You’ll notice that GTA: San Andreas (2004) doesn’t waste much time getting to its cynical characters. “Get yourself some colors, fool,” yells Sweet to CJ after just nearly escaping a drive-by shooting, “and a haircut, it’s embarrassing to be seen with you.” From the moment we step into our first mission, playable character CJ is being pulled back into how to dress and act in San Adrea’s territory most appropriately. At a glance, these demands may seem like the start of a simple tutorial mission: Get a haircut at Reece’s. Get green clothes at Binco’s. Yet black gamers such as myself might be seeing a little more than new threads and an afro generated by the push of a button. Beyond the sarcastic gangster aesthetics of the West-Coast, you’ll find an assortment of suspicions about black culture that are as involuntary as they are deliberate. Yes, San Andreas is a Rockstar Game; we all love them for their infamously tongue-in-cheek dialogue, absurdist missions, and the jest on societies behalf along the way. Incidentally, this does not always translate into a responsible articulation of male blackness, nor an apperceptive one.
This entry is part of an article series dedicated to examining how black identity and black masculinity composes in GTA: San Andreas. This is not to castigate the whole game or solely tackle its minefield of racial stereotypes, or even to weigh my confidence in its more empowering and honest portrayals of blackness. Not yet, at least. Instead, this initial entry will focus on examining the presence of a single constant when it comes to the portrayal of black men in San Andreas: the ‘cool pose’. Although I doubt the cool pose materialized out of authorial intent, it is a symptom of the game design’s promiscuous approach to blackness. As the cool pose as my entry point, the construction of masculinity and race within San Andreas becomes almost undeniable and therefore meriting auxiliary critiques.
So what is the ‘cool pose’ and why should we care? What does it have to do with San Andreas? The cool pose can be anything from how a black man walks (visibly stereotyped in the gangster-limp walking animation of the black NPCs) to how one may speak or behave. As Regina Bradley Ph.D. puts it,
“the performance and position of the black male body as a symbol of coolness, in its present form leans heavily upon stereotypical and often uncontested expectations of black masculinity.”
Cool pose is sort of a semi-conscious chain mail for black men navigating various social anxieties like gang violence, mass-incarceration or housing discrimination. Chilled-out and unbothered by reality to the point of (un)conventional ascension; cool-pose is performed by self-determining one’s status, concerns, and life. We see it in Big Smoke’s detached and removed attitudes from the violence in his community: in the ‘Drive-thru’ mission, Big Smoke favors eating fast food over defending his friends during a shooting. Meanwhile, Sweet’s arrogant pride creates a disguise for the grief of his mother.
Big Smoke: “Real strength comes from within my brother… liberty city didn’t soften you none huh?”
Sweet: “ You’re too skinny CJ, you need to pack on some muscle. Go …get yourself a gangster physique. ”
Grand Theft Auto is without question a game with black characters made central, and yet narratively, this fact is skated and danced around. One gets the suspicion that the developers wanted to construct a gamespace that was bred within the conflict of disenfranchisement, corruption, and systemic oppression without addressing the very socio-political phenomena that made such social conflict possible. In fact, in the world of Grand Theft Auto, these social problems are just problems. The game wants all the smoke without the gun, and in doing so prompts the player to passively want the same.
Take for example the very first cutscenes that introduce us to Carl’s predicament, where Officer Frank Tenpenny and his band of corrupt police intercept CJ’s taxicab before he can get home to Grove Street. Sirens blare, and their guns draw, Tenpenny commands Carl to show his hands and get down on his knees and stomach before arresting him. The Los Santos PD officers proceed to take the money from his back pockets, claiming it’s ‘drug money’ before shoving him into the back of the patrol car. One of Tenpenny’s officers yells for the taxicab driver to get lost, but not before calling him a ‘greaseball’ and a ‘stupid Mexican’ as he drives off with Carl’s luggage. On their way to drop Carl off in rival gang territory (a scene that evokes nearly the same imagery in a scene from the 93' film Menace II Society), Tenpenny and his men establish their dominance and control over Carl by threatening to plant him with the murder weapon of a LSPD cop killed minutes ago.
The whole of this exchange manifests a visual language that cannot orient without the criminalization of blackness. The mythology that surrounds the black man is what makes this scene believable, possible. This scene sets the pretense for a staggering cognitive dissonance that persists throughout the game’s entirety, a dissonance where politically and racially charged symbols are used thousands of times without addressing the American racial (im)morality and cultural politics that conceived them.
Yet that doesn’t stop the matrix that is the African American experience from coming to the surface. When you’re playing in a world so heavily cited from the real one, the mirror between them starts to demystify. The “gangster physique” exuded by Sweet, Ryder, Big Smoke, and CJ in San Andreas reads analogous to what could be performed in an older Long Beach or Watts. Inside an unforgiving political and cultural landscape, the cool pose is a collective response to the realities they face, giving them everything from a survival language to a moral code to a sense of agency. Premiere social scientist in the subject, Dr. Richard Majors, writes:
“The essence of cool is to appear in control …The cool pose shows the dominant culture that you are strong and proud, despite your status in American society.”
