Street ball games offer entre to the world behind hip-hop

In the hip-hop underground, you earn respect by deejaying to reveal your musical knowledge, emceeing to cleverly pass along your world view, working with a crew to promote concerts and unity and creating graffiti art that honors past struggles and brightens your community. Hip-hop is more than music and clothes.

CDs and music videos carried images of the hip-hop world beyond the black and Latino communities that created the lifestyle, and now a growing number of "urbanized" video games have picked up the torch.

While excelling at digital versions of street hoops or sandlot football or urban soccer won't get you street cred, playing this new generation of hip-hop influenced titles connects suburbanites and urbanites alike to the inner city's mystique.

"NBA Ballers," a new video game from Midway, is the latest title to mix a high-profile sport with an anything-goes street flair. The goal is to accumulate enough skill and money to win a mansion worthy of "MTV Cribs." Games such as "Ballers" emphasize fun over realism and take place in make-believe neighborhoods that are gritty but not desolate.

Midway picks up the ball from EA Sports, which evolved the trend with "NBA Street, Vol. 1," expanded it with "NBA Street, Vol. 2" and redirected it with a football version titled "NFL Street."

In urbanized games, the battlefields usually are weed-strewn patches of grass surrounded by concrete walls awash in graffiti, or cracked blacktops that sprout rickety basketball stanchions or soccer goals.

Your television speaker throbs with hip-hop beats, while your on-screen character taunts the opposition as he delivers acrobatic dunks, bone-rattling tackles or screaming penalty kicks.

While the games peek into a fanciful vision of the black-and-Latino world of urban hip-hop, the titles aren't attempts to bridge cultural gaps; they're attempts to sell cool in the way that other games sell the adventure of a quest or the thrill of close-quarters combat.

"White or black, we're in a hip-hop generation," says Kevin Grace, a University of Cincinnati adjunct professor and archivist whose research interest is in the social history of sports, including marketing, media, violence, race and gender. "Street ball combines music, fashion and the showiness of urban culture. That sort of approach to life finds its way into sports and video games, into our leisure activities."

Randy Nelson, editor of the independent PlayStation Magazine, adds, "Urban sports games emphasize things that connect with today's youth, emphasizing roughness like elbowing, harder tackles, hits after tackles, but you also see sarcasm and a lot of trash-talking. . . . The main focus is `Screw the rules.'"

Urbanized games make up "a whole subcategory to the subgenre of sports games," Nelson adds. "What's going to be next? I'm surprised someone hasn't done an urbanized street baseball game."

Grace has a theory about that.

"Football, basketball and soccer lend temselves to flashy moves," he says. "There's a lot of room for individual creativity. Baseball is not given to individualism. You can't do much individualistically to field the ball or you're going to muff it."

And it's that individual creativity that sells the games -- elements of class and race aside.

"The `urbanization' of sports video games has more to do with the age-old trend to appeal to a broader market than a true `urbanization' of the genre," says Sean McCann, director of games marketing for Aspyr Media.

That's true of other lifestyle games, such as the skateboarding and snowboarding crazes capitalized on by Activision's "Tony Hawk" series and EA Big's "SSX" titles, respectively.

"The vast majority of people who are passionate about [`SSX'] have never snowboarded," says Steve Rechtschafner, a producer for EA Big.

"For somebody living in a place where you don't have a street ball scene, [`NBA Street'] is a way to step into that scene. They may not have the skill to go out on the court and kick butt, but these are ways for people to creatively express themselves in a sports environment; it's not just buying shoes or clothes."


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