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It’s Game Time: Speed, Acceleration, and The Digital Sports Game

Tiempo de juego: velocidad, aceleración y deportes electrónicos
Andrew Baerg

Résumés

This essay takes up the relationship between sport and time through the lens of the digital sports game. As the digital sports game industry has aspired to develop increasingly accurate simulations of professional sport, it has confronted the temporality regimes inherent in real world sport in a variety of different ways. As much as the digital sports game continues to simulate the digital athlete’s relation to time within individual contests with an increasing fidelity, the genre’s relationship to time has also been extended to simulating the athlete’s virtual career. The essay considers the time-sport relation through a ludological analysis of two recent digital sports games: the American football simulation, Madden NFL’17 and the baseball simulation, MLB The Show’16. As different as these sports might be in their construction of time, these sports games share similarities with respect to their treatment of time for the digital athlete and for the player’s time.
Drawing on social theorist, John Tomlinson, and his notion of “the culture of speed” and its preoccupation with immediacy, the essay takes up ways in which these games position players with respect to accelerated time and considers the potential consequences of this acceleration for how time is perceived and experienced in the consumption of other forms of mediated sport.

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Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

football, digital sports game, time, baseball, speed
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Texte intégral

1As the digital sports game industry has aspired to develop accurate simulations of professional sport (even as this notion of simulation has been contested by some scholars, see Bogost, 2013; Bagley & Summers, 2015), it has confronted the temporality regimes in real world sport in a variety of ways. Insofar as the digital sports game continues to simulate the digital athlete’s relation to time within individual contests with increasing fidelity, the genre’s relationship to time has been extended to simulating the athlete’s virtual career. The player’s interaction with the mediated athlete is not only restricted to the present, but with more sophisticated hardware and software becomes intimately linked to the future as well. The way in which the digital sports game mediates time in increasingly complex ways raises several questions. How does this mediation of time occur? What might follow from this mediation with respect to the perception and experience of time? Why might this discussion be important for the player’s broader relation to time and sport?

2This essay engages these questions on the time-sport relation with respect to the digital sports game. In the context of what Tomlinson (2007) has deemed “the culture of speed” and its preoccupation with immediacy, the ways in which these games position players with respect to time has potential consequences for how time is perceived and experienced in the consumption of other forms of mediated sport.

Speed and Immediacy

3This essay works from Tomlinson’s (2007) notion of “the culture of speed” and its attendant concept, immediacy. Tomlinson argues that we must seriously reflect on the speed of contemporary life. This speed is “a genuine and significant shift in temporality that occurs and accelerates specifically in modern societies” (p. 1). Tomlinson goes on to suggest that the culture of speed yields a condition of immediacy. This immediacy can be linked to space and time. In terms of space, immediacy is characterized by a sense of proximity, urgency, and compulsion. In terms of time, Tomlinson speaks to immediacy as “pertaining to the time current or instant… occurring without delay or lapse in time, done at once; instant” (p. 74). Later, Tomlinson speaks of immediacy and desire in bringing together both time and space asserting that immediacy results in “an apparent ‘closing of the gap’ separating human desire from its attainment” (p. 90) such that immediacy “involves as its core feature the imagination that the gap is already closed” (p. 91, emphasis in original). The condition of immediacy is expressed in a culture that assumes the quick delivery and constant availability of desire gratification.

4In conjunction with other aspects of modernity, the media play a vital role in this immediacy. Tomlinson (2007) argues that media technologies have the “power to shape and even to constitute experience” (p. 96), even as we still possess the capacity to exercise agency in how we use media. The constitutive power of our media render the world immediate to us. Part of this constitutive power relates to our increased computing capacity and its relation to time. Tomlinson draws on Bauman’s (2000) notion of liquid modernity to explain how immediacy is imbricated in the shift from the heaviness of the analog with its hardware to the lightness of the digital with its software.

5As part of this shift from heavy hardware to light software, Tomlinson (2007) argues that touch plays a vital role in contemporary communication technologies. Where other scholars have considered sight (Crary, 2000) and sound (Sterne, 2012), Tomlinson emphasizes touch asserting that our new media technologies offer a haptic effortlessness in the enacting and experience of immediacy. What was once the effort-heavy work of closing gaps with muscle and force in the mechanical age becomes replaced by the effort-light work of the legerdemain of touch. The effortlessness of touch allows us to quickly close the gap between having a desire and satisfying that desire such that speed and immediacy literally exist at our fingertips.

