"It's in the Game"

Curator's Note

This advertisement for the video game NBA Live 2006 is one example of an increasingly prevalent fantasy on offer in a variety of forms in contemporary media culture.  It invites fans to imagine themselves manipulating virtual versions of elite athletes in US team sports.  This fantasy has not replaced other modes of engagement, but it represents a significant new development in sports entertainment. 

What are the implications of this presentational shift? What might explain its emergence?  Clearly, developments in new media technology have been important, but what cultural developments in and beyond sport have led us here?  How is this emerging framework complicated by fantasies that continue to idealize the physical, financial and sometimes moral prowess of elite athletes?

My attempts to answer these questions have led me to consider recent developments around race and gender.  The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed the wide circulation of anxieties about white masculinity.  Some of these found expression in sport through the claiming of a supposed disadvantage for white athletes that had led to a “disappearance” of white stars from the important public ceremonies of masculine power of elite football and basketball.  In the decade before this advertisement aired, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and a bestselling book had theorized a race-based genetic advantage for black athletes.

The intersection of race and masculinity has long been central to the way elite team sports have been presented as entertainment. But rather than simply glorifying white athletes and demeaning their non-white colleagues, the contemporary presentation I am exploring here describes whites and non-whites in similar ways while reshaping the nature of fans’ engagement.  Rather than encouraging identification with athletes, this new model emphasizes the pleasures of control.  In this fantasy, athletes are carefully evaluated and assigned numerical scores that facilitate ranking and comparison by gamers. NBA Live gives each player numerical ratings for a range of attributes, which are distilled as an overall score. The game’s “dynasty mode,” offers gamers the opportunity to trade players, sign free agents, and draft rookies on the basis of this scouting simulation. For more than a decade, the game has included a “Create a Player” option, and the current version of the game offers “dynamic DNA” which regularly updates a range of different basketball skills for each player.  According to the game’s official website, this feature “emulates - with absolute precision - an NBA player in every sense of the word.”
Fantasy leagues and the growing media coverage of college player drafts also reflect this trend where elite athletes are positioned as docile, quantifiable collections of attributes, and where competitive evaluation and deployment of these subjects is central to the pleasure of consuming these texts.

The opportunities for those who accept this new mode of engagement are carefully spelled out.  Those who can skillfully manipulate these virtual subjects can attain credibility according to the criteria of hegemonic masculinity.  The character at the center of this ad is meant to be identifiable to the target market. He is a young white man, athletic looking (just not to the freakish level of his exceptionally oversized athletic “vehicles”), and well groomed without looking like he’s trying too hard.  He is a guy’s guy who (as the voice-over punctuates) is engaged in an activity that is unmistakably the arena of heteronormative masculinity.


Two quick comments (will have more later) -- first, I've long been struck by the way in which video games and fantasy sports rely on mathematical models to quantify, rationalize, and objectify sports ... often in a way that renders the qualitative, emotional, and subjective aspect of human identity seemingly "irrelevant."  As such, sports seem to be all about the numbers, not the race/gender/etc. of the person(s) putting up such numbers.  And I think there's something of that embedded within this commercial, albeit to less of an extent than in other sites.

Second, this ad strikes me as akin to minstrelsy: rather than speaking in "black dialect," a la Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden of "Amos 'n' Andy," the user is invited to speak/act through the black body.  Is it just me, or is this perhaps a high-tech, 21st-century blackface?  One can borrow the aspects or attributes of black masculinity without getting "too close," and thus deny the aspects of that identity that are considered problematic while enjoying the temporary benefits of inhabiting that identity.

More later....


The other point I wanted to add, elaborating a bit on the second comment, is that it's interesting that you contrast the user's body (essentially within the parameters of what we might casually call "normal") with the "freakish" proportions of the athletes ... and that the user's body is white while the athletes' bodies are black.  So we might equate "freakish"-ness as rooted in race as well as size and behavior.


I wonder if the commercial would "read" the same way if it featured Yao Ming and Yi Jinlan, or Steve Nash and Pau Gasol ... or, for that matter, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale (to go retro for a moment).

