June 17, 2005

Intelligent Agent 4/4

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:20 am

Intelligent Agent continues to be one of the most provocative and wide-ranging publications on the digital media scene. Now published in an online, modular format, IA‘s recent releases include David J. Leonard arguing that sports video games replicate “the ideologies and nature of nineteenth century minstrelsy” and Donato Mancini (in a review of Writing Machines by N. Katherine Hayles) asserting that the “emergence of electronic literatures in the 20th century and the ever-increasing use of new media in literature means that the acceptance of media and materiality as dimensions of literary meaning is inevitable.”

8 Responses to “Intelligent Agent 4/4”


  1. josh g. Says:

    Yeesh. Leonard’s article makes some interesting points when it comes to “street” themed games, but it’s not a design choice of a simulation-based sports title to have more prominent black athletes than white ones in the NFL and NBA. That’s a reflection of reality. And despite his unqualified statement to the contrary, it’s the simulation-based games which sell the most copies, not the street-themed ones.

    It’s hard to tell when he’s describing the observed minstrelsy, and when he’s just making strange judgement calls that he takes seriously. He observes that black atheletes in NBA Street are more athletic (jump higher, run faster, whatever) while the few white avatars tend to be more focused on shooting well, then says:

    The white player’s dominance comes from their ability to shoot, which comes from hard work and long hours on the court, not good genes.

    Er, what? He honestly thinks that athleticism comes spontaneously out of nowhere without hard work, and that there’s no such thing as someone having more natural dexterity than others? I suppose it makes it a lot easier to find racist themes somewhere when you’re already starting with unfounded assumptions and bias as a foundation, but I don’t buy it (and I don’t see the games themselves making this assertion).

    The idea of the player experiencing “blackface” is an interesting sociological issue to raise, and his later statements about the glofification of poverty-stricken urban spaces are even more worth digging into and asking questions about. But throwing around the idea that these games are made with white supremacist overtones is sort of insulting to the designers, producers, and artists I’m working with right now. (Who, you know, aren’t all white. By a long shot.)

    Someone tell this guy to give some play time to the latest NHL game, then to try and convince me again that sports games are depicting savagery and athleticism as a predominantly black trait. And while he’s at it, he could play FIFA Street and tell us again that the glorification of poverty-stricken urban spaces is actually about white supremacy.

  2. Walter Says:

    I found the PS3 demonstration of Fight Night at the Sony E3 press conference pretty disturbing, as they don’t give off the slightest impression that there is an intelligent, strategizing, methodical, or observant mind at work in either boxer. It’s just a constant back and forth between anger and pain+confusion.

    I don’t play EA sports games, but I do get the impression that their promotional media has been playing up black athlete aggression to a ridiculous degree. I don’t see athletes of other races being caricatured in a similar manner, or with nearly the same emphasis.

  3. josh g. Says:

    Ok, let’s go straight to the source.

    Are there more black players featured in this artwork than white ones? Sure, and I think you’ll find similar ratios in the NFL’s roster. Do the white guys look any less barbaric than the black guys? Hell no, they all look like thugs or animals.

    I mean, look at this. One guy looks like a chimp, the other looks like a warthog. Neither is a comment on racial superiority.

    As for them playing up ‘black athlete aggression’, try looking at titles that don’t involve boxing or football.

  4. mark Says:

    From that same gallery josh g. linked to, here’s a promotional picture with only white guys in it, portraying them as caricatured thuggish idiots:
    http://www.easportsbig.com/games/nflstreet2/gallery_viewer.jsp?imageid=6

    One might suspect Mr. Leonard had a conclusion and then selectively found facts to back it up, rather than looking at all the facts and drawing a conclusion from them.

  5. Walter Says:

    josh g.:

    First of all, I have no problem emphasizing that my impressions are just that, so I’m open to arguments to the contrary.

    That said, this is a fairly obscure piece of promotional media you’re using, here. At best, it tells me that white athletes are being similarly caricatured as thugs, brutes, savages, etc. Which is “good”, I guess. But it doesn’t tell me much about racial emphasis across EA sports’ promotional media as a whole (in terms of both ratios of representation in the aggregate, and ratios of representation in individual works), and much more importantly, it doesn’t tell me anything about emphasis in terms of media *exposure*. Even if 90% of all EA sports promotional media had completely proportional representation of athletes as thugs/brutes/savages, this doesn’t mean hardly anything if the remaining 10% gets 90% of the exposure.

    Furthermore (and this is a seperate point from the one I made in my earlier post), this whole “proportional representation” business is apparently assuming that as long as we’re representing athletes as thugs/brutes/savages in the ‘correct’ racial proportions, that’s the end of the matter and there’s nothing more to be said. Which I strongly disagree with. That position conveniently ignores the history of race relations in America and what it means for blacks / black athletes to be pervasively caricatured in this manner at all. What it *means* for whites to have white athletes caricatured as hyperaggressive is simply not equivalent to what it means for blacks to have black athletes portrayed likewise, whether we’re talking about how those portrayals directly affect identity, or how they affect (perpetuate, reinforce) stereotypes in society and the resulting consequences of that.

  6. Walter Says:

    Addendum: Note that I’m not trying to back up any specific claims Leonard has made, as I haven’t read his essay yet. I’m merely in agreement with him insofar as I think there’s an issue here, having something to do with race, videogames, and sports.

    Also, the promotion of hyperaggressiveness in sports in general is actually *not* a good thing. The quotes I put around ‘good’ in the second paragraph should be really, really huge.

  7. josh g. Says:

    For starters, as I tried to mention above, most sports games that I’ve seen recently do not emphasize “hyperaggressiveness” in the same way that NFL Street does. I grabbed one of the more extreme examples (from the EA lineup, anyway) to show that even the extreme example is portraying white characters in an equally exaggerated way. NBA Street, for example, has little if any emphasis on aggressiveness. Leonard seems to be taking offense at the fact that the characters are athletic, or something.

    Second, okay, so caricatures of black characters are more offensive than caricatures of white characters because of poor race-relations history in America, even if the caricaturization isn’t specifically pointing out racial differences. (I have doubts, but let’s move on.) What do you propose would be a solution? To have an unrealistically high number of white guys on exaggerated games like NFL Street? That seems more racist than the original design, to me.

    Anyway, I might dig up more promotional media examples, but not today. And I’d far rather spend time thinking about the view on poverty inherent in the street-based sports games, which sounds a whole lot more meaningful to me apart from the accusations of racism.

    And there’s a joke in here somewhere about the E3 footage of the next-gen FIFA and exaggerated racial features which I probably shouldn’t make, in case people from work read this. ;)

  8. Walter Says:

    The hyperaggressiveness I’ve seen is actually from the next-gen Madden and Fight Night stuff (I’ve had hardly any exposure to NFL Street). Football players just snorting, grunting, growling and glaring at each other, and boxers who apparently always just fight angry and with malice.

    My ‘solution’ would be to just drop the hyperaggressive, ultra-superficial take on sports and sports culture in general. I mean, apart from it just being a fairly lame ‘artistic’ choice to begin with, there’s way more emotional and mental content to the real life sports…why not tap into that?

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