Golden Ticket

Golden Ticket
Interception: Gaming on the Gridiron

Erin Hoffman | 3 Jul 2007 08:03
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The jock. He's six and a half feet tall, 300 pounds marinated in Coors Light, blue and white greasepaint covering two halves of his face respectively. The thought conjures up gut level revulsion from a majority of geeks, gamers and nerds, and so by extension the rise of sports gaming is regarded by much of the Mario set as a mysterious irritant, an emblem of the commercial aspect of the gaming world that is more comfortably forgotten.

But I am here to tell you it's all right. It's all right to like football. Because, as a form of play, it synthesizes key elements of hardcore game design ethic and exemplifies the drives that reach back through human history to the heart of recreation itself.

The Gridiron
Although its status as cultural phenomenon is undeniable - even college games can attract hundreds of thousands of fans - significant buy-in from the game industry was regarded in its early days as a business risk, even though much of the history of game development itself retains a deep connection with sports sims. Even Pong (and its predecessor, Tennis for Two), at its core, is a sports game, and more directly, Electric Football in 1949 - nearly 10 years before Tennis for Two - became the first game to incorporate electricity into its design.

In basic design, football is a well-oiled machine. Its rules, incorporating play length, number of plays, number of exchanges, areas required to advance and variations that disrupt a natural rhythm, combine to form a fast-paced action adventure that hits its audience with regular but unpredictable shots of adrenaline at edge-of-your-seat intervals. And from a physical action standpoint, football incorporates nearly every track and field discipline. Small wonder it was one of the earliest game sims.

Compared to many other sports, football is carefully balanced in terms of pacing and score. This comes down to numbers (the literal score) that regulate the adrenaline distribution of a game's phases; hockey is intense but an average game will generally not gross more than a limp five points, while basketball is high-speed but so quick to score that any individual goal lacks the dramatic impact of a rarer victory (or one with a greater potential to be game-altering). Time figures in, as well, and there football separates itself from America's No. 2 sport, baseball, a game that can literally be never-ending. Mainstream "golden ticket" football is also largely kept more dynamic through its salary caps and distributed draft process, resulting in a season-long narrative progression toward finding out which two teams will reach the Superbowl.

Although football itself did not rise to ascendancy until the early '70s, fantasy football was born in the early '60s and still thrives today, while Parker Brothers introduced board-based football simulation even earlier, in 1925. The Strat-O-Matic games that influenced thousands of young players - and many future game designers - are living proof that sports simulation needs no graphical input to engage the mind and imagination.

In terms of modern football viewing and discussion (a truly remarkable phenomenon involving, as far as I can tell, a language entirely separate from English), fans primarily engage in complex cognitive speculation about manager strategy, fantasy team-building, long term seasonal team trajectory and the potential outcomes of player chemistry and skill interaction on the field. This is a version of what James Paul Gee refers to as the "probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink" process - otherwise known as the scientific method, and key to the cognitive engagement that drives game passion.

Tell Me A Story
But it isn't all numbers. Despite the success of stat-based sports simulations - and from a game history standpoint it is necessary to note the RPG itself owes its existence to these predecessor simulations - the progression of a sports season, and the progression of a given player's career trajectory, ultimately tells a story. And with football making it onto the silver screen nearly every year since its rise in the '70s, it becomes difficult to argue against the dramatic tension that emerges from the carefully balanced mechanics of the game. This is a keystone to the role of storytelling in interactive media: Mechanics create tension, and tension creates drama, the heart of compelling narrative.

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