Why It Matters That Steph Curry’s On-Court Awesome Is Missing in NBA 2K16

In a social environment where the movement of black people is produced through constant surveillance, Curry’s inability to be accurately transformed into a digital version is a powerful critique.

by Kara Melton on March 30th, 2016

Artistic shot of a video game controller.

Photo CC – BY Pawel Kadysz

Ima let you finish, but Steph Curry (is apparently) one of the greatest basketball players of all time. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an avid follower of the NBA, but the shooting prowess of the 6’3 point guard for the Golden State Warriors has caught the attention of fans and non-fans alike. Not only has Curry’s shot-making ability sparked dialogue on the evolution of 3-pointers in basketball, his excellence has baffled gamemakers of the popular basketball video game franchise NBA 2K. The ingame algorithm that sets the rules of the game has him bombing shots that he’s likely to make on the court.

Mike Wang, the gameplay director of NBA 2K, told Forbes:

“To be completely honest, we are still looking for ways to better translate his game into NBA 2K. He’s a ‘rule breaker’ when it comes to jump shooting … he becomes a problem in the video game world where we’ve been trying to train our gamers [to know] that certain types of shots should be rewarded versus others.”

In short – he’s so good that the video game developers can’t properly program his playing style.

This moment of programming collapse calls to mind three connected questions:

  1. How does Steph Curry’s gameplay help us think critically on the notion of neutral technology?
  2. How does this moment fit into a broader conversation on the surveillance of blackness and the racialization of surveillance practices?
  3. How does Steph Curry’s “un-programmability” help us celebrate black life?

On Neutral Tech

In a January 2015 article on neutral technology, Melissa Gregg and Jason Wilson write:

“We have more faith in the devices that augment our work and leisure than we do in other people, or even ourselves. Humans are understood to be unreliable witnesses compared to digital devices. Contemporary wisdom says that while people create anecdotes, devices create data.”

This quote points to the complicated ways technology (and the products of technological processes such as geomapping, fingerprint technology, and virtual assistants) are understood as unbiased forums for knowledge production and transmission. Gregg and Wilson suggest that this reproduces a binary where the experiences and narratives of the technology user are understood as not trustworthy while the seemingly reputable indicator of experience is produced by a piece of technology. Importantly, I’m also critical of any reversal of this dichotomy (i.e. humans as fundamentally good and technology as fundamentally bad). Instead, it is important to pay close attention to how the binary is constructed and what it reveals about social construction of humans and technology.

An analytics page showing graphs, pie charts and other data.

Photo CC – BY Negative Space

Arguments for technology as neutral tend to ignore the tangled relationships between historical processes of dispossession and knowledge that is considered “scientific” and “objective.” In effect, the notion of neutral technology erases the long history of violence that rests at the foundations of fields such as biology, chemistry, and computer science. From rationalizing the indigenous peoples of the Americas as non-human in order to facilitate land and labor exploitation, to reading hypersexuality on to the bodies of black women, the logics of these cultural cornerstones are often violently illogical. Neutral tech erases the role technology plays in reproducing and re-inscribing the stereotypes and assumptions that position some peoples closer to death.

Take, for example, the ways video games use narratives of anti-terrorism, patriotism, and freedom to produce storylines where brown people are subject to violence. While some suggest that video games are simply moments of play or even creative and engaging ways to tell new stories, we must pay careful attention to the ways in which particular bodies continually perform particular roles that recreate broader political fictions. In this case, the frequent violence against brown bodies in games like Call of Duty, which are often flagged through racist tropes as “The Arab,” serve to assuage the impact of the ongoing violence experienced by brown peoples through the same narratives of patriotism and freedom.

We must use a critical framework not only in moments of technological trouble, but also in moments deemed a success — even in the triumph of sports victory. How we use technology to share an experience or track a movement tells us about what stories and experiences we think are consumable and what types of bodies we think are valuable enough to track. The production of these tools, the types of problems they do and don’t address, the narratives they do or don’t reproduce provide intimate notes on our social structures. If you’re reading these instances as neutral then you’re likely not paying close enough attention to the text.

If Call of Duty pushes us to think on Islamophobia and state violence then NBA 2K encourages a critique on mobility, masculinity, able-bodiedness, and labor. The discussion that follows pays particular attention to black mobility and the biometric technologies that attempt to surveille, and therefore control, black life.

