Def Jam: Fight for NY

The front cover of Def Jam: Fight for NY is revealing. With a game that brings together the fighting video game genre with the world of hip-hop, you would think that the cover might contain a picture of Flava Flav fighting Bubba Sparxxx (how could you go wrong?) or a mere shot of the artists posin with their crews, yet these signifiers are absent. Instead, the game cover pictures a racially ambiguous (what appears to be white skin covered by dirt or obscured by dark shadows), hooded man mysteriously holding the skyline of New York City. Symbolizing the nature of the game, the cover signifies a different sort of whiteness (one invested in blackness, yet incapable of denouncing its own privilege) invested in playing, controlling and dominating the mysterious, the dark, and the underground world inhabited by black (and brown) bodies. In this light, Def Jam: Fight for NY offers yet another opportunity to both police and fetishize blackness in the ultimate sign of white privilege.

The racial text of Def Jam: Fight for NY shows little subtlety, simultaneously constructing a narrow vision of blackness, hip-hop culture, and “ghetto” life. Michael Marriott, in the The New York Times, describes this game as part of a wave of “urban games” that “plays on racial stereotypes, including images of black youths committing and reveling in violent street crime” (August 12, 2004). Specifically, it constructs a virtual reality where “mostly hip-hop style characters slap, kick and pummel one another” in hopes of accumulating cash and territorial control.

Imagining a “ghetto” world of hip-hop defined by materialism, violence and excessive black masculinity, Def Jam: Fight for NY fulfills hegemonic notions of the other. It provides entry in a presumptively mysterious world, yet it merely reproduces and disseminates that which is already assumed, accepted and institutionally rendered as common-sense understandings of hip-hop, the ghetto, and blackness. In fetishizing and commodifying this world and black bodies (the constant focus on the physicality of black male bodies and the gaze onto half-naked, well-endowed black men at the tattoo parlor is revealing), Def Jam: Fight for NY does not merely celebrate the ghettocentric imagination in offering entry into this realized fantasy, but also demonizes that which it claims to celebrate: hip-hop, blackness, women, and America’s black ghettos. While not blaming this game or other products of the ghettocentric imagination for the policing and demonization of black life, its production and reception cannot be understood outside of white supremacist discourse (the haters) and the material realities of state violence.

As the central offering of Def Jam: Fight for NY lies with its story mode, which puts you as the top fighter amid a battle between two crews — that of D-Mod and Crow (Snoop Dogg). Each vies for your services — fighting prowess — in their quest to take over the New York underground. Going from club to club, you fight for ultimate turf ownership, battling the likes of Busta Rhymes, Eric Sermon, Lil’ Flip, Warren G, and Pimp My Ride‘s Xzibit.

Although the game simply concocts scenarios so you can battle hip-hop artists using five fight systems (street, Kung Fu, wrestling, submission and kickboxing), the story mode is much more than a hip-hop street fighter; it is an entry into the imagined, constructed, and sensationalized world of Hollywood hip-hop. Each victory generates “developmental points” and paper to be spent in any number of virtual New York stores. The developmental points can be used at the Stapleton Athletics Gym, where Henry Rollins, your trainer, not only bolsters your fighting skills, but also enhances your charisma and likeability to the fans (image is everything). Your virtual cash, however, is worth a great bit more, illustrating the game’s warped vision of hip-hop and authentic black masculinity defined by materialism, greed and excess. The game allows you to spend your earned paper at one of four spots, all of which are virtual replicas of real-life stores in New York City: Jacob & Co., Stingray’s Barbershop, Manny’s Tattoo Parlor, and Syndicated Urban Streetwear.

The barbershop and tattoo parlor afford players a spectrum of different looks, playing into hegemonic fetishes of blackness and the urban other. From dreads and cornrows to tribal tats or the latest jailhouse art, Def Jam: Fight for NY offers players the opportunity to consume the imagined other residing inside America’s real-life and virtual ghettos and its arenas of hip-hop. Devoid of history, politics, or context (i.e. the affects of capitalism on black youth), Def Jam: Fight for NY represents another cultural product that simultaneously commodifies a narrow black cultural aesthetic while reducing blackness (race) to cultural attributes and styles that can easily be bought and sold in both virtual and real-life spaces. Bell hooks reminds us, in Black Looks: Race and Representation, of the power of eating the other. “The commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of the Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (31).

