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Cecil Brown on Games Blacks Love to Play

Dr. Cecil Brown began his lecture Games Blacks Love to Play by citing Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 observation that the games people play mirror the surrounding culture. Brown uses this stance—that games teach us about the culture they come from—to explore the history of African Americans, the interplay between black and white play cultures, and the effect these diverse forms of play had on American culture at large.

Brown divided American history into three stages. First, slave culture, in which outdoor physical play predominates. Under slavery, blacks rarely learned to read and write, as punishment was having your hands cut off. Black culture, thus, was primarily oral and kinetic out of necessity. Second, segregated culture, characterized by dance. Thirdly, integrated culture, which our digital culture is a part.

Brown talked about a host of fascinating play phenomena that occurred under slavery in America. Black kids usually played with the children of their master, interestingly, but were not allowed to play with white kids from elsewhere. Slave children played a game called auction, where they enacted the auction of slaves as a game, enabling them to explore the drama of a slave auction and the strange idea of their own value. White kids often weren’t allowed to play, as they “weren’t worth anything.” Children’s play culture under slavery found a specific manifestation in the topsy-turvy doll, a handmade doll made with two halves, each representing a black or white girl. By flipping the dress over the head of one, you ended up with the other.

The folklorist Maude Minish Sutton looked at the topsy turvy relationship between a game played in white and black variations. In the black children’s game Old Man Hippety Hop, a mom must steal kids back from a slave master (Old Man Hippety Hop) with a limp. This game was adapted from Old Granny Hibble Hobble, a much older game in which the slave master is replaced with a witch (Old Granny Hibble Hobble). Brown claims that DJ Cool Herc, credited with originating hip hop music, adapted the name “hip hop” from an old southern woman who identified the play of these early hip hop parties as the Hippety Hop game from her childhood.

Alan Dundes, credited with establishing the academic study of folklore, and under whom Brown studied folklore as a PhD student at UC Berkeley, was hugely influenced by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp’s concept of folktalk morphology (Dundes wrote an introduction to the english language edition). Brown brought Dundes’s 1964 paper on games “On Game Morphology: A Study of the Structure of Non-verbal Folklore” to our attention, which seems to be a formal study of structural game patterns that prefigures the more recent work in game studies.

Brown aligned Dundes’s motifeme (a substitutable element in a story or game) with the frame and slot mechanism Janet Murray describes in Hamlet on the Holodeck. Brown argued that games, like folktales, are about the elimination of a lack. In games, the lack is often an absence of mastery that must be overcome by the player (rather than a lack overcome by a hero in a story). Elimination of a lack could also manifest itself as a social motive for engaging in play: impressing a girl at a dance, for example.

In the second historical stage, segregation, Brown identifies adult recreation such as jazz and dance as a form of play. Brown argues that Lindy Hop was a game—a form of play—for adults, that along with electricity, helped give rise to the American culture of night life. Just as the Beastie Boys would later appropriate and commercialize black hip hop culture for a white audience, Fred Astaire borrowed his performance from the Lindy Hop. Citing Joel Dinestein’s Swinging the Machine, Brown argued that African American culture (jazz and Lindy Hop, for example) aestheticized the rhythm and cacophony of the cities and machines of industrial era America. Rhythm imparted a human dimension to the machine.

Which brings us to the third and present historical stage, integration. Brown argues that hip hop group NWA revived the stereotype of the African American man as a brute. This theme, the demonization of blackness, has been amply commodified in popular video games and films. Brown argued that video games represent a turn towards a more kinetic and oral culture mode (McLuhan would surely agree), in which culture is transmitted and enacted in more verbal and kinetic modalities. The oral kinetic mode of play is explored in Kyra Grant’s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. Despite contemporary video games being dominated by a mass commercial culture, Brown’s observation on their kinetic nature feels true. Video games have imparted a human dimension to the computer, which, after all, is just a machine. The recent kinetic history of computer games—the Wii, Kinect, and Move—also reflects this observation. I can see another point of connection in the work of Doug Wilson (B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust), which is grounded in kinetic play—the action happens in physical space, between the bodies of players, and JSJ in fact has no screen—and the design of these games is self-consciously inspired and informed by folk play.

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