6Speed and immediacy can be understood differently in different contexts (Tomlinson, 2007) and sport is one of these contexts in which it might be examined. Virilio (2008) argues that, “We must politicize speed, whether it be metabolic speed (the speed of the living being, of reflexes) or technological speed” (p. 43). Yet, few scholars have theorized or politicized time in the context of sport. Woodward (2013) argues that in sport, “time, its measurement, and discursive powers seem to be assumed and to pass largely uninterrogated” (p. 25). This essay represents a contribution to this uninterrogated space. The following section discusses the time-sport relationship before the paper turns to considering this relationship through the new medium of the digital sports game.

Time and Sport

7Guttmann’s (1978) study on the ascension of modern sport and its distinctive characteristics appears to be one of the first sociological/historical works addressing the time-sport relationship. As part of his list of seven characteristics that transform premodern sport’s ritual to modern sport’s record, specialisation, quantification, and the quest for records all relate to how time is understood in sport.

8With respect to specialisation of roles, Guttmann (1978) flips the conventional notion of professionalism on its head by arguing that it is not financial compensation that makes an athlete professional, but rather that individual’s use of time. Professional athletes can devote a considerable portion of their time to their craft in ways that amateurs cannot. Where amateurs must spend considerable hours away from training to support themselves, specialisation allows the professional undistracted time to hone an athletic craft.

9Guttmann (1978) also emphasize the importance of quantification for modern sport. Modern sport appears obsessed with “the almost inevitable tendency to transform every athletic feat into one that can be quantified and measured” (Guttmann, 1978, p. 47). Although this quantification and measurement has certainly been related to space, it has equally been applied to time. Quantification abstracts this how of sport performance in time. As these abstractions begin to be collected, the record is born. The record allows for comparison between athletes in the moment, but enables the extension of that comparison across time. These records subsequently lend significance to the now as what athletes achieve in the moment can be measured against past performances. They demonstrate what can be forgotten and what can be remembered. In pursuit of the record, the modern athlete often seeks to reduce time and save time more than cover distance (Lopez-Gonzalez, 2014) to the degree that even the most minute improvement becomes an ongoing quest (Loland, 2001; Mooji, 2012).

10Guttmann’s (1978) notion of the quest for records speaks to another aspect of time and sport, how the duration of time shapes the experience of sport. The duration of time can generate anticipation for the athlete and the spectator as athletes confront the challenges of time in sport in the immediate moment of a one hundred meter sprint or five day cricket match. Inherent in time’s measure in sport is the potential for overcoming previous records. To beat an event record in a singular instance or pass a career record over a longer period of time is to possess a significance in time until that record is overcome again.

11This duration of time can also play a role in the trajectory of athletic careers. As time passes, the athletic body’s capacity fades such that the, “degeneration and decline of the flesh is closely imbricated in the notion that time imposes restrictions and, of course, finality on the flesh” (Woodward, 2013, p. 10-11). Time in sport relates very much to the “corporeal experience of ageing” (ibid., p. 22) as much as it does to the passing of time in the moment. In this respect, time works against the athlete given the fleeting nature of that athlete’s peak production. Even as athletes may possess that moment of Kairos, the perfect time at the height of their athletic powers, the old sports adage, “Father Time is undefeated,” remains accurate. Athletes may battle against Father Time via technological advances that extend careers, but at least for now, time’s barriers remain firmly entrenched.

12New media have the capacity to shape our experience of time and sport (Lopez-Gonzalez, 2014), including these aspects of specialisation, quantification and records, and duration. The digital game represents a new medium that has yet to be considered in the context of time and sport. As such, this essay raises several questions about time and the digital sports game. How does the sport-time relation change when sport is mediated in the digital game? How does the digital game position players to experience time in its simulated mediation of sport? What might be some of the potential consequences of this positioning for how players understand the time-sport relationship outside of the game? The following section explains the paper’s methodology before considering time and the specific contexts of baseball and American football.

