NBA2K14 and The Realness Issue

Video games, or at least good ones like NBA2K14, are converging on something that very much resembles reality. How much fun that will be is an open question.
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With the new issue of The Classical Magazine coming soon, we're dusting off this selection from the last issue, Play. You can read more about it here, download the app and cop the issue (or a subscription!) here, or buy individual issues in a Kindle, epub or PDF format here.

I have seen the future, and can report that it’s mostly indistinguishable from the present. The pick-and-rolls are a little tighter, or maybe they’re just easier to control. The player models are a little prettier, although Tom Thibodeau’s bald spot is entirely too generous to his failing genetics. The computer A.I. is a little smarter and more circumspect than the real thing, and Luke Ridnour will inexplicably dribble the ball for 23 seconds before firing from 27 feet away. The announcers are a little chattier, but this is a trend in the real world as well, and also who really cares? The newest iteration of NBA 2k14 is the best the series has ever been, for reasons that have little to do with mechanics and more to do with why we bother playing sports videogames in the first place.

Forget about the commercials full of happy people playing videogames together, and the studies showing you that gaming is a fun pursuit for adults, governed by common sense and mature decision-making. Forget all that, because it is wrong. The real gamer—male or female, hooked in youth or in old age—knows that gaming is a dark pastime that leads to neglect of work and sleep, to shouting at one’s friends in the heat of competition, to shouting at the television when the fucking piece of shit on the screen won’t do what you want it to. It is a self-administered vampire bite, and will leave you hissing and cowering in sunlight. Those of us who love it already know this.

I know it. I know that videogames flay and cook the skin from my bones, revealing me as some naked ogre howling at the moon—I know that I do this to myself, and that quite objectively, my life would be 22% more productive and/or satisfying if I were able to put them down forever.

I can’t, is the thing, or I won’t; not right now. Not when there’s another Riddler Trophy to find in a Batman game, or a new Batman game coming soon. That, you’d think, is a powerful tethering of reason at the expense of dateability, and one that’s helped propel the gaming industry to one towering financial summit after another. And with all that money flowing into gaming, you’d think it would be easier for the parameters of what we consider a “game” to expand. When the habit has hold, any means of getting high will do. But a new high has its appeal.

And yet, for all the promise the medium holds as a way to explore consciousness and play with aesthetics, mainstream gaming has largely evolved toward finding more intricately detailed ways to murder other things. Not a fan of WAR GAME? Try its cousin, SPACE WAR GAME, or its spinoff, GUY WITH A GUN. (I imagine this is how Roger Ebert felt watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.) This is less a failure of imagination (though there’s surely some of that) than yet another example of how capitalism grinds the best out of a good thing, hoping to replicate what might’ve honestly been a good idea at one point through a dozen of lifeless copycats and spinoffs. If the games function like drugs, the industry acts more or less like Big Pharma, tweaking copyrights and formulas and packaging in hopes of wringing some more profits out of the same old active ingredient.

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This explains why, since the late ‘90s, a series of realistic sports games have only gotten incrementally more realistic with each new year. If you were to line up every NBA 2k game dating back to 2000 and play them in a row, you’d notice a just few grand leaps at a time. These are things like the inclusion of a franchise or the now beloved “My Player” mode, in which the gamer creates a rookie and then lives out his career. (May history remember digital Jeremy Gordon, who might be described as a 6’1 cross between Steve Nash, LeBron James, and Jesus Christ.) It’s almost scary how the games have improved so gradually and so immensely over the last 15 years, how they’ve breathed real virtual life into models that once shuffled up and down the court like grimacing uniformed zombies.

That realism has helped redefined the purpose of the modern sports game, too. Where home consoles were once built on cartoonish goofs like NBA Jam or Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball and player-specific showcases like One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird , those formulas have been replaced by something that’s meant to simulate the real experience of observing the NBA, with each year’s model filling another gap and drawing even closer. Where it was once okay that Reggie Miller was solely defined in NBA Jam by his ability to catch fire like that, the now-retro version of Reggie Miller is NBA 2k is rated for his offensive awareness and ability to shoot in transition—things gamers of a generation ago probably never even thought they’d care about. Those are good traits in a basketball player, to be sure. But the Reggie Miller in NBA Jam wasn’t really supposed to be a basketball player.

This simulation is, inevitably and with inevitable weirdness, fed back into reality. Michael Jordan was never so feted by contemporary fans until he allowed his greatest triumphs to be organized into a playable experience for NBA 2k11, which finally unlocked years of pent-up fanboy desire by making it possible to play as Jordan at His Peak—separate marketing deals means he never appeared in any of those ‘90s games, you see—and so spurred the franchise to its greatest heights; they literally killed off their only competitor.

But we’re not meant to be Michael Jordan, regardless of whether there exists a way to play basketball “as” him. There’s a fix for this, but it’s not really a fix: the more basketball videogames seek to hew to reality, the harder it becomes to access the rush of Being Michael Jordan. You can’t just pick up these sticks and start competing; players must scour menus detailing advanced controls and, perhaps with a shuddering thought for all the things you’re ignoring in the meantime, get good at a videogame. This is cheaper-than-usual transcendence, but it isn’t free.

These games are good at replicating the experience of watching the NBA, but not so much the experience of being an actual NBA player—you can play like Derrick Rose, but only if you’re willing to master the two dozen or so controls that recreate his move-set, to say nothing of the instinct required to pull them off in motion. Ironically, the necessity of learning turns NBA2k into an unintentional demonstration of the way gaming maps new, dark caverns of consciousness. Just as pros probably hate to run shooting drills, so will gamers hate sitting in practice mode for hours learning how to effortlessly flicker from a jab step to step-back jumper. It’s what you need to do if you want to be great. But great at what?

And, more than that: why practice at a videogame? Why not do literally anything else? This seems an awfully shitty byproduct of something that’s advertised as a fun experience. What’s more, the new editions continue to add bells and whistles that seem like selling points but kind of suck in practice—the mandatory post-game press conferences in which your player spouts pre-programmed cliches, even a facsimile of Twitter where Real NBA Writers spout Real NBA Writer #hottakes. I expect NBA2k15 to have a fake All-Star halftime show in which a poorly rendered Katy Perry performs with Eminem. It will be life-like, probably, and it will definitely be terrible.

So how real, really, does anyone want this to be? The future is getting marginally better, but the fantasy being sold is the same: The right to take your team to the top, free of consequence, without a drop of sweat. In the videogame world, you don’t need to spend hours perusing Larry Coon’s collective bargaining FAQ, let alone running shooting drills with some creepo trainer in an empty gym. There are no torn ACLs, no incompetent general managers or $100 million contracts given to Joe Johnson or instantly obsolete taxpayer-funded arenas or racially coded labor disputes. All of that will be added later, of course. You’d hope the digital alternative would provide a safe haven from all that drudgery and managed exasperation, but the idea, for better and worse, is to make all of it more real. We’ll see how much fun that turns out to be.


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