The discourse of representation, stereotypes, and racism surrounding video games is fraught, and quite frankly not at all progressive. During “black history month,” I took notice to the number of my Facebook feeds that posted the obligatory Black History Month topics, memes, and other throwback media. While I felt a temporal nostalgia for many of the mostly prematurely dead celebrities, activists, and prolific writers, my prosthetic memorial experiences of others like MLK, W.E.B Du Bois, and Ossie Davis was shoddy. Prosthetic memory is an expression coined by Alison Landsberg that describes how people experience a memory (one in which they were spatiotemporally absent from) through commodified mass cultural media (i.e., film and TV). So in my case, this prosthetic memory through Facebook was an impalpable one because the truncated biographical sketches of the late-great individuals were subsumed by the Facebook poster’s social networking energy and wall activity. Rather than feeling a communal celebratory vibe, Facebook in February leaves me feeling like I am consumed by a void—a huge gap—not by time, but by connectedness. To be honest, I am often confronted with this as an African-American (AA) gamer and researcher. While my Facebook experience is unparalleled to my critical-gaming experiences, it scraped at the wounds of my disdain and disappointment of black representations in video games, and specifically, my impalpable prosthetic memorial experiences in games that predominantly represent AAs. These are the types of games that not only touch on black history, but are also instrumental in the (re)making of black history. For these reasons, I will turn to one of the most culturally significant games of African-American History—basketball, and specifically NBA 2K14.
Why basketball? Why NBA 2K14? —Because the two, of reality and fantasy, simultaneously perpetuate a history and the negation thereof. Between the fissure of reality and fantasy are resolutions of racism, prejudices, and other inequalities that black athletes, such as Bill Russell, Chuck Cooper (1st drafted AA in NBA) , Harold Hunter, and Earl Lloyd (1st AA in NBA) had to prevail in order to pave the way for today’s NBA athletes. However, the lines between the two leave no room for neo-prejudices that are undergoing resolution today. While the yoke of this topic is heavy, in this particular post I will chip away at such issue by briefly exploring three ways in which NBA 2K14 does injustice to the AA basketball culture by systemically avoiding our history.
Ironically this weekend, which was the opening weekend for the NBA Playoffs, I finished my regular season in 2K14 playing as the 1994-95 Orlando Magic and begin my first round against the 1995-96 Bulls. This match-up conjured feelings of disconnectedness of black history in games. Yes, even a game like NBA 2K14 that largely represents blacks in less grotesque-Uncle-Tomish ways can do that. Note: Notice that I did not utter the words “less stereotypical.” I will leave that purposeful evasion for the next post, but for now let’s get at how NBA 2K14 procedurally and mimetically negates imperative AA history.
For one, 2K14 is admired for its realistic AI, control schematics, and graphics (thank God the facial renderings improved where detection is not a project within itself). NBA 2K14’s game modes offer a hybridized player-GM managerial role-play experience where you can customize your player, sign contracts, conduct trades, and so forth. However, with all these NBA life-like representational elements, at core, its realism is where AA’s place within NBA history is whitewashed and largely forgotten. First, it must be noted that you can get Hardwood Classic teams as DLC, although a lot of the teams are available in-game (I think about 31). I especially enjoy the fact that they pay tribute to Bill Russell by allowing us to go to his training camp and learn post-move skills in an one-on-one fashion with the Hall of Famer. However, it is the in-game subtleties that sever this prosthetic memory that I yearn for in 2K14.
For those of you who are NBA fanatics and die-hard fans, we all know how much a simple rule change can alter on-the-court game action and spectatorship. The recent redefinition and penalties of “unsportsmanlike conduct” can attest to this. Therefore, when I play a head-to-head matchup with the ‘65 Celtics and Lakers I find it quite dubious that I can shoot a 3-pointer while 3’s technically did not enter the NBA until 1979. The Laker’s D. Barnett’s quirky jump shot in 2K14 drastically exemplifies how weird it is to see a classic player pull up at the 3-point line. In my personal opinion, if you are playing with any team before the 70’s, where the gameplay is/was radically different from today’s, the rules should systemically be considered (i.e. 3-pointers, foul shots, and goal-tending)…I would even settle for a DLC packet or “NBA Rules” change option.
The NBA was a pivotal site of change for civil rights issues. Many African-American ballers played prevalent roles in the Civil Rights Movement—notably Bill Russell. Bill Russell, endured some of the worse vandalistic and demoralizing situations, marched with MLK in 1963, and was a very active political figure during the Movement. For example, in 1961 Bill made a political statement by boycotting a game in Lexington, KY after he and his other Celtic’s teammates were refused a seat in a local restaurant. Furthermore, he was definitely not a crowd pleaser where he would frequently make bold comments:
“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one,” Russell said. “The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”
I preface my second disappointment of the historical recognition in 2K14 with this Bill Russell historical step-back because 2K’s blatantly disregard of this in gameplay is a slap in the face of my AA history. 2K’s diegetic space should wink at such historical matters rather than avoidably indicate a resolution of such discriminations. For one, the fans in the crowds are pixellated modulations of the forgotten history of racism and segregation. While the crowd’s algorithmic renderings, movement and sound is pretty consistent throughout each arena, they mainly consist of diversified members of many different race and creeds sitting together Kumbaya-ing over Jerry West’s blocked shot by Russell. I was not there when the two teams met, but I am almost sure that it did not play out that way. This historical incongruence is yet another algorithmic choice that whitewashes segregation and discrimination issues of the “past.”
Perhaps, the most inexcusable celebratory mimetic realism consists of the cheerleaders (of a 1965 matchup) whose retro-choreographed dance moves definitely suggest that given time period. However their dancing to Nas and P Diddy’s “Hate Me Now,” as two of their black dance members shared the spotlight is a fictionalized Utopia. Again, I am not advocating NBA 2K14 to take a full-fledge pedagogical approach, but I am merely pinpointing areas of contention that should be addressed in Next Gen games. There are other controversial matters like the anachronistic sponsorship ads, but I think you all get my drift.
Lastly, I would like to address the commentators that clearly take on a “schizophrenic tense-of-play” while calling the games. For one, the commentators consist of the typical crew: Steve Kerr, Kevin Harlan, and Clark Kellogg (who is AA by the way) and Doris Burke (who is a female) that make play-by-play calls and report the game on the sidelines. Their commentating is instrumental in transitioning the gamer’s situated-ness of play. During my real-time gameplay, the commentators eulogized my player in past tense. For example, after I, as Laker’s SF Baylor, played big and schooled my opponents down-low in the paint, commentators would say things like “According to my dad…Baylor was the precursor to forwards’ play…this type of play is all apart of Baylor’s Hall of Fame Career.” As Bill Russell, I would often hear the commentators speak of my defense in past tense by saying things like “There is no record of block shots back then…but Russell’s defense…”
This shifting identification is problematic and hence is a manifestation of the whitewashing of history in NBA 2K14. These issues simultaneously suggest a resolved history in the game and in essence some inherently unresolved histories through its negation and “about-faced” approach of imperative black history matters. My hopes are that 2K gamedevs would expand its cultural consciousness beyond capitalistic regimes, and incorporate and build upon historical cultural capital. I think this is an unassailable obligation considering the NBA consists of almost 77% AA athletes and has clearly grasped the hearts of many AA 2K gamers (like myself) that take pride in their players, crews, and teams. In the next posting, I intend on resurrecting this contention of real and fantasy lines and its relationship to history by exploring the ways in which neo-prejudices, primarily dealing with gender inequalities, are dealt with in and outside of NBA 2K14.