Lessons from the (Virtual) Field: What Basketball Videogames Teach the Youth

by Yann Descamps

Kyrie’s Got the Best Handles in the Game


As a substitute middle school teacher in Paris, I relied on popular culture a lot to trigger the interest of students. Along with football, Japanese animated series and mangas, and reality TV shows, videogames are "the thing"—one of the most popular cultural artifacts among Parisian youth—so using videogames to raise students' interest makes total sense. As a result, when I understood that some of my students liked NBA basketball, I jumped on the opportunity and started talking NBA 2K with them. While they are often not very keen on speaking English, they became very enthusiastic, and one of them—14-year-old Ibrahima—started talking about his favorite player, Kyrie Irving. While he had to look for his words when asked about the British royal family or global warming—classic school stuff in French English classes—he fluently told me: "Kyrie's got the best handles in the game!" and then went on and on about Irving, the Celtics, and the NBA—in English. I realized he was a devoted NBA 2K player, and since the content of these games, from players’ interviews to the announcing of games, is in English, he had become an expert in "basketball English." His grades in the class skyrocketed, and he started realizing he could use this "basketball English" as a basis to improve his language skills. In the meantime, I decided to take a closer look at these basketball videogames as cultural artifacts I could use to teach students. And while I could see how these games helped Ibrahima learn English, I also perceived not-so-positive things this young man could learn from them.

Along with other popular culture media, videogames have been used to sell and promote basketball. However, the representation of this sport within videogames conveys a variety of messages related to the cultural and political dimension of basketball, and most of these messages raise issues regarding race, class, gender, and politics in general. What are these messages? What do these games teach their players? And how can we use these games as educators?

This essay aims to show the extent to which NBA basketball games convey values and messages while entertaining players and to explore their educational value to educators when used carefully. It calls on various disciplines, from cultural history to media studies, including semiology, to analyze the content of a selection of videogames released from 1999 to 2017: NBA Live 2000, which allowed players to play one-on-one pickup games against then-retired Michael Jordan on virtual playgrounds; three games from the NBA Street series, which reconstruct the playground culture; and five games from the NBA 2K series, which focus on the media-produced sports spectacle and have become new actors in the NBA's transmedia storytelling.1 I chose these games because of the way they portrayed basketball and its media coverage, as well as their representation of iconic spaces such as playgrounds and portrayal of African American athletes.

I first discuss what basketball videogames teach their players, including the way they relay media narratives, the racial stereotypes and performance of masculinity they reinforce, and how the playground crystallizes all these issues. Then, I shall examine how educators could use these videogames to educate the youth.

Edutainment: What Basketball Videogames Teach Their Players

Apart from trying to look as "authentic" as possible, game designers focus on reproducing the TV gaze and media narratives that videogame players have already been exposed to (Consalvo, Mitgutsch, and Stein 2013; “NBA 2K11” 2010). As a result, videogames teach a version of basketball history by representing selected teams and players from the past (“NBA 2K12” 2015). They participate in the NBA's transmedia storytelling strategy by retelling metanarratives that American media have constructed through sports (Jenkins 2006). This teaches players certain values, along with American geography and local identities—through the Hollywood-like Los Angeles Lakers or the Motor City Detroit Pistons, for example. The games also share some elements of American popular culture, from founding myths (like the concept of manifest destiny through the dream team in NBA 2K13 or the pioneer and the self-made man promoted through the games’ MyCareer mode) to ideas about American history itself (the evolution of all-star teams from decade to decade shows the rise of the African American community in a formerly segregated game in NBA Live 2000).2 However, these narratives are problematic, for they are media controlled and defined. Also, they are centered on the United States, which makes videogames a tool for American soft power (Nye 2004). Last, certain media stories, like the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s, carry a latent racial dimension (Boyd 2003).

This racial dimension is very important in basketball videogames. The insistence on African-American culture in the games and trailers—through the presence of Ebonics, barber shops, soul shakes, and hip-hop music, for example—along with the Afro-Americanness of avatars in the MyCareer mode, reinforce the stereotype that turns basketball into a black sport. More precisely, basketball is “naturally” associated with African American culture and, more particularly, black inner-city hip-hop culture—which may lead players to simplify their own representation of this sport and their ideas about African American people and communities. In the meantime, white characters are represented in positions of power, for instance through the figures of the journalist, agent, coach, or general manager. Thus, basketball videogames reinforce the stereotypes attached to young African American males and present a monolithic image of them.

Gender is another issue that needs to be raised while analyzing basketball videogames. First, basketball is clearly represented as a “man’s” sport. In NBA 2K, there are no women's teams, and women are mainly limited to being journalists, sisters, friends, or sexual objects (exotic girlfriend or cheerleader). The only non-male athlete is Cee-Cee in NBA 2K16; she is the character Freq’s sister and is portrayed as a tomboy. Furthermore, these videogames give a specific idea of what success is for males: getting paid a lot of money, getting a sneaker deal, and getting the girls. They frame some kind of ideal manliness, which shows how sport remains the bastion of traditional, toxic masculinity (Oates 2017).

In the way it is reconstructed and represented, the playground crystallizes several of these issues regarding what basketball videogames teach the players. Indeed, it is portrayed as a place of socialization and education, where a rich heritage is passed on from generation to generation, through images such as murals surrounding the court and the athletic moves on display. However, it is also represented and referred to as a “proving ground” on which the player has to perform a certain type of masculinity to be accepted. At the same time, these spaces reinforce racial stereotypes discussed above, and these courts are often represented with crime in the background.

