There is, of course, the possibility that these social factors are at work in sports games, but that they're personal rather than societal. Ask anyone that plays FIFA or Fight Night what they enjoy about these games, and they'll all say a variation on the same thing: playing and trash-talking with my friends.
And that's the key. While there may not be social factors - riots, politics and class rivalry - inherent in the game itself, it's undeniable that players bring these forces into the game simply by playing it. Just like societies act out their tensions while watching sports, we engage our personal dramas by playing sports games together. Consider two friends playing a particularly fierce game of Madden. Friendly competition? Perhaps. Or maybe they've got a crush on the same girl. Maybe they're work colleagues, and one just got promoted. Or perhaps they split a lopsided check at lunch, and one feels like he got a raw deal. Any one of those factors could lend fuel to what on the surface is a friendly game, but in this case is a coping mechanism to work out personal friction.
Here's a personal example. When I was in college, my friend Ben had a roommate we'll call Cal. We were, to put it mildly, not fond of Cal. Every time we went out, Cal invited himself along. Though he came from money, he'd bum drinks off people and never pay them back. Other times, he'd wander in stoned and launch into creepy rants about how a girl's race predisposed her to certain sexual predilections.
For all I know, Cal was just going through a phase. Maybe changed later in life. But when we knew him, Cal was a pretty horrible person.
By mid-semester, Ben was actively trying to get rid of him. When Cal finally moved out, his replacement turned out to be a raging alcoholic who'd occasionally throw furniture and urinate in the closet. We considered this an improvement.
Nobody liked Cal - except when we played Fight Night: Round 2. Cal liked videogames, and we relished beating the bejesus out of Cal. As a result, weekly Fight Night matches became our release valve. Our house rule was that winner gave up the controller, reasoning that this gave the loser more practice, but that was a lie. In reality, we wanted to take turns putting Cal on the canvas. The fact that he was a sore loser made each knockout more delicious.
Cruel? A bit. Juvenile too - but in our defense, 21 year-olds are just shy of being juveniles. And I'd argue that those weekly Fight Night beatings are what kept us from actually throwing a haymaker Cal's way. It was our version of a sports rivalry, with all the drama and tension that entails. Like real sports, the game didn't cause our rivalry, but it provided us a safe space to slug it out.
And that's the thing - just like sports itself, the way you perceive the game is heavily colored by what you as an audience member bring to the experience. So while sports games might have a hard time catching on with gamers who have little interest in the flesh-and-blood version, they can be a well-rounded storytelling experience for those with more background in the world.
Like so many things in life, including sports themselves, what you get out of sports games depends on what you put in.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.