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Why soccer games?


Two nights ago I went to a small book-release party for a writer called Adam Levin (he wrote a book called The Instructions, and his new book is called Hot Pink). I didn’t know most people there, but I did know Adam, Adam, and Ben. I was very socially nervous.

So I was sitting in the Rainbo next to a person who had introduced himself earlier as Carson, and now he was turning in the booth to ask whether I were also a writer.

After a long think I blurted “Yes!” and this made Carson laugh, because I really had been having trouble deciding, in the moment, whether I might also be one. Carson wanted to know what kind of writing, and I told him games writing, which is to say, writing about video games and game culture. Carson asked me whom I’ve written for, and I told him about a magazine from awhile ago, and he was very impressed.

“But I don’t do that now,” I corrected myself in a hurry. “There are other types of games writing, instead of news or scores.”

Carson was frowning now, and he wondered if there were any particular genres I play. This was a much harder question. “No,” I said finally. “And you?”

“FIFA,” he said. “Only FIFA games.”

I laughed, and I told him that I hate sports games except for soccer, and now I was pulling my cell phone out of my bag to show Carson an anonymous Formspring question I had received lately, which was in response to my stupid dumb thing about sports video games. The question reads:

Why soccer games?

So I showed that question to him. Carson became animated.

“I’ll tell you why!” he said.

“Tell me,” I said, a little helplessly.

“Because you have control over all the players!” he said. “So there’s more room for strategy because you can control every individual on the team.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, propping up my head with the heel of my hand. “Sure, and I think that’s actually why I keep talking about how much I love NBA Jam. For SNES?”

“Yeah!” Carson agreed. “There are only two players to each team, right? And you can control both players?”

“Passes, layups, yeah. Also,” I said, lifting my head and adjusting in the booth, “there’s something about other sports games that’s a little too much like ‘brackets.’ I am not interested in brackets.”

“What about those weird sports management games, though,” Carson suggested. “Have you ever played any of those?”

“No, but—” I said.

“I hate them,” he said.

“Well, after I watched Moneyball,” I said, “I started to think that kind of math was really interesting, and I began to wonder whether you could put that sort of strategy into a game.”

“Oh, hmm,” he said, nodding.

Later Carson wanted to talk about video games writing. I had just been regaling Adam—the other Adam, not the one with the book—with an abbreviated history of pinball in Chicago. (Pinball was illegal for many years here because it was a “game of chance.”)

I lost a game of CSI pinball and sat down on a couch.

“So what type of writing?” Carson asked me.

I tried hard to describe a type of writing.

Uh, experiential*, uh, a diarist’s, um, essays about, um, hmm, uh, they uh, hmm.

“Kind of like how Grantland is with sports writing,” Carson said, nodding.

I shuddered at the idea because it is so uncool to like Grantland anymore, but then I nodded anyway, because, yes.

“I’ve talked about this with a few sports writers, now,” I told Carson, “and although I have almost zero interest in sports, I have decided sports writing is the thing most like writing about games.”

“Sure!” Carson agreed.

“I mean, even the cereal box writing, it all falls distinctly within the purview of what’s called ‘enthusiast press.’”

“Well, there’s also a lot of sports writing,” Carson said carefully, “about the feeling of, ah, of watching a game.”

For a moment he was silent.

“People really do think they can interact with a game,” Carson said thoughtfully. “Like, a game on TV. They make sure to watch from their favorite seat in their favorite bar, or they’ll wear a lucky jersey.”

I nodded. “That’s true. My birth-dad always wore his lucky 49ers baseball cap.”

Rituals, superstitions.

“It’s a little bit crazy,” Carson said, “to think that you can influence a game or… or somehow exert this control over its outcome.

“Here’s something,” Carson continued without taking a full breath. “Do you think that people who play video games are a little, uh, sociopathic?”

I looked at him. I started laughing.

“Um,” I said, looking around.

“What,” he said.

“Um,” I said, laughing harder and wiping my eyes. “I had a conversation very much like this a few days ago.”

“Well, because,” Carson who plays only FIFA said, adjusting on the couch so that he could lean forward, “just that need to dominate something so completely, to have that kind of control over something, over all the other characters.”

I laughed again. “I’m… I’m not sure that’s sociopathic. Or, you can maybe also control your environment, too, depending on the game. Isn’t that a human thing to want? Like, ah, we’re all a little… helpless. And if games are about escapism, or an illusion of agency….”

On March 2, I was standing with a Berliner as his friends were playing Foozball. My friend Robyn was standing a little distance away with another man, and I kept stealing peeks at her, trying to decide whether she needed to be rescued. She seemed OK.

“You know,” I said to the Berliner, “we call the actual game ‘soccer,’ but isn’t it interesting that we call that,” and I pointed at the table, “Foozball. Like, Fussball.”

“Not really,” he said, totally unimpressed with my hobbyist etymology. Then he added, “Here’s something interesting, though. At home we call it Tischkicken.”

“Table kicking,” he and I said together.

Actually, neither of us were being terribly interesting, because I guess depending on where you live, it is sometimes called Tischfussball.

I watched his Berlin friends play Foozball for a while, and then I excused myself.

When I was talking to Carson two nights ago, I began thinking about how, especially in 8- and 16-bit games, you can control all the players as one, as if they all spatially share this one axis. I started thinking about that, and about the Foozball table, about how so many players on a Foozball table might share only so many axes.

And you don’t have absolute control over each player on a Foozball table—you have a kind of relative control instead, and then there are all these gutters for a soccer ball to slip through or between, as if Foozball were a little like pinball.

I think this was the idea Carson had been hinting at all night: that gamers are a strange bunch, that wanting “absolute” control instead of “relative” control is some type of personality disorder, that it might be healthier to stick with Foozball.

*Yeah, I realize this isn’t a fully-formed piece of writing at all, so you can just knock it off with your snark this instant.

6 responses to “Why soccer games?” »

  1. Will says:

    Why soccer games? Here’s my take, and it all comes down to how we support the game in real life – and specifically ‘why’ we support it. I was asked a little while ago by a friend why, at 11pm at night, it was so crucial that I find a bar playing a live match when the team I supported was on the other side of the world. The answer I offered him, coupled with the timing of your blog, seem a decent match.

    It’s because the team we pick, if it isn’t because of a local, born-into-it reason, appeals to us in some other way. Whether it be because of a certain player or the way in which the team as well as the club as a whole conducts itself, there is an inherent ‘value’ we place in selecting that team, and hence adopting an identity. Take, for instance, FC Barcelona at the moment, how proud the Catalans are not only of how great the team is – but also how that continued greatness is a further reminder of how Catalonia is separate from Spain, despite Barca playing in the Spanish league. Similarly, Athletic Bilbao take local pride to a whole new level in only ever allowing Basque-born players into the side, casting a recruitment net over a mere 2-million or so population. This morning (my time – those darned European kick offs, again) they have comprehensively beaten Manchester United again over a two-legged knockout tie, further endearing themselves to the world and anti-Man Utd supporters. Another thing Barca and Bilbao have shared: their style of play, which serves to further help define their very essence – where another greater goal is that playing beautifully, as far as aesthetics go, is just as important – if not more so – as winning.

    I could go on forever about this, but I’ll just bring this comment to a close by stating that, certainly, soccer games allow the player to implement their own ‘beliefs’ of the sport via their control of the real life player’s digital counterparts. And yes, it is quite disturbing, but I’d offer that at least it’s in a rather safe, OCD manner, and only really spills over when we concede ‘crap’ goals from mistakes or corners, etc. That OCD grabs hold of our deepest, most intimate ‘relations’ with our team, and allow us to act out those associations. As an example, my favourite ever player was the magical Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp, and when I was in control of him in the older Pro Evo games (superior to FIFA, as my tribalistic self would offer), he HAD to play the way he did in real life – with intelligence, technique, and grace. In controlling him, I had become Dennis, and this role-playing aspect of the soccer game extended all the way through to the rest of the team. I had become Arsenal…and I was winning the European Cup like they never did, instead making it happen because they utterly DESERVED it.

    (So maybe there’s a deeper psychological spin to things: righting perceived wrongs?)

    Playing Foozball, on the contrary, just doesn’t offer enough of a means of imparting that mental obsession for perfection. The formations are too rigid, if you will. Not hands-on enough. But I do admit that that is the first time I’ve heard it called ‘Foozball’.

    As for the management games, wow…hopefully my attempts at explaining my obsession, at least, has been decent – and if so, a quick synopsis of that genre would be taking that control we desire and replacing it with a full time, unpaid job, where the lust for achievement and imparting our knowledge in a very parental kind of way is allowed to dangerously blossom in utterly unhealthy manifestations. There was always that urban legend that at least 3 divorce cases in England per year have been down to the influence of the old ‘Championship Manager’ series, and though I’m not sure how true that is – I believe it a 100%. And if people think we soccer game fans are batty – I’d fully recommend reading something on the real life coach Marcelo Bielsa (this is a good start: http://www.guardian.co.uk/foot.....ter-united), who is – in some sort of opposite twist in the fan-control dynamic – essentially a representation of us.

    Cheers for the blog, Jenn.

  2. Will says:

    Oh yes, and there also another point in my (long-winded) answer to that friend’s question about the sport being a narrative in its own right, complete with pantomime villains and honourable heroes, David vs Goliath moments, even good conquering evil – and how when we play those soccer games, we become the authors of that narrative. Anyway, thanks again!

