Watching Play / Playing Watching
Brendan Keogh on FIFA 14

I recently stayed with a friend who is into soccer. I mean, really into soccer. He plays at a level just below professional, and he could tell you the names and details of more individual players around the world than I could name countries that participate in the World Cup. He doesn’t play video games a whole heap, but he recently bought a friend’s old PlayStation 3, and at the time of my staying was playing EA Games’ FIFA 14.

The last sport-themed video game I played was probably Super International Cricket (it came with the Super Nintendo I bought off the corner store owner’s kid in the mid-1990s), and my understanding of soccer’s rules doesn’t go much deeper than that you are not allowed to use your hands. Suffice to say, when it came to FIFA 14, I was a stranger in a strange land. As I find the way various people engage with and talk about video games fascinating (especially when they are not hobbyist or enthusiast “gamers”), I asked my friend to play FIFA 14 and to tell me how it works while I watched.

I found myself fascinated by both the depth and accessibility of the video game’s simulation of the sport—two qualities that rarely co-exist in a single video game. FIFA 14 can be played with a very casual sort of attention, just pressing one button to pass and another to shoot, and just kind of going through the motions on a very superficial level to give a vague sense of performing soccer. But the potential of the controls also offers a much finer finesse and fidelity. You can put spin on a shot to dodge a goalkeeper’s stretching paws; you can dance and parry your character over and around the ball as you work your way up to the pitch, faking passes and blocking tackles; you can head-butt and slide and lob and stop and do all sorts of moves. Entering the “Controls” menu and flicking through the pages of possible inputs, from beginner to expert, felt more akin to learning the rules of an intricate fighting game than a popular sport franchise’s annual release.

The reasons for such intricacy aren’t difficult to trace. FIFA games, like most sports-themed video games, are made primarily for fans of the sport. They’re meant as a different way to engage with a hobby and a fandom. The people such video games are targeted at might have varying degrees of experience and familiarity with video games, but they almost certainly have a high level of experience and familiarity with the sport in question, with its rules, teams, personalities, and industrial movements. When I played a match with my friend, I looked past the names of different players to their metricized statistics—how good they are at defending, attacking, passing, etc. My friend, however, so knowledgeable in the world of soccer, only needed to look at the names of different players when creating his squad and positioning his players on the pitch. We approached this game with dramatically different knowledge sets.

But one thing I have always found fascinating about sports-themed video games is how they make their claims to “realism.” The fans they are trying to appease are, like fans of anything, those who are going to most scrutinize and pick apart the game for any minor discrepancy in the sport it is depicting. It needs to be as realistic as possible. But realism, of course, isn’t an objective quality. Creating a realistic work is less about depicting something as authentic as possible and more about ensuring that something is depicted in the manner most like that which the work’s audience is used to engaging it. Realism is less about reality and more about reassurance.

Though many soccer fans, to be sure, have a degree of motor literacy for what it feels like to actually play soccer, or to attend a professional match live in the stadium, when it comes to this or any professional sport, the fan’s dominant mode of engagement is the televised live game—a genre of television with its own conventions and style, shown through particular camera shots, slow motion replays, familiar commentating voices, half-time highlight reels, upshots of celebrating players after a goal, and panning wide shots of the subsequent kick-off.

FIFA 14, then, as a video game making claims to realism to that same fandom, has to ensure that the experience of soccer it affords its players to engage with echoes their experience of soccer beyond the video game as, primarily, a television genre. To play FIFA 14 is less to play at what it is like to “actually” play soccer, but instead focuses on mixing together a sense of actually playing soccer with a sense of experiencing soccer as it is most commonly experienced through the television screen. As we move our players around, passing and shooting, the camera pans wide and high to give a good shot of the field. When play pauses after a goal or a penalty, it blurs in to close-up, slow-motion replays. The score, up in the corner of the screen, looks not unlike the ubiquitous score box present in any televised broadcast of the sport. Over the whole game, popular real-world commentators lend their voice to a procedurally generated commentary that stitches together different segments of dialogue based on what is happening on the pitch.

