Reflecting on diversity in video games through the LA Riots

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this post was published in the May 4, 2012 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Who here remembers the Los Angeles Riots of ‘92? I certainly don’t. I was 4 (and now you feel old). LA burned following the acquittal of the four police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. The city eventually saw the deaths of dozens of people, along with the destruction of an estimated $1 billion in property.

What’s important to remember from the riot is not the destruction, though. The angry mob was largely racially motivated; African Americans were disenfranchised by the system. The acquittals by a mostly white jury sent them over the edge and into the streets. Many Korean Americans were targeted during the rioting, prompting famous images of Korean shop owners holding firearms to fend off looters. Some say Korean American business owners were particularly targeted following Soon Ja Du’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter of an alleged shoplifter, which occurred less than a month after King’s beating. Du was sentenced to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.

The LA Weekly has published the reflections of rappers who have incorporated the riots into their music. There’s no doubt the media and entertainment industry, especially the rappers, have been influenced by the riots since 1992.

I want to focus on something else, though: Rockstar Games Inc.’s 2004 game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Set in the state of San Andreas, in the early nineties in a fictionalized version of California and Nevada, the story follows CJ and his efforts to restore his honor as a gang leader in Los Santos (the game’s version of LA).

Late in the game, CJ watches the trial verdict for Sgt. Frank Tenpenny, a corrupt member of the Los Santos police. Tenpenny’s case is similar to the Rampart Scandal in 1998. The end of the trial, however, ended with Tenpenny’s acquittal due to insufficient evidence. The city of Los Santos goes up in flames following the verdict.

The riot, however, does not take into account the ire against Koreans. Much less, Koreans are a non-entity within “GTA: SA.” The only Asians who play a prominent role in the game are the affable Triads based in San Fierro (San Francisco) and their rivaling Vietnamese gang.

To be fair, the GTA franchise has given the spotlight to Asians once before in “Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.” Overall, the Grand Theft Auto series has given considerable diversity to its cast of characters over the years. Past protagonists include the African American gangster CJ, a Serbian expat, a Dominican American bodyguard and ladies man, and a Jewish American biker. Minor characters and supporting roles feature an even larger cast of colorful nationalities and personalities.

One of the four Asians. (Spoilers, she's dead.) screenshot of "L.A. Noire"

I still worry, however, because of Rockstar’s recent treatment of 1947 LA in “L.A. Noire.” The game (admittedly developed by Team Bondi and not Rockstar North, the makers of GTA) features only four Asians (two of them laundromat workers). Little Tokyo is given no mention at all. Chinatown, however, is immortalized as a landmark. While the game depicts a generally faithful recreation of post-war LA, and follows the stories of anguished war vets who served in Okinawa, it has a dearth of Asian Americans.

This is why I hope that “GTA: V” will better reflect California’s diversity. The game’s trailer doesn’t reveal a particularly prominent role for Asians, at this moment. The perceived main protagonist looks to be a white male, and the game doesn’t seem to have a racially charged plot. However, knowing Rockstar’s obsession in creating a bigger, better and more realistic world with each iteration of GTA, I have high hopes that the game will recreate LA with attention to minute detail, including the makeup of the population and the way its residents socially intertwine throughout the city.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkkoHAzjnUs

 

If all else fails, I’ll go play “Saints Row: The Third,” which lets me create a main protagonist that looks however I want him/her to look — like a purple skinned obese zombie wearing a pink spacesuit.

 

POW, right in the kisser.

This screenshot essentially describes what "Saints Row: The Third" is all about.

Too bad he spends most of "Saints Row: The Third" being dead.

Did you know that the "Saints Row" series features a Korean American as a central character, is modeled after, and played by Daniel Dae Kim? Yeah. screenshot of "Saints Row: The Third"

 

About Tomo Hirai

For more than half a decade, Tomo Hirai has whittled his time away playing video games and reading comics. He has been writing about Japanese pop-culture since his start at the Nichi Bei Times working on Anime/Manga special issues.

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