Brendan Keogh wrote a wonderful article for Reverse Shot on the visual workings of FIFA ’14 and it’s really cool. As someone who plays a ton of different sports games, I’m always excited to see new critical engagements with the genre. I would also suggest you look at Abe Stein’s review of this year’s Madden, which is one of my favorite game reviews that came out in the past year (and one that came at a time when compartmentalization of media was particularly important).
Sports games are kind of like Call of Duty in that core mechanics only change once every six or seven years while different smaller features are added and subtracted throughout the franchise’s existence. Minor adjustments are made every year: the AI is adapted to cheese moves that have been exploited by players, physics are tweaked in order to provide better collision detection, additional camera angles are supplied, along with a whole host of other changes. EA can hype these differences as much as possible, but players who regularly buy these games understand that they are more like patches to the previous games than wholly new objects.
However, one of the larger issues that has been tackled (hehe, sports pun) over the past few years is increasing the realism of the pre-game ceremonies and the in-game scenes that are separate from player action. Keogh’s article largely focuses on these non-interactive sequences (learned that term after looking up a trophy guide for NHL 15 that requires the player to not skip any sequence for a full game) and how they instill a sense of realism for the player. Housing this in a discussion of Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation, Keogh discusses the ways that realism comes to be known. He writes,
“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.”
From here, Keogh talks about the necessity of any sports game to fuse the realism that is experienced in playing a particular sport with the most common way pro sports are experienced, as television broadcasts. In the past few years increasing the televisual experience of sports games has been a particular emphasis for EA. This process has involved investing in the pre-game sequences more and more in order to provide that sense of reassurance that comes with familiarity and habituation. Madden 15 used CGI sequences of two popular broadcasters, with some great glitches, while NHL 15 went with full video pre-game sequences that are terribly written.
All of this adds up to products that have fully integrated the logic of remediation. However, I think that the concept only gets us so far. The issue that I’ve had with it is that it is a linear and prescriptive model of how media change can possibly occur. If we follow the whole history back from games and VR to painting, we are dealing with a constant remediation of perspective and the creation of depth in the visual image. Yes, according to Bolter and Grusin each medium must add to those traits in order to differentiate itself successfully, but we are still left with a one-way street when we’re talking about aspects of a certain medium. Photography is perspective (painting) plus photorealism. Film is perspective (painting) plus photorealism (photography) plus movement. Videogames are perspective (painting) plus photorealism (photography) plus movement (film) plus interaction.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this (and I don’t think it was Keogh’s intention to deliver a full treatise on videogames and remediation), but I do think that there are a few issues we must address in using remediation as a logic of sports games. Remediation works really well when we’re looking at the design of sports games and how they are marketed as new experiences, but I wonder what happens when players start their hundredth or two-hundredth contest in these games. When the cutscene that establishes the televisual aspects of the experience becomes nothing but a hindrance to getting to the actual game, how does that change our experience of the event? It’s important to note that there is no way out of remediation here in certain spots, which Keogh mentions, writing, “Video games are played and viewed not as a singular activity…but in a parallel and hybrid way in which the player is both playing at playing soccer, and playing at watching soccer.” This is where a base level of remediation has to function since there isn’t necessarily a way out of that amalgam of watching and playing. The question here is not whether the televisual experience is still occurring on some level, but whether or not we should still be calling that a remediation of television or a fully gamic experience.
Ultimately, that’s a question of videogames’ nature that I’m not entirely interested in. What I’m more intrigued by is how remediation can be opened up and understood as flowing in both directions. Television has certainly impacted the design of games, but games have also affected the ways that sports are televised. The late-1990’s saw the introduction of the Skycam for American football broadcasts that provided a videogame-like, bird’s-eye view of the game. While not directly related to the presentation of sports, this year EA started filming NFL rookies’ reactions to their in-game statistical representations. Along with that, sports journalists and game companies have pushed the official simulations of championship games for a few years now. If we have these specific instances of change flowing from game to television, I wonder how the experience of games also changes the experience of television.
Remediation works incredibly well when we’re discussing it as a factor in the design and production of major sports titles—Keogh does a great job of explaining that. That being said, it’s important to realize that this view of media change is a bit of a dead end, at least until sports games go VR and the road magically extends to include games’ exclusionary traits. When we understand games as a part of a media ecology with varying flows and forces that move in several directions, we can get a better understanding of how they impact mediated experiences of different technologies.