I was excited at the sight of the Amazon.com box at my doorstep. I hoped the newest effort from EA Sports, NFL Street, had finally arrived. Upon examination of the game’s cover, my joy soon turned to disgust. A muscle bound Ricky Williams, who bulges out of the box, is breaking free from a tackle of Shannon Sharpe. While the emphasis on their muscles (ten times their life size), and tattoos were initially bothersome, the depiction of each man as virtual gorillas elicited outrage, inspiring immediate play to explore whether you can judge a game by its cover.
NFL Street follows in the tradition of many football video games—it merely adds a different spin to this always popular genre. In fact, it isn’t that much different from Madden (another EA game), with your favorite NFL players and an array of playbook options. What makes the game unique are the locations of play, the focus on showboating and the overall chaotic nature of the game.
As with most sports games, NFL Street offers several game options with the NFL Challenge, Pick-Up Game and online battles. In each, you play seven on seven for the ultimate credentials of street dominance. In the NFL Challenge you take a team of unknowns (they are not NFL players, but “average white Joes”), into battle against the best of the NFL. As you start against the NFC and AFC west, the initial street battles take place on the EA Sports campus, a pristine field with a few trash cans littered about, and a brick wall for out-of-bounds, and the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, with waves proving to be the only obstacles to a touchdown. Upon defeat of all eight teams, you are able to unlock the other conferences, battling on the dangerous streets of Detroit or New York rooftops. Interesting, and not surprisingly given its namesake, the goal of the game is to be able to play on the streets, within America’s ghettoes, rather than on a sports field.
The popularity of the game has less to do with its playability, but its emphasis on an imagined street (black) culture. Whether the never-ending hip-hop soundtrack or the numerous shots of graffiti art, the game plays America’s love affair with urban America, particularly that which is imagined as black. As inner city spaces are glamorized and commodified for their seedy and dangerous elements, structural shifts continue to worsen these spaces of life. Reflecting the hyper visibility and glorification of deindustrualized inner city community, games like NFL Street and Street Hopes reflect the commodification of African American practices of play within popular culture. This process of borrowing is not limited to the generation of pleasure for players, but is evident in the usefulness of black bodies and ghettos within NFL Street. The comodification of black urban aesthetics, in the form of trash-talking, taunting, showboating, tattoos, earrings, violence and heightened masculinity, thus reflect the game’s vision of street (black) life.
NFL Street contributes to widespread belief that the most authentic black body is male, urban, and oriented towards hip-hop, sports and violence. In fact, the game replicates widespread stereotypes of blackness and hegemonic visions of whites. The black players, for the most part, are fast, aggressive and inhumanly muscular. They never stop talking trash and take every opportunity to taunt the opponents. Conversely, the white players are slow, frail and calm, rarely talking trash or taunting an opponent. In one instance, my white running back attempted a sweep to the right, only to be put on the ground by the 49ers Garrison Heart. Before my player’s face hit the ground, Hearst yelled, “Too slow to try that on my side of the field.” The orientation toward street football, thus contributes to its racial content, and its acceptance, construction and dissemination of racialized stereotypes.
The convergence of race, masculinity and street is additionally evident with the discourse surrounding taunting and celebration within the game. While encouraging taunting, through bonus points and rewards (“stylin’ is what separates the players from the Playaz”), the game seems to police this practice as well. As you showboat, you run the risk of fumbling or otherwise stumbling in the game—there are consequences for playing street. After several attempts to defeat the mighty 49ers, I had them on the ropes, leading 32-24 (on the street, you play to 36) with ball in hand. All I needed was a touchdown. With a tinge of nervousness, I launched a pass across the field, completing it through a sea of defenders. As my man marched toward the promise land, I decided to hold the ball back over my head as to rub my imminent victory into my imagined opponent’s head. Unfortunately, I started my victory stride a bit early, coughing the ball-up right into the hands of Terrell Owens, who ran it back for a touchdown. I, of course, went onto lose the game. As I slammed down my controller as any male video game player might do, I could hear Chick Hearn screaming “the mustard is off the hot dog” or the voice of any number of announcers that habitually condemn and demonize (black) athletes for excessive celebration. It reveals the consequences of becoming street, compelling obedience to the hegemonic vision of sportsmanship and etiquette. NFL Street thus embodies America’s simultaneous love and hate of black urbanness, reflecting dominant desires to both police and become the other.
In a recent New York Times article Adam Clayton Powell III termed video games as “high-tech blackface,” arguing that “because the players become involved in the action… they become more aware of the moves that are programmed into the game.” NFL Street maintains this tradition, offering its primarily white producers and players the opportunity to travel to the world of pick-up football, becoming the revered/hated urban black male. I guess in this case, you can judge a game by its cover.