval Office, waiting to hear if Kruschev could be persuaded to call back the missiles bound for Cuba. Suddenly Bobby turned to me and said, "I hate being called the brilliant one. The ruthless one. The guy who does the dirty work." Suddenly I knew how scared he was, and how close we were to disaster.

Of course, that conversation, which takes place in Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, never really happened. But I have a sense that something very much like it probably did.

By Elaine Wolff