2011-2012 Winner: “A Virtual Exchange of Basketball Culture” by Ameen Tabatabai
A Virtual Exchange of Basketball Culture
In Arts of the Contact Zone, Marry Louise-Pratt reveals the concept of contact zones through several examples she discusses. According to her, a contact zone involves “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other; often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 591). Pratt claims that traditionally, contact zones have consisted of negative cultural collisions, but by evolving the idea into an art, this theory can become a productive way to enhance and summon learning. As a result, her theory is applicable to many modern-day situations. Recent advancements in technology have allowed video games to produce contact zones between a game’s identity and the players’ values and interests. Specifically, NBA 2k12 is a modern contact zone that strategically uses animation technology to present basketball culture to people worldwide of all ages. Realism, imagination, history, and education produce an environment that allows the player to experience the NBA culture in their own way, letting their individual philosophy and values influence their gameplay style. As with all contact zones, NBA 2k12 contains an identifiable collision between two separate cultures: basketball fans playing the game and the NBA. Precisely, the fan culture involves each person’s contribution to the game, and the NBA culture encompasses elements such as teams, players, traditions, and history. As a whole, the core gaming components contribute to the fans’ experience and exposure to the NBA culture, while the gamers’ basketball awareness and interests can influence their playing style.
In this contact zone, there also exists an “asymmetrical relation of power” (Pratt 591). Since this artifact is a video game, there is a power imbalance between the game developers depicting the NBA culture and the fans playing the game. Sometimes the gamer disagrees with certain parts of the game such as player faces, gear, or ratings. For instance, the gamer might disagree with a player’s dunk rating. Watching that player throw down a monster dunk on TV might sway the gamer into desiring a higher dunk rating in the video game for that player. Also, if a player’s face or gear does not resemble the real-life counterpart, then the gamer would disagree with the rendering of that player model. However, the power imbalance is usually overcome because the game developers eventually address the gamers’ concerns and issue an update. A common concern is the fans wanting more tattoos on the players in the game. The creators address this by responding with, “Every year we get a ton of feedback about tattoos or should I say lack of, so to help solve this problem we worked with NBA to provide us with hi-res shots of any player who has tattoos from every possible angle” (D.I. 3). This example shows the existence of the power connection. In order to fix an issue noticed by the gamer, the developers with the power must first recognize it and then correct it. A difference in power is acceptable here since in the end, the disagreement becomes resolved.
By producing a visually realistic and statistically accurate NBA video game, the fan can now truly experience the culture surrounding a professional basketball game. To achieve this, the new game “features more dynamic content updates than ever before, from shoes to player models and even court floors – ensuring that NBA 2k12 looks just like the real NBA” (NBA 2k12). Considering how the game can update many visual aspects shows how accurate the gameplay is. For example, if an NBA player starts wearing a headband, the game will update the virtual player’s gear. Or, if a team signs a player that is not in the game, the developers will generate his model and add him to the team. The fact that the designers constantly update the game with changes occurring in the actual NBA shows the attention put on accurately depicting the NBA culture. This certainly adds to the fans’ experience because they are given the opportunity to interact with a representation of basketball that looks virtually identical to the sport broadcasted on television. As a result, NBA 2k12’s realism is an example of Pratt’s theory regarding a transculturation, which she defines as “processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Pratt 595). In this case, the game developers at 2k Sports have implemented transculturation by inventing a video game from the renowned NBA culture. Thus, the game produces a contact zone, where an exchange of cultures occurs between the NBA and the fan.
NBA 2k12 allows fans to imagine themselves as an NBA player or manager and use their knowledge to change the culture. One of the popular redesigned modes in the game is “My Player,” where the gamer is given the opportunity to “Create and manage [their] dream basketball player’s career – hear Commissioner Stern call [their] name on draft night, play in the all-new Rookie Showcase and negotiate contracts while raking in all-new endorsement deals” (NBA 2k12). Many basketball fans dream about playing in the NBA, but are unable to achieve it due to the high level of talent and physical ability required. They can now vividly imagine it through this game. Instead of picturing in their head what their NBA career would look like, they can now virtually experience their fantasy. Whether their dream involves playing for their favorite hometown team or joining forces with top players in the league to go after an NBA championship, this mode gives gamers the freedom to use their desires to guide their basketball careers. Eventually, the player can see their influence on NBA culture through all the achievements they earn such as awards and championships and historic records they break.