This essence of cool interweaves into nearly every part of the gameplay, most notably, in the narrative design behind Sweet and CJ’s brotherhood and the ‘Respect’ progression system that it initiates. If CJ is the arrow than Sweet is the bow, commanding his direction and assigning the target for CJ’s early missions. In the words of Dr. Majors:
“Cool pose helps him achieve a stern, impersonal masculinity in the face of adversity. A carefully crafted persona based on power and control(…)For the black male who has limited control or access to conventional power or resources, cool pose is empowering. He can appear on the stage of life as competent, in control. The act is not so much from dishonest motives(…)as it is essential for continued survival.”
Early on we see that Sweet’s concerns for his brother CJ are not compassionate at all, more so objectives that fulfill hypermasculine symbols of power cleverly disguised as a brotherhood. Take note of Sweet’s sharp intro dialogue for the missions ‘Tagging Up Turf’, ‘Cleaning the Hood’, and ‘Drive By’ for example:
- “Look who’s here, it’s running man. What you thought you were back on the set? Your word don’t mean shit around here. We gotta go hit up the hood, let em know your back in the set. The Johnson brothers are rollin’ again. Take this paint and go hit shit up.”
- “CJ go down there and show these fools you mean business, these chumps from the Ballas are sweatin’ the homies.”
- “Roland Heights Ballas Country, do us a lil’ drive-by. You know something matter of fact-you our chauffeur for this lil’ gig. Just don’t drive like no fool.”
A handful of values and behaviors might define cool pose, but at the heart of it would have to be the glories of respect. Think about how CJ, in hunger for the respect of his old friends, instinctively follows the commands mentioned to enter back into the family fold. Anyone that plays the first few missions will find that ‘Respect’ itself is a unique stat in the progression system (exclusive to San Andreas and GTA 2) as it allows players to recruit allied gang members based on the amount of ‘Respect’ you’ve earned through missions, territory grabs, and specific enemy kills. It can be used to boost CJ’s ‘Sex Appeal’ stat and even be lost by killing fellow Grove Street members or not wearing colors in Grove territory. Once this stat is maxed out, players can recruit up to 7 gang members to help them complete missions.
By constructing respect in this way, the notion of its value becomes inseparable from violence. The player learns that violence gains ‘Respect’, ‘Respect’ gains more agency to recruit gang members for more violent missions and so on. As a result, we start to see the cool pose evolve out from narratology into the hands of the player as a core game mechanic. Cool pose is not just a means for inserting plotted tension anymore; it is an ability that is a weapon. Granted, you can complete most missions without ever using ‘Respect’; there are plenty of mandatory missions that are nearly impossible or impossible to complete without it.
Here is where things get problematized: as the narratological aspects of the game bleed into the ludological, the player becomes inseparable from the mythologization of blackness and the text’s emergent impression of the cool pose. The player performs the dramatic tension of the game through drive-by shootings, transferring territory and power through the killing of other black bodies; controlling and influencing through ‘Respect’ performs the avatar’s black-male performance. What we get is a superposition of performativity constituted by internalizations of perceived blackness, a literacy that demands the player to be black and not black all at once. The player doesn’t have to identify with blackness, only perform its hyper-idealization in gang war combat as said combat sedates the avatar’s (CJ’s) family trauma, social anxiety, and masculine desires to “prove” himself.
Even in situations where the dynamics of narratology and ludology are predetermined instead of self-determined, so is the construction of blackness. Take the ‘Burning Desire’ mission for example; where CJ unexpectedly has a run in with Officer Tenpenny at a local donut shop and is forced to meet Tenpenny’s demands (initiating the mission). Upon first seeing Carl, Tenpenny calls him over referring to him as “son” and mocks him for finally showing his face around. Carl retorts that he has been burying his mother, but this doesn’t phase Tenpenny in the slightest, he continues by affirming:
“We own you, you’re ours. We can shit on you from such a height that you’d think God himself has crapped on you. You understand? (…) Time to go to work CJ and earn your freedom. There’s a guy holed up across town. (…) Another gang bangin’, cop killin’, drug dealin’ bitch like you. Now you make sure he never leaves the neighborhood, not even in a box. Get the fuck outta’ here.”
Before the player’s eyes, CJ becomes weaponized by the police, a choice that is formed through mission structure and in place of any player willed action. The assassination that the black avatar must now carry out (as a means to escape incarceration or his death) highlights the illegitimate forms of policing in black communities that have been historically documented for generations. The words “son” and “we own you, you’re ours” uttered by Officer Tenpenny echo a real past where slave patrols evolved into the first police departments; a past that reverberates a present reality disturbed by violent, often lethal discrimination against America’s black communities.
