Grand Theft: Annenberg

This is another in a series of blog posts created by students in my Public Intellectuals seminar at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.


Grand Theft: Annenberg by Dan O'Reilly-Rowe

Before moving to Los Angeles to begin my PhD work at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, I had probably spent less than a combined two weeks in Los Angeles in my life. But of course I know this place.

Growing up in Townsville, a small city in Australia, Los Angeles was a big part of my media-world. As a kid I'd beg my mum to buy me Thrasher  magazine, and idolise these men who balanced athleticism, artistry, and anti-authoritarian swagger. Christian Hosoi was my favourite skater. I know this place. LA is Blade Runner, NWA, swimming pools and movie stars.

As I drove out of the desert and into this city, my sensible grownup station wagon full of my most important stuff, my travelling companions a road-weary 4 year old and a black cat, I was struck by another cultural reference. I have not only seen this city's representation on screen and in print, I have navigated it in a videogame. I may not have spent much time driving the streets of Los Angeles, but the streets of Los Santos, a fictional setting in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are my old stomping grounds. Coincidentally, Grand Theft Auto V, set in an expanded rendering of Los Santos, is being released within months of embarking on my PhD studies on critical approaches to videogames and their potential role in social justice struggles.

I explore my new home. I see the city through the frame of my windscreen. My eyes glance down to the frame of my phone's display for an informatically augmented bird's eye view. I am reminded of Michel de Certeau's distinction between the concepts of place (Fr: lieu) and space (Fr: espace), map and tour. The map indicates the arrangement of locations in relation to each other, and corresponds to de Certeau's place. The tour, such as I experience as I gaze out my windscreen and pass through the city's terrain, constructs a practiced space. In my wanderings through Los Angeles, I find that I am often taking my place-oriented knowledge of the city, as represented through various maps on my phone, and putting them into practice as I move through the terrain. Los Santos not only simulates the physical geography of Los Angeles, it represents a cartoonish psychosocial space built around crude stereotypes of race, gender, and class.

In the meatspace of Los Angeles it is fairly easy to separate out the spaces I pass through and the places I see on my phone's maps. The representations of Los Santos' geography I see on the screen are less distinct. GTA's visual interface presents both a tour (the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective) and the map (the HUD mini-map) simultaneously. Both are representations of algorithms that are invisible to the player, but constitute the computer's only sense of the world of Los Santos. The cognitive effect of moving back and forth across these various representations and experiences of the city is dizzying. Exiting the tunnel that empties the I-10 freeway onto Santa Monica Beach, winding through the Hollywood Hills, passing a garage on a hill in Downtown LA, 90s West Coast hip-hop coming through the radio, I am often hit with a visceral sense of déjà vu. A critical inner voice nags at me: if my perception of the physical locations in the city is affected by my experience of a distorted and grossly simplified representation in the game, how does this work in terms of social relations?

My first few weeks in Los Angeles were structured by a series of quests to secure the basic elements of life in a new city. As with the early missions in a GTA game, these covered some essential tasks that would set in place a location and trajectory for the rest of my LA story. I needed somewhere more stable for my family to live than the series of short sublets that we'd arranged as a temporary landing pad. I also needed to find a pre- school for my daughter, preferably somewhere with an easy transition into elementary school. My basic strategy to do both of these things involved moving through the city while obsessively engaging with information about the city overlaid on interactive maps. A typical day would go like this: begin with searching through Yelp <> for interesting playgrounds that my daughter and I could set up as a base for the day; once there, do a local area search for apartments on Trulia, Zillow, and other real estate apps; cross-reference rental listings against <>, a site that rates schools with an enigmatic algorithm based on a series of datapoints including test scores, ethno-racial diversity, and parent feedback. Often this process would drive me to frustration – data-driven activities and interfaces rubbing up against humanistic social justice values.

Ultimately we did find a place to live, a supercute bungalow in Highland Park, a neighborhood synonymous with many Angeleno's narratives of gang violence and recent gentrification. On moving day I pulled a box truck and trailer down the narrow dead end street and before long had a crew of neighbors I'd never met voluntarily lugging heavy furniture and boxes into the house. “You'll like it here. It's a great block. We all watch out for each other.” Lifestyle status levelled up from itinerant subletter to lease holder and good neighbor. w00t.

Now I sit in my car while the kiddo naps in the back seat, using my phone to learn more about my new home. Maps abound. I glance out the window and see one of the many billboards for GTA V that have been placed around LA to push the game's launch. The LA Times Crime Map indicates that Grand Theft Auto really is a fairly commonly reported crime around here. The LAPD Gang Injunction Map shows that the entire neighborhood is under an order that grants special powers to police when dealing with suspected gang members. As grassroots community organizations opposed to gang injunctions such as Youth Justice Coalition  and Homies Unidos  argue, the connections between racial profiling and the gentrification of neighbourhoods that have historically been populated by low income people of colour (often migrants), are not difficult to see in this situation. I find it hard to imagine the police detaining my pale skinned self to inspect my tattoos, the logos on my baseball cap, or the fit of my clothes as a basis  for attention that might lead to arrest. The gang injunction map breaks the city into color coded blocks, but at the micro level, the color coding of my skin pigmentation exempts me from its reach.

Sure, the GTA map is huge. But as in Borges' story fragment, the proximity of the map's scale to the size of the territory does not lead to a greater realism. The map ceases to serve as a representation of the world, and instead shapes the way we organize our understanding of the world. The sense of freedom to move through the city at will is at the core of GTA's sandbox gameplay, but it is an illusory freedom, tightly contained within the rule system that generates the world of Los Santos. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, similar strategies of power are at play as the people's physical and psychosocial spaces are shaped and constrained by algorithmic processes.

Dan O'Reilly-Rowe's research focuses on the intersections of new media, critical pedagogy, and social movements. His professional background includes work as a youth media educator, documentary filmmaker, and video artist. He has served as a lecturer at the University of New South Wales (Australia) and the Ringling College of Arts and Design (Florida), teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Subjects taught covered a range of media and communications topics, including online and mobile media, videogame studies, comics and graphic narratives, journalism, and public relations. Dan holds a Master's of Digital Communications and Culture from the University of Sydney (Australia), and Bachelor of Arts in the Humanities from Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia).