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Suffering from realness: A tale of two Kanye West games
Suffering from realness: A tale of two Kanye West games Exclusive
June 3, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

June 3, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

You could make a case that video games and hip hop have some things in common: The swagger, the big money, the big guns, the celebration of achievement and attainment. In music, the common focus on themes of traditional power seems to have evolved over time from hip hop's roots in marginalized city communities, while games' younger history knits closely with the (less important, of course) power fantasies of shy geeks.

The flavor of music currently pioneered by megastars like Kanye West and Jay-Z has a gamelike affinity for trophies, sometimes literally -- during his recent wedding to Kim Kardashian, one of West's gifts to his new wife included a 'regal' portrait celebrating her beauty and sexuality. The painting was called "Perfect Bitch," the same title as a song he's said is also about Kim, released on a compilation last year. In it West talks, as he often does, about courting the hatred and envy of other men (and peeing on them, it seems).

Kanye recently collaborated with Future on "I Won," (previously titled "Trophy Wife"), where he suggests he'd like to dip Kim's popular posterior in gold, among other superlative odes to his wife, various fashion labels and their high-end lifestyle, as Future sings about the feeling of having won a trophy, and showing it off.

Fittingly, Future's camp also put a game out about the song. In the game -- Kanye West's first officially-sanctioned appearance in a video game, if I'm not mistaken -- he and Future sit by the sea in beach chairs. As Future sings his "I Won" hook ("A trophy, I won me a trophy"), the player controls the musicians as they fling gold chains at women strolling past in bikinis. Land a hit and the woman literally transforms into a trophy lying in the beach sand, score value floating up into the summer sun.

"It's interesting to notice someone felt that game mechanics would be the best way to communicate and augment the spirit of "I Won."
Probably if someone were to imagine a game experience sincerely designed to communicate the nuance and ethos of Kanye's fascinating public persona and his excellent music, this would not be it. But it's interesting to notice someone felt that game mechanics would be the best way to communicate and augment the spirit of "I Won." Another thing to think about is, as bleak and unsettling as we must admit "I Won" is, at the moment I can't think of any other video game with two black male playable leads and so many ethnically-diverse women, so there you go.

"I Won" may be the only official appearance of Kanye West in a video game, but there are surely many unofficial ones -- observe this stunningly elaborate fan-made tribute to Kanye, hip hop culture and superstars like Lil B. And Davey Wreden, of The Stanley Parable fame, also released a uniquely-grating, parodic little exercise called Life in the West, "wherein you play the psychological collapse of Kanye West seen through his Twitter account," in Wreden's words.

While "I Won" may have raised eyebrows and attracted broad criticism for its prescient provocation about the role of women in capitalism -- ha, just kidding, it's sexism -- the most popular Kanye West game has to be Otter Spice's Kanye Zone, born from a captivating little snippet of Kanye and Jay-Z's stunning chart-stormer "Ni**as in Paris," the two-time Grammy-winning Single from Jay and Ye's metallic gold-sheathed collaboration album "Watch the Throne."

Toward the end of "Ni**as in Paris," the floor suddenly plummets out of the song's provocative fast pace, giving way to a haunted sonic tunnel cut with soft, chugging pistons, and Kanye's mysterious droning, again and again, ominous as a lion drowsing in the desert sun: "You are now watching the throne; don't let me get in my zone, don't let me get in my zone."

Otter Spice co-founders Stephen Barlow and Michael Frederickson (their company name, they told me, is how someone with a hard Midwest accent might pronounce "Outer Space") became fixated on the lyric. While "I Won" leaves very little to the imagination, Kanye's threat about his "zone" is pleasantly abstract, the sort of space that games should be made in. What is Kanye's zone, and what takes place when he gets in it?

Of course, there's not too much to gain from literal analysis of a boast from rap royalty. But in their game Kanye Zone, Barlow and Fredrickson decided to conceive the "zone" as a physical space, and the player as someone mechanically taking Kanye's warning to heart, disallowing him from the zone. In a way, it's the complete opposite of the "I Won" game: a game about literal achievement is cynical, but one that makes an abstract expression mechanical is funny. Add to that the fact that "zone" is already well-understood as a games vocabulary word; classic platformers all have different "zones," with their own unique climate and challenges. Imagine a Kanye Zone.

Kanye Zone itself is incredibly simple: While Kanye's large, sunglassed head pings around the play field ("bouncing ball physics the likes of which you might see in a programming experiment created by a fifth grader, or your favorite DVD screensaver," Fredrickson joked at Nordic Game recently), the player guards the circular violet "zone" at the field's center, swinging a bumper around its perimeter to keep Kanye from getting in it. Cash symbols effervesce every time the bumper repels Kanye, and the player's score increases.

The Zone also grows in size over time, gradually increasing the game's difficulty. It has the same ominous feel as the lyric that inspired it: The zone swelling, threatening to swallow, inexorable.

"While 'I Won' leaves very little to the imagination, Kanye's threat about his 'zone' is pleasantly abstract, the sort of space that games should be made in."
The game got little interest at first from Reddit's gaming community, but a nod from a music subreddit quickly snowballed into mainstream coverage and a sudden rush of players -- and leaderboard cheaters. All players start the game with $50,000, a reference to Jay-Z's lyric in the song where he suggests that particular number is not of significant worth to him. Jay also appears in the game -- if Kanye does make it into his zone, Jay Z appears alongside him, to mouth along with the lyric "I'm definitely in my zone."

As players racked up absurd cash totals the game designers struggled to ban and correct, Fredrickson and Barlow themselves were out $700, having to invest in the infrastructure of the site. In the end, the game netted only eight dollars' profit for the pair, they say. There might be some kind of critical metaphor there about the juxtaposition of wealth and achievement fetishism in music with financial losses for a pair of white West Coast roomies who defer to calling the song "Buddies in Paris," but let's maybe not.

I have a copy of Watch the Throne on CD because of the time I went to go see Kanye live. Thank you, Activision. I went to the publisher's Call of Duty event in Los Angeles, set in a massive compound where fans on pilgrimage could drive Jeeps, play paintball and, inside, play Modern Warfare 3 competitively for hours and hours at lurid banquettes. Wristbands to see Kanye play there were one of the press gifts. The affinity between the two entities made sense to me at the time.

It still does. I wish there were more video games about and encompassing hip hop. Something has to live on the spectrum between cynical indulgence of a man like Kanye West and just finding him funny, right? Until we find it, definitely play Kanye Zone instead of I Won.

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Pete Devlin
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Genuinely one of those most interesting pieces I've read in ages on any game site, top read.

Christian Nutt
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"In music, the common focus on themes of traditional power seems to have evolved over time from hip hop's roots in marginalized city communities, while games' younger history knits closely with the (less important, of course) power fantasies of shy geeks."

I'd be interested in a piece on this topic, I think.

But also I'd be interested in a piece on how the middle class rap audience and the middle class games audience basically want the same sort of themes of power narrative, or at least are both being served with it. What I mean is: I think a lot of the audience for triple-A console games and triple-A rap albums is the same people.

In the end, Call of Duty Ghosts and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are probably ending up in the hands of the same people and may carry some similar themes. Do they do it for similar reasons? Does that audience even care?

Zack Wood
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Yea. I mean those common themes of games and music also go for movies, TV shows, etc. in mainstream American society. They are more like the common themes of American culture.

Rob Wright
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Interesting point. I agree with Christian, I bet the overlap is pretty high, but I doubt the artistic themes have any real connection beyond a general feeling of empowerment for the player/listener.

But I can't say speak to this with any authority because I've been out of the hip-hop game since Jurassic 5 broke up.

sean lindskog
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"while games' younger history knits closely with the (less important, of course) power fantasies of shy geeks."

This is a massive trivialization, and I dislike it.

I'd say it goes more like this. Games are more about meeting challenges than power fantasies.

People will naturally gravitate towards the challenges they find interesting, which often aligns with what they're good at. Athletic people will tend to be more drawn towards sports. "Geeks" towards games, whether it be chess, Civilization, World of Warcraft, or Batman Arkham Asylum.

Is an athlete pursuing a power fantasy when s/he plays baseball? Is a researcher pursuing a power fantasy when they perform experiments? I don't think so, they're just doing what they're naturally good at, and what provides an interesting challenge. Same deal with geeks and video games.

Sure, sometimes the challenge of video games involves gaining power (e.g. leveling in MMOs, or maybe shooting a dude in the head in CoD). Many others don't - Mario never seemed like a super powerful guy to me. But the main commonality between most games is challenge and achievement. Just like athletes and sports. I would bet that beating a raid dungeon in WoW, or getting a high score in Pacman works very similar brain chemistry to winning a game of football.

I will grant that some of the story lines in games are power-fantasy-esque, especially superhero-based ones. But that just presents the platform for the challenge. Kind of like how in chess the objective is to kill the other guy's king. Combat is just one of several types of challenges deeply woven into the human psyche, so it works well. But when I win at chess, it's not about fulfilling a power fantasy. It's about defeating the challenge. Except maybe for the odd psycho.

But most geeks, just like most athletes or most medical researchers are not psychos. Quit making them out to be.

Christian Nutt
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@Sean Lindskog

I think it's fairer to say that it's an oversimplification than inaccurate.

(Which, guess what? It was one tiny part of a sentence in a much, much longer piece that didn't dwell on the idea -- hence my suggestion it could be further explored.)

I have lost count of the number of game developers who have said point-blank some close variation on "with this mechanic, we wanted you to feel like a total badass." It's a stated goal of a huge number of game developers!

For me, as a defining focus of games, it's also something of rather recent vintage and has little to do with what got me interested in games in the first place. Sounds like you're in the same boat.

sean lindskog
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Hey Christian,

If you listened to the marketing pitch of motorcycles, fashion, or tennis rackets, you'd probably hear the term "badass" thrown around too. ;)

Yes, it was one sentence in a much longer piece. But I take issue with it because it perpetuates a pretty horrible stereotype of gamers. The phrase "power fantasies of shy geeks" portrays the image of a societally impotent loser who needs to delve into a fantasy land to manufacture some semblance of self worth, by pretending s/he's a super hero or elven arch-mage. Many "geek pass-times" throughout the years have been subject to this, from comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, Star trek, fantasy literature, and video games.

Gamasutra does a lot to work against stereotypes, gender inequality, and developer quality of life issues. It seems like the last place we should be complacent about this sort of gamer stereotype.

Brad Borne
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@sean Man, this has really gotten me thinking. I'm almost certain now that 'power fantasy' is a completely inaccurate and irrelevant way to describe video games.

I mean, why would you think that in the first place? Because you're shooting someone in the head? Is that power? Not in the context of the game it isn't. 'Killing' someone in a game holds no meaning, they'll respawn and kill you seconds later. Killed an NPC? Reload your game and they'll be right back. The 'fantasy' part of that means that the action in game is a substitution for one in real life. As in, 'in this game you can press A to climb a mountain, because climbing a mountain means you're super powerful!' But in a game, power is judged by overcoming problems by the standard of the game itself. If you feel powerful after climbing a mountain in game, it's because it was freaking hard to climb that mountain in the game.

Games may be easier to put time, effort, and skill into than real life, but being able to feel powerful by thrashing an opponent in a fighting game means you ARE POWERFUL, you're really good at that fighting game, you have mastery over its systems, you have defeated your opponent.

Having a lot of money in a game makes you feel powerful not because it's a substitute for having money in real life, but because you can now buy things in game.

Is this why developers are putting QTEs in games? Because they think that gamers are really playing their games to Press A To Power?

Bah, sorry for the tangent...

sean lindskog
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First off, I should say that I appreciate Leigh's article, and all her work here. It's always a good read.

There is an analogy between music and games. How fundamentally they are good things. How sometimes they suck, because of bad advertising/hype/subject matter. Sometimes sex, power, money, and bigotry takes its grip on it.

It's interesting to look at how games and music cross, as Leigh has done here.

But let's be careful not to paint all gamers with the same broad stroke. Perhaps it wasn't Leigh's intention to do so. Maybe just a poor choice of words in an otherwise excellent piece.

@Brad - well said! I think QTEs are exactly where Hollywood cinema goes wrong in games.

Michael Joseph
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" bleak and unsettling as we must admit "I Won" is, at the moment I can't think of any other video game with two black male playable leads and so many ethnically-diverse women, so there you go."

beginning of the games' blacksploitation era? probably/hopefully not... but who knows. Some see current day r&b, hip-hop and rap as types of blacksploitation products.

Michael DeSantiago
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Imma let you finish but.. Beyonce had one of the best music video games of all time.

Alan Barton
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@"The swagger, the big money, the big guns ... one of West's gifts to his new wife included a 'regal' portrait ... called "Perfect Bitch""

Evidently this guy isn't a role model ... although like all of his kind, he tries to pretend he is. Frankly he is a classic Narcissist, as in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), e.g.

"a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and to others in the process." ... " First formulated in 1968, NPD was historically called megalomania, and is a form of severe egocentrism."

Narcissists are thankfully a small minority of the population.

@"while games' younger history knits closely with the (less important, of course) power fantasies of shy geeks."

Where to begin. *less important* ... *power fantasies* ... *shy geeks*

The other side of Narcissistic behaviour is the Narcissist seeks to make others appear less powerful and so less important. Narcissists don't like it that others can and often are better than them at a given subject, so the Narcissists put others down. Which also explains the "shy geek" derogatory crap we get in society (and much of that shyness (often found in younger "geeks"), is in direct response to considerable abuse, often over years from Narcissists, until the "geeks" learn to see through the lies and manipulation spread in society by the Narcissists).

Geeks don't need power fantasies, they already have power (if only more would realise it) and ever more are learning they really have power. The fact is geeks throughout history have changed the world and continue to change the world and many "geeks" in this generation in many industries are learning how to become very rich indeed. Frankly computers increasingly control the world and geeks control what the computers can do! So its no wonder some geeks are learning to get rich and powerful.

Its also no wonder the inherently insecure Narcissistic people try to make "geeks" feel bad about themselves, because the Narcissists can't compete with geeks on knowledge of subjects, so the Narcissists instead use shallow lies and manipulation to try to make themselves appear more important. But now we have the Internet ever more people can increasingly see through these shallow obnoxious Narcissistic people for what they really are.

Meanwhile, more geeks will learn how to get rich and powerful. Its already happening.