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What is a Sports Videogame?
Video of my Vienna Games Conference Keynote
November 26, 2010

Earlier this fall I gave a keynote at the Vienna Games Conference, aka Future and Reality of Gaming, or FROG. The video of the talk has now been posted, and you can watch it in its entirety.

The talk tries to answer the question in the title... the gist of my response is that sports videogames are variants, not simulations. But you'll have to watch the video for the details.

This is the first salvo in new work I've been doing on sports videogames, and you should see more of it in 2011.

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Fascinating and insightful. I particularly liked your historical and cross-cultural take, which the game industry seldom bothers with outside of historical wargaming and the occasional game like Civilization.

I was flattered by your quoting my book, although I have to admit that you're right, you didn't have a lot of choice. Not many other game design books address sports games, which I feel is to their discredit.

I do have a couple of observations, having worked in the field for many years. In my book I said that sports video games simulate "some aspect" of the game without being more specific because I wanted to be inclusive, and particularly to include the football manager games, a genre that is more popular in Europe than in the USA. In those games you can't simulate the playing of a match at all, so it's all about statistics and economics. Football manager games are sports themed, but they address only the business -- what one might call the meta-game of sports, above (and distinctly different from) matches on the field.

Leaving the manager games aside, I feel you rather sidestepped the first questioner's question about the role of athleticism and the body. To me, a sport is a game, but what sets sports apart from chess and poker IS athleticism. It is the essence of "sportingness," if you'll forgive so horrid a word. The ancient Greeks and the native Americans were seeking through sport a means of identifying the human beings most imbued with physical perfection, prowess, and grace. You neglected to mention that there seems to be some evidence that the winners of the ball-court game of mesoamerica were ritually killed: having identified these ideal humans, we sacrifice them to the gods. A video game implementation would have been of no use to them in ensuring a good harvest.

My approach to game design centers around the idea that (large, lavish) video games exist to enable the players to have experiences akin to those in the real world, but which are difficult or expensive to attain: general of armies, fighter pilot, ballerina, legendary hero... and of course professional football player and coach (wrapped into one!). The video game obviates the actual athleticism just as the ballet video game does, and as the fighter pilot game obviates the hundreds of hours of expensive training and the actual aircraft. But it is this very lack of real athleticism (and real sweat, and real pain) that sets the sports video game forever apart from the sport itself. I don't think many real sportsmen would buy your argument that a sports video game is simply another variant of the sport itself; its essence has been removed.

Working on Madden, I learned that a lot of pro football players used to play the game in their hotel rooms when on the road. They were under curfew and had little else to do; they were naturally competitive, and the subject matter was congenial. But they would never have considered it a variant of the "real thing."

I'm surprised that you didn't mention the various attempts to turn video gaming into a professional sport in its own right. They've been very successful in Korea, where people do indeed play Starcraft as if it were a sport. To my mind it isn't a sport because it's mostly about rapid hand movements rather than bodily grace or power; nor would I consider rapid typing or knitting to be sports. But others might disagree, and certainly the Koreans and some Americans are doing their best to use the sporting model as a means of marketing what entertainment value there may be in watching other people play video games.

These are quibbles, however. Overall, a bravura performance on a subject long overdue for close scrutiny.

Ernest,

Thanks for these comments. Some responses:

In my book I said that sports video games simulate "some aspect" of the game without being more specific because I wanted to be inclusive.

It was perhaps a little unfair to pick on your book, since it is the only one out there, as far as I can tell, that attempts to address the issue. But in this case, I think I'm actually suggesting that you should have been even more inclusive. And you provided a very helpful platform from which I could do that. So thanks!

I feel you rather sidestepped the first questioner's question about the role of athleticism and the body.

One axis of one of my quadrant charts maps games by atheticism--and indeed you're right that I'm taking the position that athletics are an optional part of sport, even if a very central one! This is sure to be a controversial position!

But [professional football players] would never have considered it [Madden] a variant of the "real thing."

I'm sure that's true. But we don't have to take their word for it!

I'm surprised that you didn't mention the various attempts to turn video gaming into a professional sport in its own right.

Wait, but I did talk about Starcraft!

Thanks for watching and responding in such detail; I'm sure we'll have a chance to talk about this topic more.

Hi Ian,

Great Keynote. Couple of questions.

I'm sorely tempted by the idea that sports games aren't simulations but variants of sport, such that all games (videogame or otherwise) come with their own specific, intrinsic rules and variances. But playing Devil's Advocate do you think this undermines the modelling aspect of simulation?

I'm not criticising you here, nor saying this is what you are intending of course, but suggesting that, despite EA's intentions of bringing the authentic soccer experience via simulation in FIFA 2011, you quite rightly suggest that it not only fails to simulate, but it is an authentic sports experience in its own right.