Similarly, imagination factors into the new “Online Association Mode.” In this part of the game, “For the first time ever, you and up to 29 of your friends can form your own NBA league and easily manage it from your computer or console” (NBA 2k12). Here, the fans can imagine having the job of both an NBA manager and player. They can use their own culture to impact the make-up and success of a team. This involves having the freedom to control any team through trades, free agency, coaching staff, training camps, custom playbooks, drafts, season game, and playoffs (NBA 2k12 Review). For example, one could chose to manage a struggling NBA franchise and rebuild them into an NBA dynasty. Conversely, one could turn an already successful NBA team into a powerhouse through multiple championships. Thus, the gamer’s imagination is a big part of how his/her culture influences the game.
By integrating legendary NBA teams, players, and memorable milestones, this game allows fans to relive the NBA’s historic culture. The all-new “NBA’s Greatest Mode” lets the gamer “Experience 15 of the NBA’s most celebrated careers and rivalries, painstakingly recreated in historic detail. Featuring such legends as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and more” (NBA 2k12). This feature is extremely valuable for younger fans that hear about legends and historic milestones because they were not alive to witness the events. Playing with historic teams and legends not only allows the gamer to experience past NBA culture but also to see how the history of the sport has evolved and influenced current players. Often times in sports, comparisons are made between past and current athletes. Younger fans that did not live in that era of comparison would therefore not understand the connections. For example, the media compares Dirk Nowitzki’s unique ability to shoot despite his height to Larry Bird’s style of play. Fans who were not alive during the 1980’s would not understand this comparison. However, NBA 2k12 mode has changed this situation. The exclusive historic game mode brings to life some of the most memorable moments. This effect is seen in Pratt’s theories about her contact zones. When Pratt is discussing her son’s baseball cards as an example of a contact zone, she mentions “American geography and history took shape in his mind through baseball cards” (Pratt 589). NBA 2k12 exemplifies her contact zone because it uses the NBA culture to virtually present basketball history to the fan. Essentially, what makes this mode effective at accomplishing the portrayal of historic NBA culture arises from the high level of detail in the feature’s mechanics. Regarding “NBA’s Greatest Mode,” the developers describe:
This year, the broadcast of each game is so life-like that you will have a hard time believing you’re not watching old clips from back in the day. The amount of detail we put into making these games fit into their respective era’s is crazy, from the old school baskets, press tables, overlays, camera angles, etc. We also did a lot of work on post process filters; adding sepia and grayscale to display older games, the way they were broadcasted in their day. […] a game from the 60s or 70s will have that “grainy” look and feel. The combination of camera work and color adds to the authenticity of each broadcast and is specific to each era, venue, etc. (D.I. 3)
Creating the historic style through an emulation of the era’s television broadcasting style makes the game more effective at showing the fan the basketball culture of that time. This occurs because NBA culture not only depends on the sport itself, but also how one experiences it. When the sport is watched on television, the commentary, various camera angles, and broadcasting layouts add to the emotion and livelihood. Inherently, this mode revives memorable events in NBA history for the fans through realistic representations of legendary teams and vintage visual effects.