As a female reading these comments and watching this clip, I have a different take. I wholeheartedly agree with the comments, and also question the effectiveness of the clip if it featured those dominant players from China, Spain, and etc. I did notice that Dirk Nowitzki was in the clip, but was not dominantly featured...and perhaps if he was, the image of him hitting a fade away jumper from the elbow would not have the same impact as a dunk.

There is something almost untouchable about the skills that players like Wade and James posess that makes the ability for a gamer to in some way imitate those skills so much more appealing. We used to pretend to be MJ in our driveways hitting the game winner. With these video games, we still pretend, but the visuals offer a sense of reality to the situation, because results of our play mean something within the game. As a female who has played a game of Madden 09 from time to time, I don't feel as though I am emboding the masculinity of Ben Roethlisberger, nor am I trying. I don't take the perspective of being the players and personally making the catch or the throw. I feel as though I am simply calling the play, handing Ben the ball, and pushing the appropriate buttons to execute the play. (Perhaps the experience would be different if I was playing a WNBA game).

Overall, I think the appeal for sports fans and athletes to actually become their idols, as the advertisement so clearly illustrates, is huge. And if being able to throw down a strong dunk somehow makes one feel more masculine (and I would argue that it does), then yes, gamers have an undeniable opportunity to communicate so many things about who they are and wish to be through the control of another body in a video game. I wonder if the opportunity is as appealing if that body is Dirk's or Yao Ming's?

As the camera pans from behind the players, we can see Dirk Nowitzki (and, I think, Steve Nash).  Though they are only marginally involved in this ad, their presence is significant.  This new mode of presentation creates simulations for all players in the NBA.  Madden does the same for the NFL.  Careful, systematic and exhaustive documentation is a common feature across officially licensed video games, fantasy leagues and mediated college player drafts.  As Doug points out, both video games and fantasy sports (and I would argue, the mediated NBA and NFL drafts) centrally involve the quantification and ranking of their respective population.  All of the athletes are objectified and are presented as docile, ready for manipulation.

Clearly though, race has an important role to play in how this mode of engagement is presented to audiences. It’s significant that the character in the ad is white, and that he is made to get into Dwyane Wade, not Nowitzki or Nash.

There's an interesting link between control and race that Tom's original post invites us to consider.  A common, and I think reasonable, theory about the development of fantasy sports in the 1980s is that fans turned to fantasy baseball as they grew increasingly disillusioned about escalating salaries, revolving-door rosters, and high-profile scandals in the game.  Creating and managing their own rosters, then, was a means for reclaiming control and ownership over the sports experience.  Flash-forward to the early 21st century and consider the deep resentment that many fans feel toward the high-paid athletes on the field/court and the ways that frustration now boils over--remember the fan who threw a chair into the dugout in Oakland?

Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called "Malice at the Palace," the brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that led to players fighting fans in the stands.  Most of the criticism of that incident was directed toward the players; yet it should also have spotlighted the tensions of a mostly white audience paying to watch a mostly black sport.  So, the fear of diminished white masculinity that Tom notes was dramatized during and after the brawl.  All of this is to say that fantasy--be it old-school rotisserie baseball or new-school video games--provides a way for fans to control those bodies that always threaten to exceed their proper boundaries--i.e., "If those big black men can't control themselves in Indiana and Detroit, then surely I can do it for them."

As for Monica's comments, one theme I would pick up on is the question of whether or not one consciously embodies these players while playing video games.  It isn't so much about our conscious efforts, I don't think.  Rather, it's about the identities and performances we're invited to embody that constitute our attitudes about race, gender, class, etc.  That one recognizes Roethlisberger as distinctly masculine is precisely the point.  The game encourages us to read masculinity in particular ways, whether we wish to endorse those ways or not.

I agree with all of your comments in the first paragraph, Matthew ... though I'd also add that there's a very clear class element as well: it's most often members of the non-owning class taking over the role of player/team owner/manager, effectively telling themselves, "see, I can do a better job" of controlling those undisciplined figures (be they nonwhite or white), whether the position from which one does so is from "within" that body (via the video game) or outside it (via fantasy sports).  Given the increasing disparities in wealth and income over the last several years, I wonder if this isn't a critical role of or for fantasy sports, sports video games, and (as Tom's reply suggests) draft coverage and commentary.

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