To call back to the cool pose, here we have a situation where it acts as the cause and not the corollary of internalized/externalized conflict. In this scene, the cool pose is all that CJ has left after just being emasculated. In a world where dehumanization is a constant lived-experience for young black men, self-possession, and willpower over one’s being is the ultimate ambition. Where CJ does not own his body, he still owns his mind; within that mind rests the notion that resorting to the violence and physical toughness that his oppressors seek to impress upon him may be the very source of his liberation. Thus, coolness becomes qualified and maintained by emotionally detached violence; masking any guilt, sensitivity, or mercy he has for other men he must set out to kill. The mission becomes symbolic, and it is quite easy to interpret what might be running through CJ’s mind when completing it: “I might not have shit, but they ain’t gonna blow my high…my cool. Those cops got nothin’ on me; I’ll show them what I’m capable of.”
With this understanding of how coolness manifests as a tool for survival and the expectation of previous mission design patterns, one would assume that this might again be reflected ludologically. The reward and increase of the ‘Respect’ stat are almost certain. However, this is one of the few missions where ‘Respect’ is not a reward. This becomes increasingly peculiar after the player/CJ saves the life of an innocent bystander caught in the cross-fire.
After the player set their targets aflame with the help of some Molotov cocktails, they’ll soon realize there is a woman trapped inside the fiery building. You’ll need to find the fire extinguisher in the kitchen before you can save her and make your escape out of the crumbling apartment. Once you’ve extinguished enough flames to make a safe exit out of the apartment, the woman almost immediately exclaims that “[she] owes you [her] life,” and proceeds to embrace the player/CJ with a kiss. CJ remarks that she looks “shook up” and offers to takes her home.
During the ride he is surprised to find out she already knows who he is, she elaborates: “Everybody in the Grove knows you and your brother, but I thought you’d run away?”
CJ quickly replies: “I never ran away okay, I just needed to get away from shit.”
The mission ends with CJ asking what the woman’s name is to which she replies, “Denise, Denise Robinson.” She offers her number and suggests that she and CJ hang out sometime before exiting the car and CJ agrees. ‘Mission Passed’ reads the screen. No ‘Respect’ stat increase. Denise Robinson is ‘unlocked’ as CJ’s first ‘Girlfriend’, the sole reward of the mission, and thus another telling game design choice in regards to the agency over female bodies and the hypermasculine culture the game encourages.
Throughout this discussion, I’ve called upon many examples where the cool pose materializes from the hyper-idealized construction of black male imagery. Cool pose, as it exists in Grand Theft Auto, is a remnant of the black mythology used to construct the game’s scenarios instead of something to be negotiated consciously by the game’s authors. Constructions of black images in and of themselves are not problematic; however, these constructions become problematized when said images are not created with thoughtful intention; images are left to their own devices in being examples of black maleness.
This is why when Officer Tenpenny creates ownership over CJ it is hard to read if true authorship has any influence on the scenario in terms of calling out real race relations in American society; such is an observation that only seems fair in a post-structural lense of analysis. After all, when given the opportunity to design an instance where a black avatar gains ‘Respect’ for saving a black woman from death the game designers chose not to. There are many real-world examples of the cool pose renegotiating in positive ways that dispel inter/external struggles entirely, and the ‘Burning Desire’ mission could have been a reflection of that. It begs the question, what other dynamic missions or nonviolent game activities could have increased the ‘Respect’ stat in a way that constructively, gainfully transformed the gamespace? GTA’s problem is not so much that it presents black images, rather its problem is that it doesn’t present a myriad of understandings, a nuanced perception of blackness that contains as many dignified and honorable examples as it does mischevious. Disappointingly, the latter is the most prolific.
The usual argument that might run up against my observations is that GTA: SA is not to be taken “seriously”. But what do we mean when we fall on this miscalculated language? What is “serious” in this context? Yes, GTA: SA is far from Half-Life 2 when it comes to dramatic tone, but a tone has never equated to a composition. Comedy in any medium is known to warrant apolitical and ahistorical posturing, but when the composition of GTA: SA dips its toes and whole foot in the sociopolitical pool of life, it only becomes more erroneous to overlook the importance of it doing so.
I never expected GTA: San Andreas to be the Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society of videogame culture, but it is vital that when a game studio finally decides to take on the (near-impossible) feat of telling authentic stories about inner-city life the mistakes of past game designs will be studied and corrected. Even if future games decide to mimic GTA: San Andreas, I can only hope they do so with greater responsibility and humanity towards the imagery of black masculinity.
Certainly, comedy is needed. Comedic games are needed. Nonetheless, comedic games built on the substratum of real-world tragedy should be mindful of how they use that substrate to build the comedic. A game tethered by intention in how it presents sociopolitical issues can only make for smarter comedy, and certainly a deeper understanding of such issues. Let’s hope that the next time the cool pose manifests in any gamespace, it does so by making us think as much as laugh along the way. Reni Eddo-Lodge said it best, “they want the rhythm without the blues.” In this case, they want the polygons without the pain.