On Biometrics and Surveillance

Dr. Simone Browne’s 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness is pivotal reading on the (re)production of black bodies in digital spaces.

“I suggest here that we come to think of the concept of digital epidermalization [the moment in which the body is made black through the gaze] when we consider what happens when certain bodies are rendered into digitized code, or at least when attempts are made to render some bodies a digitized code. By digitized code I am referring to the possibilities of identification that are said to come with certain biometric information technologies, where algorithms are the conceptual means through which the body, or more specifically, arts, pieces, and, increasingly, performances of the body are mathematically coded as data, making unique templates for computers to then sort…”

Through Dr. Browne’s work, we can read NBA 2K as an effort in biometric surveillance. Players are transformed into controllable characters through a combination of 3D motion tracking and 3D software. Sensors are placed along the body and, as the player moves, the specific location and position of each sensor is tracked. Additional tools, such as an accelerometer and gyroscope, add more data. These processes effectively transform players’ ‘live’ movement into data points that can be reproduced in a digital setting.

In her book, Browne asks us to think through the ways in which surveillance as a system is racialized. She calls upon historic systems designed to police black mobility in order to connect chattel slavery to the ongoing organization and monitoring of the black body. Her intervention: it is this monitoring of blackness that undergirds our current surveillance projects. Accepting Browne’s intervention means the project of coding Curry is a racialized practice that harkens back to the system of chattel slavery. In an effort to make his performance on the court knowable, repeatable, and playable, there’s a notable recreation of the same projects that monitored the mobility of slaves. Thinking on the slave pass system, which required slaves to carry identification that gave permission for movement off the plantation space, Browne tells us:

“In the plantation system, the restriction of the mobility and literacy of the enslaved served as an exercise of power. The racializing surveillance of the slave pass system was a violent regulation of black mobilities. On and off the plantation, black mobility needed to be tightly regulated in order for slave owners to maintain control…”

These quotes highlight the ways in which black mobility serves as a powerful threat to the systems that we use to make sense of society. Specifically, unfettered and unorderly black mobility threatens the “logical” and “rational” systems or organization that we engaged with earlier. It makes space for a powerful refusal of those narratives, and, as a result, confronts the violent surveillance practices designed to erase black life. In a game that profits off the repeatable and consumable control of character movement, and, disproportionately the control of the mobility of black men, this glitch is an important disruption: Curry’s excellence refuses the routinization of this surveillance.

More importantly, it shows us how such unfettered mobility can disrupt the mundane profiteering that accompanies surveillance of black people. As we see again and again, the apparently errant or “inappropriate” movements of black peoples met with police and other forms of state violence, Curry’s mobility is a moment of potential. Importantly, I want to avoid a total valorization of Curry. This article is about him, but it’s not only about him. This is a useful moment of analysis, but I do want to avoid these conversations solidifying around Curry and others like him. As a point of critique, his mobility is a particularly gendered, classed, and requires the able-bodiedness and physical excellence that reproduces stereotypes of the super-magical-black-athlete. While keeping these intersections in mind, Curry’s movement highlights the ways in which these seemingly static systems of dispossession are actually incredibly fragile.

On Celebrating Black Life

Wide, sweeping shot of people playing basketball on an outdoor court at sunset.

Photo CC – BY Mateo Paganelli

In an environment where we’re reminded of the ways in which surveillance mediates many of our interactions, this an important moment of navigation or, returning to Browne, it’s a moment where the watched is looking back. It’s my argument that, in a social environment where the movement of black people is produced through constant surveillance, Curry’s inability to be accurately transformed into a digital version is a powerful critique. It highlights the complicated role of technology in reproducing our social structures and systems, and is a powerful reminder not of the ways in which surveillance technology has failed, but, instead, of the ways in which these technologies were perhaps never designed to support black life.

Returning to Gregg and Wilson:

“But no technological fix can remedy the inequalities that underly police violence against young black men. A camera might be able to record interactions, but it can’t arrest the ingrained prejudices that lead to racial profiling to begin with — the same prejudices that find their way into Taser’s advertising material. The video featured on Evidence.com shows a black suspect being chased.”

Undoubtedly, NBA 2K will eventually account for the caliber of Curry’s game, but, right now, we’re watching something important. After all, we’ve been able to properly program floating fortresses and complicated crafting sets, but Steph Curry’s jumpshot? No way.