This raises the question of whether modelling procedural programs have any relevancy anymore if they are legitimate, irreducible variants in their own right. It can be suggested that EA developed FIFA 2011 with the commercial dependence of replicating the Premiership experience, but if you take seriously the variances of the videogame (as you are), then does this discount the modelling of simulation entirely, or is it absorbed into the variant?

Sorry if this sounds a backhanded way of asking; 'is the sports videogame a simulation of nothing but variance?'

Robert, in this case, I think we can have our cake and eat it too: one approach to sports variation is simulation. And to be sure, any videogame representation of anything is bound to involve simulation at some level. But "simulation" must not be understood just as reconstruction, but also as the introduction of variation.

Ian,
I had trouble loading some of the video (first few minutes played with some audio issues, then it went black).

I think the fact "Kids who play sports games are more likely to play sports" could be written "Kids who play sports are more likely to play sports video games." But maybe that's just my personal experience... You don't see many people at Georgia Tech playing sports video games (my entire time there never met a single person who played sports games). In fact, has there been a demographic study on Sports video games?

I've always been a big FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer player as well as a fan of the NBA 2K and Live series.

I think as Ernest has always stated, the gap between sweat of body to sweat of thumbs in sports games does affect the criticism that can be placed on it's role as a simulation; however, every real life virtual simulation is like that, and I don't see Sports as any particular exception.

I also disagree with comments that these Football "manager" games are purely sports themed. These games are (or at least should be) as much psychological as they are "economic".

Consider the number of NBA players that have gone on to become coaches. Or players that have gone on to manage teams (i.e. Michael Jordan, Danny Ainge). Danny Ainge does not have a business degree, yet he knew the psychology and the basketball sense to make trades in 2007 to earn the Celtics a Championship (and to lead them to the finals the next year)

I did a talk at SIEGE a couple years ago about "scoring" and the unique thing about Sports games is that they generally came before the introduction of video games. Their rules are simple, the scoring values are generally lower and less biased than current video games. Sports games are unique to this property (besides maybe board games). Their "meta" level is so much more mature and developed than the meta levels of "World of Warcraft" or any of the current video games.

Today's video game critics can find lots to write about on World of Warcraft, Second Life etc, and I think most of it has to do with that fact that the rules were developed before video games. So critics are left to analyze the simulation of the "Meta" verse. That's not to say there isn't a lot to talk about, but all of the aspects of a Sports simulation are prexisting - we can only criticize if the game presents a narrative similar to that of the real world game, if the players respond and behave like their real world counterpart, etc.

But again, I believe there's still a lot to talk about in these interpretations. For example, sports games are so number based (i.e Agility, speed, and strength numeric ratings out of 100) when the game itself is more psychological. Players behave and perform differently depending on what goes on off the field (media attention, and scandals). Look at Michael Vick, a video game isn't programmed to respond to a player being indicted and having to go to prison. It would be nice for Sports games to head in that direction.

Anyway, I know this post is a bit all over the place, but I hope my point got across.

Ernest,

"...video games exist to enable the players to have experiences akin to those in the real world, but which are difficult or expensive to attain..."

This is a very common-sense and commonly-held view, obviously there must be a lot of truth to it. However, it doesn't fit well with most of my own personal experience playing video games and observing people around me play video games. This experience and observation leads me to believe that video games exist for the same kinds of reasons that other games exist, and that their ability to simulate other experiences is at the service of those reasons, not the other way around.

As I write this my son is playing Assassins Creed. While the fantasy of being powerful and deadly and tough and influencing the fate of the world is certainly one of the ingredients of his experience, it seems highly unlikely (and incredibly unpleasant) to say that this game is *primarily* a way of him getting to be a professional murderer without having to make so much of an effort.

Instead, it seems clear to me that AC does what games do, provides an interactive system that is compelling to explore, amplifies the consequences of his choices and actions, generates patterns of knowledge, novelty, suspense, and surprise, provides a context for testing his mettle, for developing skill and solving problems, a stylized ritual that allows him to play with the themes of power, death, toughness, and fate.

This is what games do, this is what Football does.

Once we recognize that, it becomes less of a stretch to see that Madden and Football have a much deeper relationship than that of simulation and subject.

That Madden is missing something "essential" from Football is what makes it a highly particular *kind* of variant, but it is a variant nonetheless.

Perhaps an additional perspective that may be productive is to consider sports as lifestyle. So, rather than simply video sports videogames as variants of sports, we see them as elements that are incorporated into peoples' identities and lifestyles in relation to sports.

Ian's talked briefly touched upon how you could consider sports sans athletiticism. Similarly, we can consider sports without play. In the US I've always been surprised by the number of people who describe themselves as sports nuts yet they never play any sports. They define being into sports in terms of lifestyle choices, they watch the games, read the magazines, follow the commentary, buy the merchandising, watch the drafts, and so on. Within the sports lifestyle, different people engage with the act of play in different ways. For example, by participating in office betting pools, fantasy leagues, and so on.


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