Certain strategies employed in this game serve not only as a basketball training tool, but also serves as a resource that provides a learning experience. In fact, research studies currently suggest that video games can become useful techniques to communicate certain ideas. One of the studies reveals:
In a sense, all learning involves playing a character. In a science classroom, learning works best if students think, act, and value like scientists. Games can show us how to get people to invest in new identities or roles, which can, in turn, become powerful motivators for new and deep learning in classrooms and workplaces. (Paul Gee)
This study is completely applicable to NBA 2k12. A gamer can assume the role of a professional basketball team and control the players. Thus, they must think like a basketball player in order to accomplish the goal of the team, which is to win the game. As this study points out, a student can learn about science by thinking like a scientist. Likewise, by thinking like a basketball player in this game, the fan is learning about the sport and about NBA culture. When Pratt describes education, she states, “The classroom functioned not like a homogenous community or a horizontal alliance, but like a contact zone” (Pratt 600). Here, she is pointing out how the learning in the classroom unites with the interaction between the teacher and students to create a contact zone. A non-“homogenous” classroom results in many students of diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives. By using the term contact zone, Pratt reveals that this interchange of ideas allows everyone in the contact zone to learn by considering ideas in different contexts or from varied points of view. NBA 2k12 also illustrates this contact zone because an educational environment is generated when the game’s features interact with the gamer’s imagination, knowledge, and interests. As pointed out earlier, the gamer’s involvement in the game determines the extent of the learning capabilities. For example, a gamer involved in trades and free agent signings in the “Online Association Mode” would learn about how the team management process works. Meanwhile, a gamer playing NBA matches would learn information such as basketball rules and players’ names. Similarly, a study of the same subject revealed that learning through video games is resourceful due to “clear goals, customized (and progressing) difficulty levels, and a dynamic learning environment” (Flannery). NBA 2k12 uses this technique in the “My Player” mode to encourage player development and a successful career. The feature is described as:
Based on your position and play style, we give you 15 goals at the outset of your career. In order to make the Hall of Fame, you will need to accomplish 10 of those goals before you retire. The goals range from ‘Win the MVP award’ to ‘Score 20,000 career points’ to ‘Get 50 A+ teammate grades’ (this one is much harder this year!). Throughout your career, you’re constantly going to be striving for that next goal that gets you one step closer to your induction ceremony (D.I. 5).
This note reveals a customized approach to goal setting that allows the player to meet multiple goals in any order. An “induction ceremony” also hints at the player working towards the ultimate goal of joining the Hall of Fame. The study is relevant here because of the universal lesson NBA 2k12 teaches. The gamer learns that in order to become successful at an activity or skill, one must set goals that serve as steps moving towards the ultimate goal. Although the game is merely organizing aspects of an NBA career, it is indirectly educating the importance of goal setting.
Some may argue that a video game cannot be a contact zone since it only involves interaction between a person and software. This may have been the case in early game development. However, recent advancements in technology have allowed games like this to be considered as a contact zone. The game not only features an innovative, realistic, and imaginative gameplay but also historic modes and learning tools. Instead of just watching an NBA game on television, a fan can now simulate matches by taking control of a team and experiencing the thrill that actual NBA players feel. They can even relive historic NBA moments, and create themselves in the game to play out their dream of being an NBA star. While interacting with the many modes, the gamer is indirectly exposed to a collective idea suggesting the importance of setting goals as guides toward achievements. This results in the game potentially becoming a valuable tool in promoting positive planning about the future. Furthermore, NBA 2k12 is significant and revolutionary because the game changes the way people experience basketball culture.
[ Note: the abbreviation D.I. (Developer Insight) was used in the in-text citations due to all sources starting with a common title ]
Flannery, Brian. Video Game Education. University of Nebraska-Kearney. Web. <http://www2.css.edu/mics/Submissions/submissions/Video%20Game%20Education.pdf>.
“NBA 2K12 Developer Insight #3 – Art Direction.” NBA 2k Facebook Page. 2k Sports, 30 Aug. 2011. Web. <https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150276157322267>.
“NBA 2K12 Developer Insight #5- My Player.” NBA 2k Facebook Page. 2k Sports, 9 Sept. 2011. Web. <https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150285386202267>.
NBA 2K12. Novato, CA: 2K Sports, 2011. Program documentation.
“NBA 2K12 Review.” IGN. 30 Sept. 2011. Web. <http://xbox360.ign.com/articles/119/1197538p1.html>.
Paul Gee, James. “What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy.” Editorial. Computers in Entertainment (CIE) – Theoretical and Practical Computer Oct. 2003. ACM Digital Library. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Web. <http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=950595>.
Pratt, Mary L. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Acts of Inquiry: 589-602. Print.
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