“I think they shouldn’t be able to spell those kinds of words or customize anything racist or bigoted [on the NBA2K platform]. They shouldn’t be able to customize anything racist.”
– Jessica Adams 

During the long days before the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, as most Americans adhered to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, people everywhere turned to some of their favorite pastimes to fill the hours.

One Friday in mid-May, Los Angeles resident Marlon Bivens and a couple of his close friends met online to pass a couple of hours playing NBA2K20 on Sony PlayStation®.

According to sales data accrued by the statistics company Statista, between the years 2007 and 2018, PlayStation® remains America’s most popular game console, selling more than five million consoles in 2018 alone.

The gaming console industry has exploded internationally since it first entered the market in 1972. Also, according to Statista, “[T]he console gaming industry collectively, regularly sells tens of millions of units throughout their lifespan, as players everywhere compete in everything from virtual sports to medieval fantasies.”

Bivens is among those gamers who enjoys virtual sport competition, and as a result, he was surprised and angered by what he and his friends experienced while gaming that day. The anger stemmed from the image of the opposing team members who popped onto his screen as the competition began. He immediately called out to his finance, Jessica Adams, to bear witness and capture a screen shot of what appeared. 

Before the competition started, Bivens and his friends decided to play as a team, identified themselves as the Boot Steppers, and logged on to play the popular NBA2K20 sports game.

When NBS2K20 was introduced in 2019, it had the biggest launch of any sports game in history and during the first month it was on the market, quickly became the best-selling game of the year.

Explaining the basics Adams, who is not an avid gamer herself but understands the fundamentals  of how NBA2K works said, “You can play live on an open court or you can play where you don’t choose your opponent(s) and instead they are randomly assigned to you.”

She continued, “You can make your own avatars, you can make them look just like you. You can choose their hairstyle, their skin color, whether they have tattoos or not,” she explained. “You can play with famous players like Michael Jordan or whoever you choose. And, you can customize your avatars’ outfits down to their shoes, their shirts, their shorts.”

On the day in question, Bivens and his friend decided to play live against a randomly selected opponent. They waited patiently on the court for the opposing team to appear, and when it did according to Adams, Bivens and his teammates—all three African-American—were caught totally off guard. After doing a double take Bivens exclaimed, “Wait a minute, look at that!” anger rising as he spoke.

Bevins has been a fan of video gaming for years and played online an untold number of times but according to Adams, this was the first time he ever confronted such overt racism.

What Adams witnessed has stayed with her. “I’m upset because of everything that was on their outfits,” Adams recalled.

Screaming out from their avatars’ game shirts in bold white lettering was the word, ‘Nigger’ Their shirts included the Nike swoosh logo and a distorted image of a Black male head and face.

The absurdity of the outfits did not end with the t-shirts. Their shorts displayed the lettering of Popeyes Fried Chicken and the backs of their shirts (not pictured) featured Kentucky Fried Chicken. Possibly even more egregious was their team name, “Irish Monkeys.”

Moved to action by what she observed Adams said, “I took pictures of the screen, posted it on social media, and tagged the video game company, various sports channels like ESPN, the NBA channel, etc. and the companies whose logos were used like  KFC’s and Popeyes.”

“I thought they would want to know what their logos were being used for and I still haven’t received a response.” Adding, “I would think they would not want their company’s logos used that way.  I thought if anyone would pick up the story, the  NBA channel would, because of all the famous players used in the game.” 

Adams went on to advocate for consequences for such abuse and overt racism for a product enjoyed by young and old. “I think they shouldn’t be able to spell those kinds of words or customize anything racist or bigoted [on the NBA2K platform]. They shouldn’t be able to customize anything racist.”

Adams believes, and others will probably agree, if a gamer tries to spell something racist on the game, it should raise a red flag or stop you. The player should get flagged or reported. “There should be some kind of controls,” Adams stated adamantly.

According to Adams the way the game is currently set up players can put anything on the uniform of his/her avatar. “There should be some keywords that would be blocked in a way that prevents players from using them.”

She also expressed passionate concern for young game players who may get exposed to such racist images.

Though research shows the core gaming age group for PlayStation® is among those between 18-25 years of age, research also shows there are children as young as six or seven who play as well.

Most perceive her point as an important one since the game appears to definitely be targeted to youth as evidenced by an announcement in March of this year touting how NBA2K20 added a Make-A-Wish character in the game using a 15-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient as a playable athlete.

In addition, and surprisingly, the game is rated “E for Everyone” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings to consumer video games. ESRB assigned this rating despite the game having digital slot machines and gambling in certain modes.

How often do such racist images appear exposing children to this toxicity of racism remains uncertain.

The incident which triggered the concerns of Bivens and Adams occurred at a time when tensions in the Black community were high in the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor by police in Kentucky as they served a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night for an individual who did not live at her address and whom police already had in their custody, in addition to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot dead by “pattyrollers” in Georgia as he jogged.

Though Adams made a good faith effort to bring awareness to this issue by notifying those whom she believed had the authority to make a change. No one responded.

The Black Voice News also reached out to Sony who made the PlayStation® system without success.

Adams and Bivens shared this mutual experience in the days and weeks before the grotesque murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His loss has raised awareness of the critical dangers for Blacks in America—especially Black men, resulting from a long history of covert and overt racism.

Perhaps in the wake of Floyd’s death, corporations associated with the computer video game industry, as well as the various national sports leagues who allow the images of players to be used on these gaming platforms to their benefit, will respond to the calls of Adams and Bivens to implement much needed content controls on their products.

The Black Voice News reached out to the maker of NBA2K20, Visual Concepts, through its public relations firm Premiere Communications, and is awaiting their response.

Header Photo:  Screen shot of Irish Monkeys (Photo courtesy of Jessica Adams)