Methodology

13This project considers these questions through a ludological analysis (Frasca, 2003; Kryzwinska, 2006) of two recent digital sports games: the American football simulation, Madden NFL’17 (hereafter Madden) and the baseball simulation, MLB The Show’16 (hereafter The Show). Ludologically-oriented textual analysis focuses on visual representation, sound, and formal textual structure. However, a ludological analysis also considers a game’s system, i.e. the ways in which its rules and affordances open up and close down player choices. Digital games necessitate interactivity to be experienced. Much of this interactivity is oriented around a player’s understanding of a game’s system and what this system allows in order to successfully act within it. As players interact with these game systems, they experience meaning. Ludological analysis thereby allows the researcher to reflect on how a game’s system positions players and what meanings this system invites them to adopt to operate in it (Frasca, 2003).

14As ludology serves as the grounding methodological approach to this study, I have spent many hours learning the respective systems afforded by Madden and The Show and considered these systems’ relation to time. My experience with these systems may not be the same as that of others (Montola, 2012), however, it should be similar enough to allow for claims about how these games position players to relate to time and sport. Because ludological analysis concentrates on the player’s engagement with a digital game, this essay does not account for time spent before and after gameplay. The two games selected for this paper, Madden and The Show, were chosen for the way they mediate two sports with a different relationship to time, American football and baseball.

Baseball, Football, and Time

15The mediation of time in sport is heavily influenced by each sport’s respective rules (Woodward, 2013). This rule-governed nature of time in sport is certainly true for American football and baseball. American football exists as a time constituted sport (Martinkova & Parry, 2011) where the clock determines when a given contest ends and as a record sport (Loland, 2001) where conditions are standardized in the measurement of time. By contrast, baseball exists as an event sport without time measurement (Martinkova & Parry, 2011) in which a game concludes only when at least one team achieves twenty-seven outs and as a quasi-record sport where conditions are not standardized (Loland, 2001). Both sports represent a very different approach to time. Yet, both baseball and American football have been faced with similar time-related issues related to the length of baseball and football games and the apparently shrinking time of their supporters. Baseball has recognized the problem overtly, while football has assumed the problem exists and responded more subtly.

  • 1 An inning concludes when both teams have had a chance to be on offense and defense.

16Historically, baseball has possessed a mythical relation to time in that it does not require a clock. Baseball’s existence as an event sport (Martinkova & Parry, 2011) means that games may go on indefinitely if one team cannot get the required 27 outs or if the game is tied after nine innings1. There simply is no way to know precisely when a baseball game will end. For some, the indefinite nature of time in baseball represents a break from the ongoing march of linear time into something more mythical, sacred, and undefined. Baseball is also a slow game full of interruptions. These interruptions allow for thoughtful reflection on strategy and processing of information in ways not as possible in other sports (Guttmann, 1978).

  • 2 A pitching change occurs when the defensive team’s manager believes a new thrower would be advantag (...)

17Baseball’s mythical and measured relation to time has recently come under fire. Major League Baseball (hereafter MLB), and those associated with the game, have become increasingly concerned with the pace of play. Combining the indefinite time of individual games with a 162 game season schedule (with extra games for playoffs) means potentially asking fans to attend to the sport for lengthy and undetermined amounts of time. If individual baseball games get longer under the influence of developments like pitcher specialisation that necessitate increased numbers of pitching changes2 and instant replay reviews that adjudicate umpiring decisions, there may be increased fan attrition. As a result, those associated with the sport have begun to think about how to decrease game length and, in some instances, the number of games in a season (Lennon, 2016).

  • 3 The dugout is the place where the offensive team sits until it is their time to switch to defense.
  • 4 The batter’s box is the area around home plate where batters stand to hit. If they are outside the (...)

18MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred appears to have committed considerable energy towards speeding up baseball suggesting that pace of play is “an ongoing problem” (Nesbitt, 2016, para. 1). In 2015, MLB proposed four rule changes designed to decrease game length. These included managers making calls for instant replay from the dugout3 rather than walking onto the field to appeal directly to an umpire, hitters being required to keep one foot in the batter’s box4 after each pitch, quick resumptions of play following commercial breaks, and set times for pitching changes (Rosenthal & Morosi, 2015). Other recently discussed changes would subject pitchers to a pitch clock requiring them to throw the ball within twenty seconds and altering the way relief pitchers are deployed (WFAN, 2016). However, these changes have yet to be implemented or have yet to be enforced consistently, especially in the playoffs. From 2010-2016, average playoff game lengths have exceeded regular season average game lengths by at least twenty minutes. In 2016, a historically interesting World Series matchup between the longsuffering Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was overshadowed for some by pace-related concerns. The longer playoff games potentially represent “a disturbing vision from the Ghost of Baseball Yet to Come” (Lindbergh, 2016, para. 8).

