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

Video game publisher Ubisoft recently revealed the latest entry in their “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, “Assassin’s Creed Shadows,” but not without a bit of controversy in some social media spaces. The game is set in feudal age Japan and features dual protagonists, one of whom is a historical figure named Yasuke, an African man who eventually became a samurai. Predictably, this decision was too much for some gamers who took to platforms like X/Twitter, posting about the game and its “forced diversity” or how “DEI is ruining everything” in response to Ubisoft’s decision.

The history of video games starring Black characters in lead roles can be traced back twenty years to 2004, when a company based out of SoHo in New York City, Rockstar Games, developed and released one of the most significant and highly successful video games of all time: “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” I was involved in the game’s production as a Lead Analyst in Quality Assurance and can provide some perspective on how the main character of San Andreas was met with backlash due to their race, similar to what Ubisoft is seeing now with this upcoming Assassin’s Creed and their choice of protagonist.

“GTA: San Andreas” would mark the third entry in four years for the GTA franchise, with the preceding titles “Grand Theft Auto 3” (2001) and “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (2002) featuring white male protagonists as the main playable characters. “San Andreas” would feature a Black male protagonist in the lead role. If you are from a certain era, most stories in movies or TV shows were driven by characters who did not look like me. Video games were no different. With the story we wanted to tell with “GTA: San Andreas,” along with the gameplay design and an amazing soundtrack that was curated, we were confident we could pull it off. This did not stop some gamers from telling us how they felt about the choice of creating a Black protagonist.

Even though “GTA: San Andreas” went on to become one of the top-selling video games of all time, in 2024, we still see resistance to diverse characters in video games. The language used today is different from what was used twenty years ago, but the sentiment remains the same: some people out there are just not interested in playing as a Black dude and feel the need to let the world know this.

To be clear, “GTA: San Andreas” was not the first video game to feature a playable Black character. Besides sports franchises like “Madden Football,” or “NBA Live,” earlier examples include “Final Fantasy VII” (1997), which had Barret Wallace among its roster of player characters, and “Shadow Man” (1999), with Michael LeRoi (aka Shadow Man) as the latest in a line of voodoo warriors who are charged with protecting the living world from the dead world. However, as popular as Barret was, he was not the main character of “Final Fantasy VII”’s story, and the Shadow Man game was based on a license that belonged to Valiant Comics.

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.

The previous two entries in the franchise featured white male protagonists: the silent Claude of “GTA 3” and Tommy Vercetti (voiced by the late, great Ray Liotta) for "Vice City." Both characters made their way up through the criminal underworld with no thought given about their race. But set a game in a fictionalized version of the West Coast in the '90s, and having the audacity to make the main character a Black guy was suddenly an issue? This was an early example, perhaps even foreshadowing, of how video games were not free from ignorance and intolerance. The minute a game developer ignored the traditional concept of what the main playable character in a video game would look like and changed it to a Black dude, especially for the GTA series, they were unfortunately met with some resistance. If I did not know any better, it almost sounds like San Andreas was being attacked for being ... woke?

This is exactly how I interpret what I read today, when I see games featuring the lead playable characters who are non-white get attacked with charges of “DEI strikes again” or “Diversity is being forced on us,” blah blah blah. The people who say these things might as well take it back to 2004 and say, “I DON’T WANT TO PLAY AS SOME BLACK GUY.” It does not matter if it’s a game about the first African on record to reside in Japan who eventually becomes a Samurai or about a son dealing with grief who sets out on a journey to resurrect their father with themes rooted in African mythology, or if it’s set on the West Coast in the '90s. To them, it just doesn’t matter.

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