Friday, July 04, 2008

Grand Theft Auto Day: GTA/America as a Melting Pot

The past two years for July 4th, I've written a post calling American Independence Day Grand Theft Auto Day because there are many interesting parallels between the game series and the country in which it takes place in.

The first year I discussed the game on July 4th, I talked about how it represented a distorted view of the American obsession with guns, cars, pop culture and how it is enmeshed in the legislative and judicial branches now because of its citation in court documents and discussions in both the House and the Senate regarding video game violence. I also mentioned that the games emphasized the entrepreneurial spirit that made America what it is today.

And last year, I elaborated on that last point as the games delve into corporate crime and the nature of the American media machine as an agent to further agendas which are not in the average person's interests.

But this year, I thought there was another principle which was represented in the game that was worth exploring. America as a melting pot, both culturally and socially.

I could mention that the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV is a recent immigrant to America and discuss his experience as such, but that is a trail that his been amply tramped by reporters and reviewers in the months since that title was released.

No, there are other aspects of this hypothesis which are clearly evident by those present in the game and history itself.

The lead character almost always has to navigate around not only the city as a whole in which they find themselves, but through the customs, traditions and personalities in smaller ethnic enclaves. Cloistered and ghettoized, especially in Vice City and San Fierro, the conflict between the emerging communities of Haitians and Cubans in the former and the Chinese Triads and the Vietnamese Gangs in the latter represent a fair share of the stories in their respective titles, and your character becomes intimate with their struggles for legitimacy in this world. Yes, these communities still have ties to their respective mother countries, but the struggle to Americanize is also evident. These men and women want their piece of the American Dream too, and not just the outward trappings of that lifestyle in clothing, houses and cars... they want the respect that comes along with them.

Because the overarching criminal enterprise in the series is generally the various families of the Mafia, an organization which had many of those same origins in America as the above emerging groups. People of their ethnicity and religion were rejected by mainstream American society and marginalized, so their communities turned in on themselves and adapted the institutions from Italy, both benign and criminal, to their new homeland, and over the decades, their community found acceptance, respectability and a place in American society outside their formerly exclusive neighborhoods and social circle, in spite of the criminal minority that even today in some ways defines a particular image of their ethnicity.

Of course, the irony is that the same nefarious individuals in this community now run almost an entirely American enterprise and represent in many ways the classic American success story. They represent the criminal establishment, the underworld equivalent to the robber barons if you will, with a position which other criminal groups aspire to usurp. But to do so, they have to adapt and become more American themselves.

Yes, the argument can be made that the game perpetuates negative stereotypes about these very same groups, but you have to remember that the game is centered on the criminal element, so a very narrow segment of the population is represented within the entire community. If anything it seems, the Grand Theft Auto series is indicative that crime is rather a more ubiquitous problem, one which transcends a single ethnic group, race or neighborhood because in the world Rockstar has created is one of equal opportunity in a warped egalitarian way. And really, isn't that what America is about?

To paraphrase the Beastie Boys: Asian, Caribbean and Latin, Black, White: GTA, you make it happen.


Peter Lynn said...

Of course the GTA series is undermined as a true melting pot by its supposed calls for genocide. Remember the "Kill the Haitians" controversy?

MC said...

See, that was a misunderstanding, though America has had a rather telling relationship with genocide in the past.