19Contrary to baseball, American football is very much linked to the clock. Yet, even the boundaries of clock time have not prevented the National Football League (hereafter NFL) from becoming entangled in time issues. After years of television ratings growth, the NFL has recently seen attention to their sport wane for the first time in decades. After a 2015 season in which 46 of the 50 most watched shows on American television and all top 25 shows in 2015 were NFL games, the 2016 viewing numbers have declined considerably. Not only have audience shares declined, but fans are also choosing to watch less football than in previous years. In 2015, fans would watch a game for 90 minutes, but in 2016 that number has dropped to 85 minutes. Among the many explanations offered for the decline include too many penalties being called, fewer superstars across the league, the popularity of video streaming services like Netflix, an oversaturation of games across the week, an attention-grabbing election (Clark, 2016; Thompson, 2016), and protests related to police brutality that have led to fan boycotts (Bell, 2016). However, a simpler explanation may reside in the length of games. With the average 2015 game taking more than three hours (AP, 2015), sitting through a whole game represents a challenge for even the most dedicated fans.

20Although potentially less publicly forthright than baseball about game length, the National Football League has sped up the viewing experience for fans willing to pay for the privilege. Each Sunday during the NFL season, fans can watch a league-sponsored channel devoted to accelerated football. The NFL’s Redzone Channel aims to engage fantasy football players more interested in seeing a rapid series of scoring and potential scoring plays from a variety of games than concentrating solely on one game in its entirety. The channel is named after the space between the goal line and the twenty yard line, that space where a scoring play is most likely to occur. Even if it is intended for fantasy football owners, the RedZone Channel’s avalanche of highlights and plays that may become highlights speeds up the fan’s experience. The channel may only feature a given game for a few minutes before moving to another game.

Time in Sport

American Football

 

Baseball

 

Time-constituted with running clock

Event sport without time measurement

 

Record sport

Quasi-record sport

 

Standardized conditions

Non-standardized conditions

Time Problem

 

Shrinking supporter time

 

 

 

Longer game duration

 

Institutional Solution

Creation of the Red Zone Network

 

Rule changes

Figure 1. Time in American Football and Baseball

21These concerns about the pace of play have not been restricted to real world baseball and football, but appear to have become an issue for their virtual mediations as well. Even as baseball’s unique relationship to time seems to be one of its most historically treasured characteristics and football faces the prospect of losing attention for the first time in decades, the sports’ respective digital counterparts trade their traditional temporality regimes for something very different. The ensuing parts of this essay speak to how two digital sports games, Madden NFL’17 and MLB: The Show’16, accelerate time in their simulation of football and baseball respectively. Even if these games do not specifically mediate time in response to the time-sport crises cited above, they both indirectly address the issue of time and sport in the 21st century and potentially constitute sport for their players in interesting ways.

Accelerated Time, Madden and The Show

22Both Madden and The Show compress time through the process of acceleration. Players are positioned to experience sport in these games in a compressed, accelerated form. To be sure, the compression of time is not new for the sports game more broadly. Long before the complexities of the contemporary digital sports game, its card and dice-based forbearers were compressing time. Board games like American Professional Baseball Association in the 1930s and Strat-O-Matic Baseball and Football in the 1960s would allow players to complete entire seasons through a sophisticated system of statistically-based player cards and dice rolls. Individual games could be completed relatively quickly even if players would frequently play on a similar calendar to professional baseball and football (Baerg, 2013).

23What is new in the twenty first century digital sports game is the accelerated pace at which one can experience the extended time of sport. This accelerated time means that players are no longer bound by a close relation between the time of their play and the time of play being simulated. Time becomes accelerated and compressed in several different ways as these games simulate their respective sports. These expressions of acceleration are both sport-specific and shared such that these games cultivate Tomlinson’s (2007) culture of speed and its emphasis on immediacy.