Basketball videogames are ostensibly about having fun. But these games also convey subtle—and not-so-subtle—stereotyped messages that need to be highlighted. Once we do this, what is next?

Use It so You're Not Used by It: Some Ways to Incorporate Basketball Videogames in the Classroom

Videogames are representations of “reality,” not reality itself. As such, they become signifiers and carry a cultural and political dimension, as Stuart Hall has discussed (1997). While they convey questionable messages, basketball videogames remain interesting educational tools. Here are a few ways the latest NBA 2K games could be used to educators' and students' advantage.

First, these games are relevant to language and linguistics. The NBA 2K MyCareer mode stages interviews, and students can work on creating different kinds of answers to these questions as well as to generic questions based on the examples in the game. An English instructor could also turn these interviews into oral comprehension exercises. Moreover, in the case of NBA 2K16 the MyCareer mode is filled with short animatic videos staging the player with his family, friends, agent, and so on (NBA 2K16 Livin’ Da Dream 2015). In these videos, black characters speak Ebonics, which can provide an opportunity to learn more about this language (Rickford and Rickford 2000). Last, the announcing of games offers specific vocabulary for basketball, which can then be expanded for a project with physical education professors to have the students announce their own games live from the sideline in PE class.

Still in the context of physical education, educators could use the students' knowledge of basketball in class. As the virtual representation of the real NBA players' motions is getting more and more precise, PE teachers could work on the reenactment of these gestures and moves (the pick-and-roll, for example), and this could lead into a discussion about the body and embodiment—both real and virtual.

To keep discussing the relation between the real and the virtual body, avatars allow educators to study the issue of identity. Students could create avatars and think about their own identity as reflected (or not) in their avatar. They could also think about who they are and what happens when they play as their favorite player. Do they change their behavior? Do they adapt the way they play based on the player's “true› persona? Additionally, working on the creation of a bigger-than-life avatar could introduce to the students the theme of performance.

As I mentioned earlier, race and gender are prominent themes in these NBA videogames. While the links between African American culture and basketball as it is played in the United States are undeniable (George 1992), videogames often frame African American culture through racist stereotypes (Leonard 2003, 2004, 2006). Thus, educators can work on helping players identify this stereotyped representation. The NBA 2K16 narrative could be compared to Spike Lee's He Got Game (1998) to show its political aspects or to the TV show One Tree Hill, which portrays high school basketball as a mainly white sport. Finally, to explore the intersection of race and class, educators can turn to another TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which tackles this issue in an episode staging inner-city Will dominating on the court, while upper-class Carlton just cannot play (Frank and Rosenthal 1990). Students could then discuss the representation of the African American community as socially and culturally nonmonolithic.

It also seems important to work on these games through the prism of gender studies. In the context of sports, the absence of women's teams and coaches could be an opportunity to discuss the coverage of women's sports.3 Examining the place of characters in these games in conversation with feminist texts, such as those by Simone de Beauvoir (1949) and Betty Friedan (1963), could elicit discussions about the social ideals and expectations imposed on women and men.4 For example, educators could study manliness in sports and society with their students, specifically through the way these games can be seen as bastion of traditional manliness—and toxic masculinity (Courtine 2011). Such exercises could encourage students to reimagine the neighborhood and the NBA 2K18 trailer if they were places of gender equality (“NBA 2K18” 2017).

Smooth Counter-Power

Because videogames in general, and basketball videogames in particular, can be used as tools for soft power, and even smooth power—since they convey messages through games and thus take edutainment to the next level—educators have to counter these tools by exploring how games can send other messages, by opening players' eyes about what they learn from these games and encouraging them to assess what is right or wrong (Kinder 1991). Similar to other cultural artifacts that are seized by the youth, video games may be despised and criticized by some educators. But that attitude is the best way to deepen misunderstandings and widen the generational gap between educators and students. On the contrary, educators should use what students are interested in to bring more fun to the classroom, make a point, and help them develop a critical perspective on their immediate environment and society in general.

Videogames relay and teach stereotypes. Thus, they have an impact on the players’ collective imagination and cultural approach to this sport—and identity in general. But when used properly, these games can actually become tools for educators to teach the opposite of what they convey. So, play on!

1 The NBA Street series includes NBA Live 2000; NBA Street 2001; NBA Street Homecourt. The NBA 2K series includes NBA 2K11, NBA 2K12, NBA 2K13, NBA 2K16, and NBA 2K18.

2 In the MyCareer Mode, the player creates their own avatar, and (virtually) embodies a young NBA prospect, from his high school days to the NBA.

3 See McKay, Messner, and Sabo 2000; Duncan and Messner 1998; Kane and Lenskyj 1998; Sabo and Jansen 1998. On the gendered wage gap between NBA and WNBA players, see Berri 2017.

4 See also Mansfield et al. 2018; Brummet 2009; Lumpkin 2009; O’Reilly and Cahn 2007; Hall 1996.

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Yann Descamps (descampsyann@yahoo.fr) has a PhD in American studies from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. His dissertation deals with the representation of African-American basketball players in the American media and popular culture. He is currently working on the representation of race and gender in popular culture, from videogames to comic books and standup comedy.