Sports Video Games Won’t Feel Real Until They Get Psychological

The FIFA and Madden games are the best in their respective sports, but both could benefit from better character programming.

by Sean McGeady
Aug 3 2015, 3:30pm

A goal's gone against you, so how do your teammates respond? Like robots, mostly. 'FIFA 15' screen via Amazon

The ability to be anybody, anything, anywhere: That's the gift video games give us. They let us live longstanding fantasies from our childhoods, and new and outlandish fantasies we didn't know we had. Be a cowboy, a pirate, a soldier, a shark, or a slice of bread. Be anybody, anything, anywhere.

But, curiously, there's something greater still, something more confounding and reflective than playing as a witcher or a witch or a worm: the understated thrill of playing as yourself.

In literature and film stories are predetermined, as are protagonists. Arcs are plotted and they rise and fall without intervention. Through games we can create ourselves, plot our own arcs, and live out fantasies we otherwise couldn't. Some of these fantasies are incredible. But some are quite credible indeed.

Sports games give us credible fantasies. Here, we're not fighting for our planets; we're fighting for points, for promotion. Saving the world from nuclear annihilation, alien invasion or societal collapse are, by any standard, absurd aims. Comparatively, captaining your club to championship glory seems totally plausible.

That's part of what makes sports games like those in the FIFA, Madden, and NBA Live series so appealing: the personal credibility of the fantasy. Many of us fancy ourselves as forgotten sports stars, people who just didn't quite make it. For many, delusional as it might be, playing in the Premier League is only just out of reach. If only you hadn't had that injury. If only you'd played well while the scouts were watching. In another life it might have been different. Games are that other life. Sports games arm sloths and amateur athletes alike with the tools required to become the sporting heroes they never could. Just create yourself, pick your preferred boots, fiddle with some superficial stats, and you're all set.

Plenty of games give us the option to recreate ourselves. But a common problem in video game narratives is the dissonance felt between the characters we adopt and the way the world responds to them. A cutscene might present one character while the gameplay seems to gives us a different character entirely. That dissonance can be a crucial barrier to that magical immersive experience developers strive to achieve.

A screenshot from 'NBA Live 15' via PlayStation

This isn't a problem for sports games. It's easy to recreate ourselves and believe in what we're doing when we play FIFA. The fantasy is credible and so is the setting. Sports games provide very few obstacles for immersion. There's not much room for ludonarrative dissonance in NHL. A Madden game will not force you to kill an innocent character. By all rights, sports games should have the most robust and realistic character creation systems in games.

Unfortunately though, that's not the case. Of course, most character creation systems are inherently superficial. We talk about them being deep and expansive if they contain 60 skin tones and over 1,000 ways to wear your fringe. But that's not enough. You can't craft a character here. You can't create a personality. You're playing with a glorified wardrobe.

To create a character with a meaningful personality and a sense of purpose, you need to take control of more than just aesthetics. By crafting a character's psychological state, too, we could create characters that respond to scenarios in appropriately varied ways. You might argue that a nuanced emotionally driven system has no place in sports games. You'd be wrong.

Sometimes the ways we justify our worth to a team aren't through strength or speed, but with more cerebral skills. Games push us to embellish traits like strength and speed, perhaps because they're the ostensible qualities of the traditional hero. But, in focussing so closely on these conventional attributes, are we not overlooking more meaningful interactions?

Maybe, given the non-narrative-based nature of sports games, statistics beyond speed, stamina, and strength are considered frivolous. Sports games are more visibly tied to their mechanics than, say, RPGs. There's less story and less to do. Press B to kick ball. Press X to swing stick. Why would anything else be necessary?

But the lack of simulated psychology in sports games slaps a big fat ceiling on my enjoyment of them. We control lifeless animatronic stickmen that respond exactly how and when we ask. It doesn't feel real. And if you've created yourself in an attempt to re-imagine your skills and the way you play your sport in real life, it doesn't feel credible. Given the credibility of the fantasy, shouldn't the character we use to reach it feel credible, too?

A screenshot from 'NHL 15' via EA

A sportsperson's performance can be affected by many things. Naturally, we perceive the physicalities of the players to be the most important factor. But, while it might seem like it's Lionel Messi's feet and Greg Inglis's hands doing all the work, the real engine's elsewhere.

There is no end to the emotional and psychological attributes that can impact a player's performance. Sports fans know this all too well. When you concede a sloppy goal the response is psychological. When a teammate is stretchered off the field the response is psychological. When you're down to ten men in the 79th minute of the League Cup final and the referee gives your opponents an indirect free kick inside your 18-yard box, the response is psychological. It's these psychological responses that govern our actions. The panic, the fear, the thrill can make us do extraordinary things, sparking us into life and giving us seemingly superhuman abilities, or crippling us, causing us to capitulate.

While characters in RPGs can be affected by events—even if only superficially—their sports game counterparts are emotionless mechanical avatars. Nothing, no matter the adversity they face or the ascendancy they're in, affects what they do or how they do it.

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FIFA is a blank and frigid digital representation of football. It strips the sport of what makes it so interesting, reducing a complex web of psychological interplay to its most primal mechanical inputs. But what if things were different? What if, in the same way our real-life psychological make-up can impact our physical performances, a player character's psychological attributes could affect their physical traits? Imagine if, as well as all the regular attributes pertaining to agility and endurance, character creation systems included attributes linked to temperament.

For example, a temperament stat could affect a player character's surrounding stats after a goal is conceded or a decision goes against their team. The player character's performance could improve as they try and get back into the match, or they could sulk and become slower, weaker. This happens all the time in sports. Players step up or give up.

A screenshot from 'FIFA 15' via EA

At the 1998 FIFA World Cup, David Beckham was infamously sent off for a retaliatory foul on Argentina's Diego Simeone. Imagine the essence of that inexperience, distilled and digitized and turned into a manageable property. We could imbue our characters with the ability to be devious, to be petulant, to be cautious, to be fearless. Instead of simply responding to the flick of a thumbstick, the player character's actions could be influenced by their programmed mindset.

The heightened tension when two rival clubs meet on the field, the court, or the ice, can massively impact player decisions and the outcome of the match. But in video games, all teams are assembled from the same crop of cursory avatars. There's no meaning. And if my avatar is to be lining up as part of those teams, I want him to mean something. I want his inclusion in that match to have an effect beyond my commands.

If we strive to simulate the psychological conditions of players as best we can, it might make for more interesting and realistic sports simulations. It would lend credence to our personal fantasies and allow us to more faithfully recreate ourselves in games, making it all the more rewarding when we finally captain Huddersfield Town AFC to Champions League glory.

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Sean McGeady