A similar project exists with the availability and significance of gear and ice within the game. Accumulated paper, resulting not from the intelligence of your character or even your talents but your propensity towards violence and physical strength, is to be spent at either Jacob & Co. or SUS. Offering chains, earrings, bracelets, and watches, the presence of Jacob & Co. further reduces hip-hop (blackness) to bling-bling materialism that offers the necessary validation (affirmation) of black masculinity. In other words, the game promulgates that success and masculine prowess comes through kicking ass in the name of buying huge diamonds. The game instructions note: “The fastest way to start looking like somebody is to visit the jeweler to the stars. For the right price, he’ll hook you up with the perfect piece of jewelry, to let everyone know that you’re no chump” (RE: woman). The promulgation of hip-hop as a world of bling-bling is complimented by its identically gratuitous advertisements for Sean John, Roca Wear (I think), Phat Farm, Echo and Air Jordan. If not purchasing platinum chains or iced earrings from Jacob, your character uses his money to purchase “the latest urban fashions” in an effort to secure desired “pimp status”. Def Jam: Fight for NY is as much a game about promoting the products and the mainstream visions of market-driven hip-hop. In promoting and reaffirming hegemonic stereotypes of hip-hop, Def Jam: Fight for NY not only reifies dominant visions of the ghetto, but also fulfills ideas that blackness is purely an aesthetic, a look, a culture of materialism, and a mere commodity that can be bought and embraced as a lifestyle. Def Jam: Fight for NY, by offering all the accepted trappings of hip-hop, allows a primarily white game playing population to eat the other, thereby legitimizing the dominant racial paradigm that reduces race to culture, which can be used and tried on by anyone without consequences and political implications.

As with the construction of hip-hop as a cultural arena of excessive materialism, a pathological (violent) black masculinity, defined by bling-bling, Hummers, tats, and fly gear, the game equally fulfills dominant stereotypes concerning the place of women within the world of hip-hop. Virtually erased from the game — no female artists as fighting members of a crew — women make an occasional appearance as eye candy, strippers, trophies, and the proverbial girlfriend in need of your protection. Both these real (Carmen Electra, Lil’ Kim and Kamora Lee) and imagined virtual women resemble females in virtually every game: half-naked, hypersexual and defined by their tiny waists, large breasts and exposed skin.

Following one fight victory, your character gets to choose between two girls to become your girlfriend, who makes only a few appearances during the game as both an affirmation of your sexual prowess and as a woman in distress. Another fight scene allows you to become a woman in a fight. After selecting Kamora Lee over Carmen Electra, both of whom wear little clothing, the game puts the two women together in a male fantasy fight. If you win the battle, your character takes your woman of choice home for a little fun. Unfortunately, my skills were not up to par, resulting in Carmen’s azz-whopping of my character, Kamora Lee. Without victory, I am left with a less than attractive black woman, who takes my character home despite the ridicule of my boys. Def Jam: Fight for NY makes clear that real manhood results from the objectification of women, just as it comes from the size of your muscles, diamonds and bank roll. While fetishized and celebrated here, these imagined visions of hip-hop serve as the basis of cultural and physical demonization/policing of blackness.

In recent weeks, various state institutions, from the governor of Illinois to the city council of New York, have announced plans to increase the regulation of video games. Outraged by their promotion of violence (yet silent about American war efforts around the globe) and their degradation of women (yet ignorant to the pervasiveness of patriarchy within American life), critics have taken aim at video games. Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-Illinois) called for legislation that would make it illegal for anyone under 18 years of age to buy violent or sexually explicit games: “This is all about protecting our children until they are old enough to protect themselves,” the Governor stated in an issued statement. “There’s a reason why we don’t let kids smoke or drink alcohol or drive a car until they reach a certain age and level of maturity.”

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of protecting children from harmful representations, none of these officials have publicly denounced or called for regulation of racist or racialized games. These same legislative bodies have not elucidated plans to insulate “our children” from white supremacist narratives promulgated by the video game industry. None has questioned the racial content of games like Def Jam: Fight for NY or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. There is no discourse concerning the dissemination of racial stereotypes or the affirmation of the racist status quo. Outrage remains in a discourse of children, its focus being violence and sexual content, rather than the affects/significance of these games in society, especially as spaces of racial meaning. The nature of Def Jam: Fight for NY reflects this fact, as does the silence of politicians, cultural commentators and anti-racist proponents.

What we need is not more “M” ratings to warn parents, but “R” ratings to warn about a game’s racial (racist) content. Such warning would not seek to insulate or protect the public from racial (racist) cultural products, in that such white supremacist ideologies and inequalities penetrate all walks of American life, but warn its players of the necessity of engaging the game through a critical lens. The problem is that such ratings would appear on virtually every game, demonstrating the importance of enjoying the opportunity to beat down Flav, Bubba and Warren G, yet remaining critical of the meaning and context of games like Def Jam: Fight for NY.