In the virtual space depicted by the game, too, there are all the visual motifs that are not just part of soccer as a sport but also of soccer as a watched and televised performance. In any shot, other cameras and those wielding them can be seen on the sideline or behind the goals. Security guards in fluorescent vests watch the crowds. The crowds, in turn, chant and howl and wince at every goal or near shot. One moment in the more recent release FIFA 15, which I purchased when I returned home from my friend’s house, left a particular impression on me. I dived a character to try to prevent the ball from going out. I failed, but the character still kicked the ball back towards the middle of the field. For the throw in, a ballboy tossed a different ball to the player, but the old ball was still sitting there in the middle of the field. I watched it, expecting it to just disappear into midair once the program realized it was no longer needed. Instead, one of the players jogged over to it, kicked it off the field, and jogged back to his position. It was a remarkable detail that made the simulation FIFA is trying to sell all the more convincing. The atmosphere is as important as the depiction of the rule set when it comes to FIFA 14’s claims to realism.

What sports-themed video games like the FIFA franchise offer is a prime example of how video games function as remediations of other moving image mediums. “Remediation” is a term coined in the early nineties by media theorists Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in a book of the same name that explains the ways newer media forms are both influenced by and influence how existing media forms are understood. Key to the theory are the notions of “immediacy” and “hypermediacy.” Whereas immediacy explains how media texts such as films or video games are often commonly understood as “windows” onto content, where the machinations of the medium ideally become invisible to an audience that want to feel like they are “really there” in the virtual world, hypermediacy explains how the windowing itself of the media form become significant.

Sports-themed video games like FIFA provide an excellent example of both immediacy and hypermediacy. FIFA 14 makes its claims to realism through, firstly, an intricate level of detail in the atmosphere and simulation of both the rules of soccer and the functioning of physics; immediacy exists in the way the game wants the player to feel like they are “really there” playing soccer. But, simultaneously and interdependent on this immediacy is the hypermediacy of how that soccer-ness is portrayed as an event both televised and spectated. FIFA 14 remediates the media of televised sport into the video game form, making the act of virtually playing soccer more coherent and convincing by depicting it through the same lens fans are most familiar with engaging it through.

The dual role of immediacy and hypermediacy in video games as a watched medium is not unique to sports games. In the third-person shooting game Gears of War, if the player holds the sprint button, the camera drops low and shakes wildly as it follows the character, giving a real sense of a cameraperson hunkering down and chasing the protagonist. In Kane and Lynch 2, Manhunt, and most recently Alien: Isolation, a deliberately filmic graininess that imitates a worn VHS tape draws attention to the artificiality of the image. At first glance, this seemingly clashes with the advanced three-dimensional graphics that try to make the player feel like they are “really” there. What it achieves, however, is not only the sense that you are truly acting in these games ‘as’ the character in an immediate sense, but that you are truly watching those acts in the manner you are used to watching such acts on a television screen.

What this points to, ultimately, is the clear but often trivialized relationship between video games and their audience’s relationship with the moving image as it developed through the 20th century. Though video games that aim to be “cinematic” are often decried by critics and gamers alike for not embracing a unique “gameness” of the video game form, this ignores the obvious fact that we engage with video games, like movies and television, in part through watching images move on a screen, and thus they have a clear and fundamental relationship with these media as well as pre-digital games.

Video games are played and viewed not as a singular activity—in the way a soccer player keeping an eye on the ball is part of the act of playing soccer—but in a parallel and hybrid way in which the player is both playing at playing soccer, and playing at watching soccer. Or, in more narrative-driven games, the player plays at both protagonist and audience, in this strange position that oscillates between participation and spectatorship. As a participatory activity already mostly consumed as spectated activity, professional sport already provides an interesting example of this weird duality at play by an audience, but it becomes even more pronounced as it is remediated by the sports-themed video game that asks the player to play, to watch, to watch play, and to play at watching.