    • Jenn says:

      OK: this count is interesting, because this is how we often describe the theater of wrestling. I can get down with this.


    So here’s the deal: I don’t understand why people look at games and are so struck by the type of compulsion and neurosis it ‘feeds’ on, as a medium, when you take into consideration that society as a whole ‘moves forward’ (or, haphazardly…grows…) due to that very neurosis. After all, what else is science and technology fueled by? A desire for utter control, down to even the most minute aspects of what make us human, to the larger world around us. And speaking on a more personal level, ain’t nobody want, say, a tool that only gives them a bit of control over something. You want efficiency. You want output.

    This is the legacy that Frederick Taylor has left us. He’s the guy that went into a factory and timed every action with a stopwatch to determine what the most optimal means of output where, and it was that that truly launched the Industrial Revolution. So then: we have a societal underpinning that demands that we are cognizant of minutia because without it, we’re not a very productive member of society, are we?

    Games know this. Is that what makes them so repulsive? An active embrace of a desire that’s frankly sort of creepy? I mean, I’m not going to contest that it’s creepy, because it is. I’m just saying, let’s not act as if this is some weird anomaly of the medium, I personally see them as the logical side-effect of a Taylorist society – he created a reality that we regularly systemize for efficiency. And what are games other than systems that are meant to be optimized?

    As an aside, it’s exactly this that both pulls me and repels me from games. Like, I hate how they’re basically a power fantasy that allows kingdoms to rise and fall at your whim because I feel that it’s that hubris that makes people in real life go “HEY LET’S BLOW UP THE OCEAN TO SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING INSTEAD OF JUST CHANGING OUR FUCKING HABITS.”

    Anyway hopefully this isn’t all nonsense.

  4. Will says:

    *Game context: *

    Let’s take the Sega and Nintendo rivalry of the 90s =) Where instead of being that FIFA player taking control of a team, we play the role of the ‘general manager’ of either company. Instead of those individual players, this time we control the games themselves, with all their little attributes and imperfections at our full disposal, and where titles such as Sonic and Mario have since come to define each company as the star player/captain.

    *Real life context: *

    For Sega fans, we love what Treasure, Sonic Team, Yu Suzuki, etc have done for ‘us’ – that ‘us’ being an extension of everything that Sega stand for. We hate Nintendo because Sega want us to hate Nintendo, and have always wanted us to do – that’s our motto, that’s what will dictate what games we play, and that’s how we’ll behave around Nintendo fans. With our fingers. Sega becomes our identity, and we share all the ups and downs as if they’re family. When the Dreamcast failed, it was like a death in the family. As Sega members, we take pride in mature games – not the kiddy stuff Nintendo come up with. Shenmue 3 is still yearned for and reminisced with a wistful smile, and even though reality has caught up and you know, deep down, it probably won’t ever be released, that sentiment and hope remains.

    *Completely random aside: Kickstarter!

    So now, back to the game context:

    Picking up that controller, we’re now playing that game where we control Sega: the company as a whole. You get to call all the shots, and you want to do it right. In this game you even allow yourself to go back in time a bit. Moving the goalposts, even. We know Sonic games do well during Xmas release, so we choose to release it then for maximum effect. So Nintendo is bringing out Donkey Kong Country with it’s fancy graphics, eh? Well we’ve got Sonic 3D Blast and it’s even better! Under your control, the Dreamcast will not fail. And you know what else, let’s develop Shenmue 3, because that’s what Sega deserves… we’ve worked so hard with this team of games we’ve made over the years, and that success is where we should be. And we will still, never ever, do kiddy games, because that isn’t who we are. As for Nintendo? Fingers. We make our own IPs, we don’t buy them off like they do… (soccer equivalent: Athletic Bilbao and their home-grown players again, compared to, say, one with a billionaire owner)

    Maybe ultimately, then, the soccer game really is about fulfilling the ‘truth’ of one’s identity – deluded or not (and more often than not, definitely deluded). That control we have is akin to if fans took charge of Sega, to make the right decisions compared to the actual CEOs back in the day who did not. It’s about gaining recognition for the beliefs you stand up for, if only in order to feel justified for standing up for them in the first place. It’s about the bloody, uncensored Mortal Kombat Sega-version being better in all ways than the Nintendo equivalent, and having people not dispute that. For Yu Suzuki to finally be seen as important to gaming as Miyamoto is, which is his right. To ‘win’ is to settle the argument, once and for all, to rewrite that story with the happy ending, with each and every one of those games/players you’re in charge of – the defenders and the attackers, Afterburner and Streets of Rage – succeeding as they should in order to contribute to the greater team unit that goes on to lift the trophy.

    And then along comes Sony (equivalent: formerly irrelevant team but now one armed with a billionaire owner who’s going to buy all the best players in the world – totally going against the ‘honour’ of the sport) and the rivalry continues forever and ever.

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