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How I feel about Sports Games

NBA Jam (via retrosection.com)

I like using Formspring. Every once in a while I’ll get an interesting question about video games and how I feel about them, which is incredibly gratifying/ego-stroking.

Sometimes I bluff, but sometimes it turns into this “thought experiment” prompt and I end up stream-of-consciousnessing some overwrought missive (look out! It’s how I actually write everything, ugh).

And very rarely am I so pleased with my Formspring answer, I might repost it here. (And then again, once in a great, great while I get a vaguely lewd question, but this happens not so often as you might think, which is nice.)

This afternoon, as I was hurriedly typing something about Adam Levine’s new record label, I received this question:

So we’ve established games are art. Are sports games (something like Madden ‘07 to pick a random one) art?

What a great question! It’s exactly the type of thing I plan to cop out on answering, too, because who can answer a thing like that? So I defy you to call my bluff. Below, the full text of my Formspring response:

Well, don’t pick a random one at all! Pick a specific one!

OK: Take ‘Sin City.’ I read the comic, didn’t like it. Thought it was very pretty; hated it. Right? So I already knew, going into the movie theater, that I wasn’t going to enjoy the movie in that regard, because I already don’t enjoy Frank Miller. (I’m not the hugest fan of the way Robert Rodriguez treats women in his movies, anyway.) Outcome: I enjoyed ‘Sin City’ HUGELY. After, I kept trying to understand why. And I realized the movie absolutely elevates “facsimile” to art.

A number of years ago a friend of mine was working on his Masters thesis in “themed environments”—I think his research is still ongoing, actually, even though he has his degree—and we talked a lot about simulacra, artifice, how the Tiki Room at Disney is like a video game, real surreal stuff. When he wasn’t working on his Masters, though, this cinephile liked to collect or make reproduction-quality movie props. Once I saw them I was totally obsessed with them, the same way I am obsessed with action figures and scale miniatures. You absolutely could not have convinced him these handmade movie props weren’t objets d’art, and as such I was not allowed to handle them.

You might think of any sports game as an attempt at a “scale miniature”—this genre is classed as a type of “simulation,” after all—and so a very good sports game might impress the same way a working model train, with all the bells and the smoke and the tooting, and then the little trees and motorized signs, might be riveting.

But that’s only facsimile, isn’t it. What does it take to elevate “facsimile” to “art”?

The last sports game I played with any real depth was probably ‘NBA Jam’ on SNES*, so I’m pretty far out of my element. But a lot of that game’s enjoyment comes from, it isn’t really a simulation at all, is it? I mean, it appropriates the functional design vocabulary of a “sports game,” but it hardly aspires to any sort of “realism.”

What about ‘Hot Shots Golf’? I’ve always called it a “Sunday game” because it is lazy and fun and nothing like a real PGA Tour. Then again, I’m not sure it constitutes “art,” but you know, at least it’s something different.

Similarly, while I like racing games, I do much better with games that delve into the fantastical—something like ‘Burnout,’ maybe something with a lot of blood and guts—than I do with, say, a NASCAR sim. These “fantastical” games willfully fudge the real-world physics of driving (which isn’t to say I haven’t managed to learn to execute a “drift” in my own car, because depending on the highway, I can, and good god I am probably going to kill myself sometime), but they do this while appropriating real-world architecture, like buildings and lights and sounds, all to ground the game in an accessible vocabulary. (Then you have F-Zero and wipEout which, ah, don’t. They don’t do this at all.)

So I don’t play enough “hard” simulation to readily assess whether a “scale miniature” can be the same thing as “art,” because I can’t (and why would I want to?). I CAN say that I recently watched ‘Moneyball’ and began to wonder whether games already apply the same kind of math to sports games. Wow!

But—and this is working from my experience as a person who avoids sports and “sports games” at any cost—I think you can add new, unlikely dynamics unto a “sports game” that really fundamentally change the experience from “artifice” and “simulacrum” into this new thing. Is the new thing “art”? Well, now we’d have to talk again about what art “is” and what art “does,” and no, thanks.

None of these ideas are very inventive, no, but that’s because you can apply them to all sorts of media and environments.

*this is a lie; I actually play a lot of soccer sims; for illustrative purposes, I lied.

P.S. After I tweeted about this, writer Nick LaLone recommended that I follow along on his Madden 2012 odyssey. With zeal, Mr. LaLone!

2 responses to “How I feel about Sports Games” »

  1. daveyjones says:

    indeed jenn i remember well our conversations regarding themerica. thanks for the shout out!

    • Jenn Frank says:

      a) I’m horrified and humiliated that you read this, but b) oh my gosh! Thank you for reading my blog, Dave! Also, c) I reference you and your Masters project pretty much any time I am gearing up to talk about simulacra and artifice, so. <3

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