SHAZAM!: Video Game Aesthetics in Chi-Raq and Rendering Black Characters in Video Games
Dr. Harell echoed his commentary on phantasms to me, how the people who code also code in real life problems into games that should be unproblematic in concept (characters are genderless, we don’t code in genitals and sex, it’s just a game). But with any source of media comes commentary of representation. With commentary comes challenges for games to strive for more aesthetically pleasing characters. But the characters who get left behind in this pursuit? You guessed it; the attempt to create diverse characters has come with issues of stereotyping and coding in particular features of minorities.
This is an excerpt from a blog post I did last year on Dr. Fox Harell’s presentation on coding diversity into video games. A professor at MIT, Dr. Harell focuses on computer science, artificial intelligence, and social identity. His most recent studies have focused on the idea of phantasmal media:
He argues, forcefully and persuasively, that the great expressive potential of computational media comes from the ability to construct and reveal phantasms—blends of cultural ideas and sensory imagination.
What does this mean in terms of Spike Lee? As someone who is interested in video game studies, the moment I heard the Spike Lee directed and produced a portion of the video game NBA2k16’s “My Career” called “Livin’ Da Dream,” I had to play at least a bit of it and look at how we render black characters on the video game screen. How do we represent black bodies that are not “real” bodies, but essentially manufactured by an algorithm? With characters like Cole from Gears of War and Sazh Katzroy from Final Fantasy XIII, black characters in video games easily can become black caricatures. Or, when given the option to customize a character, the default facial features are often Eurocentric such as in the MMORPG Runescape or a massive game like Skyrim.
What does it mean to look black, then? Spike Lee fights what is normal even in the video game setting, as he produces the world where the default is black. Here is the character customization screen that was filmed with commentary with @abuford19 as someone else also looking at “Livin’ Da Dream.”
Spike Lee, in his attempt at participating in video games, breaks open a phantasm that Dr. Harell has described so well. Our cultural perception of what it means to look black is not only visualized on the screen, but what is considered normal is challenged in the production of “Livin’ Da Dream.” Even when customizing the lightest-skinned character with blue eyes and blond hair, the character you create still undergoes the same narrative, a narrative that some reviews of the game would code as a “black” experience:
You create a player and name them, but none of that matters because irrespective of your created player’s skin colour or name, he’s an African-American from Harlem called “Frequency Vibrations”, or “Freq” (pronounced Freak) for short. After only a few minutes, I literally wondered whether “Livin’ Da Dream” was a mode separate from the traditional MyCareer offerings, because I was astounded by how jarring and impersonal the entire experience was.
NBA2k16, and thus “Livin’ Da Dream,” came out the same year as Chi-Raq. Personally, Chi-Raq has video games-esque aesthetics, reminiscent of not only amazingly directed cut scenes of big-name-games like The Last Of Us, Bioshock, but whimsical sepia toned moments of the Final Fantasy series or the fluorescent feeling that horror games like Outlast. This is to say that Chi-Raq experiments with point-of-view framing, purple and orange tones that emphasizes actors’ skin tones (or even changes them), and has expositional cuts of a camera that looks like a role playing game’s cut scene.
With darker lighting, in spite of different tones, Spike Lee emphasizes the fact that these characters are black. In all his work, Spike Lee makes an attempt at trying to grapple the issues when creating black characters for the screen. Whether they are as real as an actor or they only exist within the code of a video games, Spike Lee continues to play with style, framework, and tone as even he evolves in his directorial aesthetic.