Monday, January 30, 2012

Little Angry Synthetic Men Learn About Love

When Xavi, trying to describe the mental process he undertakes in a World Cup semi-final, says it’s like being on the PlayStation, it is yet another way in which a metaphor becomes reflexive—another instance of a word becoming its meaning. Xavi tells us that being Xavi is like being in a video game. Of Xavi.

(Supriya Nair)

The ball whistles two metres wide of the post. The shooter looks back in disgust, while a team-mate gestures to him that he should have passed instead. It is the rote behaviour of footballers that the television cameras are set up in advance to capture, the reaction shot being just as integral to the spectacle as the live action with the ball in play. We watch to see the emotion as much as to admire the skill or cheer for our team, which is why there is something peculiarly frigid about exhibition matches, even if they produce more goals and more conventionally defined spectacular plays than ordinary ones. It’s not just that we ourselves have less of a stake in the result. It’s that we can tell that the players don’t feel anything.

Subbuteo players betrayed no emotion after missing a goal, and never remonstrated to each other. They didn’t cheer or even raise their arms. Their default pose, their only pose, was the static one of a pre-match line-up. Except for the goalkeeper, permanently frozen in a stationary dive.

Subbuteo players were replicas. They did not behave. Yet unlike toy soldiers you could flick them about, make them do things, and not just produce static images. So they combined the frisson of that minute fidelity to the objects of the simulation (when I was nine or ten I either painted myself, or my best friend did, or otherwise I acquired a Juventus player with grey hair, like Roberto Bettega, and this thrilled me no end) with the capacity to actually simulate some of their actions. But still not their emotions. Those you had to supply yourself.

Subbuteo ceased production around 2000 and some time later Hasbro, who bought the rights, started marketing a new version with ‘photorealistic’ player cards in place of the classic plastic figurines, producing an odd hybrid in the era of ultra-realistic videogames. And while the old Subbuteo maintains an avid base of players and collectors, nowadays videogames are what defines the boundaries of simulation and what counts as realism.

A nu-Renaissance portrait created by FIFA 11
To hear the name of your favourite player being called by a real commentator. To command that player, make him score a goal. To hear the home crowd react in a stadium that looks just like the stadium of your favourite team. It’s difficult to get over these things, to maintain a critical distance in the act not of watching or reading, but playing, manipulating that reality directly. So in the odd moments when the commands fail to respond or the players don’t behave as real players would – when they just freeze near the ball, or inexplicably look away from the action – or when the commentators get it wrong, praising a woeful miss as a good attempt on goal, or repeating themselves robotically, you reflexively make that mental check, yup, I’m playing a videogame, and that act, the having to remind yourself, brings home in turn how real every other moment feels.

However we need to define what ‘real’ means in this context. The synthetic reality of games such as Fifa 12 or Pro Evolution Soccer is not correlated to the experience of playing ordinary football, but to the dual experience of playing and simultaneously watching on television top-level professional football. This involves augmentation, in that you acquire skills you are unlikely to possess in real life, and a displacement or split, in that real football players can’t watch themselves on television while they play. Let’s add to this a further dimension: that in controlling multiple players one also simulates the experience of being a fan and cheering for one’s team, with all the anxiety/frustration/elation that that involves, mixed in with the desire to push the boys forward, to materially help them succeed through force of will alone.

If it’s reality, then, it is far from unmediated, but relies heavily on generic and symbolic conventions and languages, meaning the rules of the game, its codes of behaviour and the style of its televised presentation, and more broadly on psychology, as much as on the rules of physics and human physiology.

This is to say that more so than the mechanics – what is known as gameplay – what matters is a game’s emotional texture, its capacity to produce and reproduce realistic psychological events. The commentary must be understood and evaluated primarily for how well it fulfils this function, for how effectively it punctuates the gameplay on an emotional level (which you can judge by this trailer. And here’s a Subbuteo precursor, sourced from this site).

Featuring ‘all new authenticity’, the soundtrack by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend for Fifa 12 and Pro Evolution Soccer promises for instance the following:
Hearing both commentators getting excited in a very natural way when scoring a cracker, will make gamers feel the moment like never before in the entire PES history.
What counts just as much as the contextual responsiveness of the commentators is that they get excited in a very natural way, meaning in the all-but-natural way of contemporary television commentators – the obvious undercutting point being that real commentaries are highly coded and conventional. And indeed the fact that they can be so easily simulated by picking from however large a store of scripted sentences is as much an indictment of the current style as a reason to praise the programmers.

Important as the commentary is, even more important is the players’ own expressiveness and emotional behaviour. At the time of the first fully-fledged football arcade game, not long after I stopped playing Subbuteo, this was limited to some very stylised and wholly repetitive cheering after each goal. These days the celebrations are fully choreographed animated sequences lasting several seconds, and players vent their emotions after almost each play. They commiserate after a missed opportunity, or complain petulantly to their team-mates that they were wide open. They bow their heads or punch the turf after conceding a goal. They cheat, typically by raising their arm for a throw-in for their side when the last touch was theirs in a close-call situation (in which case do they know? Should they know?). They bicker with the referee when a penalty is given to the opposing team, or a player isn’t booked who ought to have been. Sometimes they even threaten to take matters in their own hands.

This is of course quite absurd, as is the commentators’ praise or surprise concerning the conduct of the referee: the computer knows if it was a hand-ball, or whose the last touch was, or if a tackle warranted a free kick or a booking. All of these things to do not just happen, they are calculated. Yet the little men get angry. Angry at themselves, but more often at others, as if they perceived an injustice. They get absurdly, cosmically angry, simply because without that particular emotion, if their range was limited to joy or stoic acceptance, the game just wouldn’t be realistic. Something would be missing.

Yet they never lose it completely. The little men don’t punch a fan or attack the referee; they don’t say rude things about another player’s sister and get head-butted in the chest in return. There is a limit, not so much in the combinatorial nature of the gameplay itself – which is likely capable of generating a near-infinite number situations, if not quite exhaust the kind of moves that real players could come up with – but more particularly in the players’ emotional range, which never rises above contained levels of joy, petulance and anger. A line is drawn, possibly because too many randomly generated abnormal events could make the simulation stray too far and too often from the norm.

Not Klimt's The Kiss
The image above was produced during regular play following the introduction of Electronic Arts’ new ‘impact engine’ for Fifa 12, and is therefore ostensibly the product of a random physical collision. Here you can see how the engine works. Here, you can see how it doesn’t work, but the ‘Fifa fail’ tag points in fact to an entire genre of videos dedicated to cataloguing events ranging from the highly implausible to the physically impossible recorded during the game. I find some of these scenes – notably the ones in which half a dozen tackled players fall onto one another in balletic fashion – practically hypnotic, yet it’s hard to argue that they constitute as many fails, so long as the goal was to enhance the game’s realism and not enter into a conscious hyperreal.

But what do we make of the kiss between Andy Carroll and Lukasz Fabianski? Is the impact engine writing its own story here, trying to produce its own brand of romantic fiction or social criticism? The next frame, informs us The Daily Mail, shows that Fabianski ‘does not appear to have enjoyed the ordeal’. I think quite the opposite, but judge for yourselves:

The torrid moment, followed by a languid embrace. I wonder how the canned commentary team dealt with this one, or if it could be taught to react more passionately and intelligently than writers at The Daily Mail, or the YouTuber who called it a fail. Were it that reality failed so gracefully, or so sweetly.

This week I'm also featured in the special Occupy issue of Overland with an essay on the eurozone crisis.