I like sports.
I like video games.
Why is it that, no matter how hard I have tried, I cannot bring myself to like sports video games?
As I discussed last week, I can barely call myself a casual girl-gamer (if I bash you over the head with reminders of my femininity, I apologize in advance). Sports, however, are a different matter entirely. I played sports growing up. I watch televised sports at least once a week. I love baseball, and basketball and football are growing on me every day. Under the right circumstances I have even been known to enjoy a televised game of soccer, lacrosse, hockey, or volleyball. So why -- with my gaming/sporting combination -- don’t I enjoy playing these sports as video games?
My boyfriend owns every Madden game of the last 10 years, and several other satellite franchise titles as well. He’s also been known to venture into the occasional NBA live or MLB 2Kx games. He assures me that they’re quite unique enough to justify the $60.00 price tag, but when I ask him what specifically appeals to him, I find his answers unsatisfactorily vague.
“It’s so realistic!”, “it’s just fun!”, “they’re great games!”, or inevitably “you’re a girl, you just don’t understand.”
That last argument is perhaps the most valid. I have a feeling there weren’t many girls pre-ordering their midnight copies of Madden10 this last fall.
I don’t hate sports games in the same way that I rage about war-shooters; my relationship with Madden is much more inquisitive. I’m not one of those purists who preaches about how Kids These Days should spend more time outside playing the real sports these games are emulating, and I know plenty of very physically active Madden-indulgers. I just want a better handle on the true nature of the appeal. I have some theories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all wrong.
Let me outline a few things that I don’t understand:
First: The realism argument. So what if your CG football players look almost like their living, breathing counterparts? How does that make the controls you push and the strategies you employ more enjoyable, especially when little has changed about the actual game-play? When Mario went from side-scrolling to full 3D, the mechanics dramatically changed. But in sports games, most of the additions come in the form of sideline animation. Is it really that cool to see chubby coaches screaming into their headsets, flashing carefully drawn fat-ripples that abide by the laws physics? Is it really worth the money to watch the shirtless white guy in the crowd wave the D-FENCE sign? All of the advertisements tout the game’s unsurpassed believability, but that’s inevitable as our graphics-technology advances.
Second: As mentioned above, the game mechanics are undeniably similar year-to-year, with only a few exceptions. This argument can be made for many intra-genre titles – all Final Fantasy RPGs follow the same basic direction/enter/cancel commands – but I believe the differences in other games are dramatic enough to compensate (i.e. the stories, the characters, the role of magic, etc. are unique to each release). Sports games don’t have different plots or different goals or different challenges. You play to win games, and then championships, and then to break records, and then to get into the hall of fame, and that never changes.
Third: What is the advantage of re-investing every year, as opposed to every third or fifth year under the assumption that the changes are cumulatively significant?
After asking around, I have compiled a few responses:
In some ways, it’s about the competition. Like in fighting games, the gamer can assert his or her superiority over an opponent in a way that few would dare in the physical world. Also as in fighting games, learning the correct button combination maximizes victory over an adversary, either real or imaginary. That makes sense to me. Everyone loves to win.
But that’s not enough, because sports games don’t appeal to all sports fans. Plenty of people hate soccer and love FIFA. Plenty of baseball fans never touch a 2k-anything.
I don’t think sports games appeal to pure gamers, sports fans, or even the overlap of both. I think it’s deeper than that. I think sports games appeal to the statistic memorizing, fantasy sports-playing, sometimes screaming manager-fan.
I mean no judgment here. I indulge in fantasy-baseball myself. But the designation of “owner” is what first gave me this hint – I don’t think boys play sports games because they want to pretend they’re out there actually playing them, I think they play because they want to pretend they’re in control of them. I believe it is the fan that screams, “I would have totally done that differently,” at the TV that makes up the primary Madden fan-base.
Finally, fans that dream of control can test their theories on games that don’t carry any physical relevance. You can pick your players, build your franchise, plan your plays, and control your future, validating or refuting your choices with simulated success and failure. Not only can statistic-crazy bookkeepers furiously study their numbers, they can create them. The challenge lies in the thrill of bringing a terrible team to long-lasting glory, inducing an irresistible sense of pride in your managerial prowess. For those of us that dream of control, here is the perfect virtual experiment.
But just when I feel comfortable in my understanding, a Madden10 commercial graces my television, taunting me with a training montage of real football players training their finger strength for the controller, suggesting that this game is about pretending to be an athlete. I just don’t know what to believe anymore!
These games make billions of dollars each year, and they are the most rapidly growing division of video games in this country. I am perplexed, and the explanations I’ve gathered aren’t quite substantial enough yet.
When I first started musing this over, my guy-friends shrugged me off by telling me I was over-thinking it, which has limited my research significantly, but by now, reminding the reader that I’m a girl is just beating a dead-horse. DUH I’m over-thinking it! That’s what we do! We rage about stuff we don’t understand!
I hope that someday I’ll meet that patient, articulate sports-gamer who will show me the light of understanding. Until then, I wait in fem-ignorance, and invite you all to contribute to my discussion.