One day after school, I was hanging out with some friends in the student parking lot when I heard I song I didn’t recognize. This was particularly unusual. We were in the middle of the Tunechi dynasty, and at the time nobody at my southern high school was playing anything other than Lil Wayne. The song was loud and abrasive, and the lyrics were indecipherable. The driver told us the song was by an upstart rapper named Waka Flocka Flame. We quickly dismissed the song as an aberration, and scoffed at Mr. Flame’s misunderstanding of the standard of hip-hop.
The next day, we discovered that Pitchfork had given Waka Flocka Flame’s latest album an 8.0— a prestigious score, by our standards. A favorite activity of ours was to gather before school and critique reviews on Pitchfork. Our discussions would often bypass the music altogether, and focus on the politics of the score itself. We were surprised that a publication of their integrity could possibly applaud a record showing such blatant disregard for the foundations of hip-hop.
With hindsight I recognize this as a pivotal moment for my cultural literacy. It put me on a track of seeking out works I didn’t understand and recognizing that the extent of my knowledge of a medium was not a dead end, but a barrier worth tearing down.
Why are videogames and hip-hop lightning rods for conversations about authenticity?
When I got into games a couple of years ago, I found out that these same arguments were happening over here. Being an outsider into this culture I was provided a bit of perspective. Hearing people complain about the review scores for Gone Home, or whether Proteus had the right to call itself a game, filled me with a certain familiar discomfort. It was the same nausea I felt when people would say Lil Yachty shouldn’t call himself a rapper, or whether Future’s mumbling disqualifies him from joining rap’s elite. This led me to a particular question: why are videogames and hip-hop lightning rods for conversations about authenticity?
Games and hip-hop go way back. They both have a symbiotic relationship that can’t be passed off as coincidence. Some of the biggest rappers in the history of the genre have sampled videogame soundtracks, including Drake, OutKast, A$AP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa and MF DOOM. Kanye West samples game soundtracks no less than 5 times on The Life of Pablo. Kanye was quoted as saying the title of his next album will be Turbografx 16.
Videogames and hip-hop both came into public consciousness around the same time. The Atari 2600 was released in North America in 1977, and Rapper’s Delight by Sugar Hill Gang came out in 1980. Audiences for both mediums skewed younger— which meant that the general public often misunderstood their nuance. This misunderstanding came to a head in 1994, when the US government responded to a moral panic about Mortal Kombat by threatening to regulate videogames. These policies were echoed an event from a few years prior, when the Parental Advisory label debuted on 2 Live Crew’s album Banned in the USA.
Fans of both hip-hop and videogames were challenged to prove their hobby’s cultural legitimacy. This situation created a hostile and insular following. Today, this attitude shows up whenever someone mentions that every hip-hop song should prioritize skilled rhyming, or that games should have explicit win states. It’s functionally the same defense mechanism. Fans and artists alike were asking the general public to respect how they spend their time. They were not asking them to fully understand, just give their mediums the same respect as any other. A straightforward request, I worked hard to build this space. Please don’t tear it down.
However, games and hip-hop are both fundamentally opposed to structure. By their very nature, they encourage creators to subvert genre and guideline. Hip-hop was created out of a need to tell stories that couldn’t fit the mold of a rock or funk song. The crux of a videogame is individual player expression in a virtual space. They are both fueled by individual interpretation.
What drew me from hip-hop to games is that there wasn’t a wrong way to play them. No two people will have the same experience with a game. The fact that two people can play the same game and enjoy it for totally different reasons provokes much more interesting discussions than if every game were judged on identical criteria.
The onus is not on games to prove the form has the capacity to create these moments.
Being open to experimental projects has allowed me to have experiences with games did I did not think were possible. Davey Wreden’s work (The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide) has facilitated conversations about metatext and author-audience relationships, which at the time I did not think games were capable of. If I hear of a game that is narrative focused, I don’t write it off as someone trying to push a square peg into a round hole. I give it a chance, knowing games’ unique brand of storytelling provides enriching experiences that novels and films cannot. The onus is not on games to prove the form has the capacity to create these moments. It is on me to seek out these works, and give them an honest chance to be successful. Only then will we see what the medium is capable of, and players can only benefit from affirmed forward-thinking developers.
Games and hip-hop have taught me it’s always better to say yes. Allowing myself to have those times of momentary misunderstanding have always yielded rewarding results. Don’t ask why Lil Yachty’s music should be considered hip-hop— saying yes and seeing what happens will yield more interesting results. Don’t make Dear Esther prove it’s a game. Allow it to be, and see what comes next. Take it from someone who used to stress over that stuff: you’ll have a lot more fun that way.