In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life
and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. -Huizinga, 1955-
Indeed, all actions have meaning, though many discredit games as meaningless, mindless, and merely for entertainment. This is just as true, if not more, in some discussions of video gaming. In their chapter“Game Design and Meaningful Play,” Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman emphasize the questions, “But what does play mean? To who or what is it meaningful? What is the process by which meaning emerges from play?” (60). These questions point to the fact that gaming is a complex reality that has been part of human civilization for centuries and not a frivolous area of study.
If play, in this case video gaming, is full of meaning then what can we say about Hip Hop Gaming, that genre of video gaming that is directly connected to Hip Hop culture? First off, the playing and making of games involves choices. The playing, and choice making, “occur within a game system designed to support meaningful kinds of choice making” (60). The producers of Hip Hop-centered games (e.g. Def Jam Icon; 50 Cent: Bulletproof) decide the kinds of games they will produce and market. As one can readily see by playing these games, violence is at the center of the games. This may come as no surprise, considering the vast amount of video games that are centered around violence, but we cannot forget that this was a choice made by the video game designer and those that funded the projects.
Hip Hop culture is not all about violence, sex, drugs, and misogyny. Though this has become the stereotyped image of Hip Hop, Hip Hop as a culture, and as a musical art form, is greatly diverse. The “problem” with the majority of Hip Hop Gaming is that it perpetuates the notion that Hip Hop culture is only about senseless violence, misogyny, and power. Hip Hop empires, like Def Jam, could have decided to make non-violent Hip Hop games, but instead seem only focused on ultra-violent games that have mainly young Black males committing violence and, at times, objectifying women.
To go further, we can join Rhetorical theory of social construction and the notion that games function as signs. “It was one of Saussure’s fundamental insights that the meanings of signs are arrived at arbitrarily via cultural convention. The idea that the meaning of signs rests not in the signs themselves but in the surrounding system is critical to our study of games. It is people (or players), after all, who bring meaning to signs” 64). If the signs (Hip Hop Games) are created and interpreted by the surrounding culture then the games (1) illustrate dynamics within the society that created them and (2) perpetuate a certain ethos about those people displayed in the game among those that are most heavily involved in interpreting those signs/games. In other words, the gamers that consume Hip Hop gaming, many times White and middle-class, project senseless violence and misogyny onto Black culture, specifically young, Black males.