Sport-specific acceleration

24Each of these games accelerates time for the player in ways specific to American football and baseball respectively. These sport-specific forms of acceleration occur within individual games and invoke the legerdemain of touch to trigger them. In Madden, time is certainly accelerated within individual contests by eliminating television commercial breaks. However, this acceleration is primarily achieved through an acceleration of the game clock and a feature entitled ‘Play the Moments’. In The Show, time is accelerated to an even greater degree than in Madden through a severe truncation of events in a typical baseball game.

  • 5 At the beginning of each play, the snap of the ball occurs when the center, the central player on t (...)

25In American football, control of the clock is typically confined to the offense as the offense determines when the ball is snapped5 and play begins. Madden offers players three ways in which they can determine the tempo of their offenses. With the simple touch of a button, players can choose the ‘Normal’ option of running their offense in a conventional way with the regular sequence of huddle, snap, and play execution. However, Madden also offers players two other tempos they can use to run their offense. First, players may choose the ‘No Huddle’ tempo. Much like real NFL teams, the ‘No Huddle’ tempo eliminates the time taken to huddle before the ensuing snap. Second, players may select the ‘Chew the Clock’ tempo. This tempo approximates a strategy teams employ if ahead late in a game. This tactic uses up time by running the forty second play clock down to two or three seconds before snapping the ball. In real football, the clock runs conventionally in these situations. However, in Madden, chewing the clock accelerates game time such that twenty seconds of the play clock elapses in two seconds of real time.

26Tempo within games represents a comparatively minor acceleration relative to the game’s Franchise mode. In Franchise mode, players take control of a team to play across several sixteen game seasons. The introductory video to Franchise mode tells players that it is “the best way to play Madden’17.” Given that an individual game could take easily more than an hour to complete, Madden’s designers afford the player a way to accelerate individual games. This form of acceleration arrives in a feature called ‘Play the Moments’. If players choose to play the moments, they do not work through individual games play by play. Instead, Madden’s statistical engine simulates each game until the engine flags an impending play as important for the player to step in and control. These engine-identified plays typically involve end of half sequences as time is running out or possible scoring plays in the opponent’s redzone. Other plays in a game are rendered meaningless or meaning-light relative to instances where the simulation stops for player intervention.

27The video goes on to suggest that ‘Play the Moments’ places “all the key moments of the game right at your fingertips.” In keeping with Tomlinson’s (2007) discussion of touch and immediacy, the colloquial phrase ‘at your fingertips’ becomes a means of communicating about accelerated time. Rather than having to play through apparently less meaningful events in a game, one touch to invoke the ‘Play the Moments’ accelerates the player into situations that potentially offer the most heightened excitement. What might take thirty real world minutes to unfold becomes three seconds as the game engine simulates towards the next moment placing it into another dimension of touch to be discussed in further detail below.

28Interestingly enough, Franchise Mode’s introductory video challenges players to use ‘Play the Moments’ to “take all the action of the NFL’s Redzone Channel and mash it into Madden.” The fact that the video overtly references the Redzone Channel positions the player to equate playing Madden with watching an accelerated version of football. Even though the Redzone Channel zooms around from game to game on a given Sunday and ‘Play the Moments’ is restricted to one specific game, both forms of mediated football offer an accelerated experience of football in search of the next exciting play. The Redzone Channel and ‘Play the Moments’ collapse football time into a series of brief moments that sidestep events that either take too long to unfold or lack perceived significance. As a result, Madden accelerates the experience of a football game into a much briefer window of time than its analog counterpart.

29As with Madden’s sport-specific relation to time and football, so too is the relation between time and baseball sport-specific in The Show. However, the way in which The Show mediates time in baseball is even more distant from the real sport than that of Madden.

  • 6 Single A baseball represents the lowest rung of professional baseball. Players move from A to AA to (...)

30One of the foremost modes in The Show is a single player career mode entitled ‘Road to the Show’. In this mode, the player creates a character, chooses a position, and begins a virtual career at the lowest level of professional baseball. The player then attempts to move up from the various rungs of the minor leagues to the professional level, i.e. the Show. For many baseball players, the journey from the minor leagues to the professional ranks takes several years. The 140 plus game minor league season and the 162 game major league season make this process a long and arduous one. Given that the mode presents the appeal of the journey and that the game’s moniker stresses the professional level, presenting players with a real time simulation of this process would be met with incredulity. Few, if any, video game players have years to spend attempting to become a virtual professional baseball player. As such, The Show accelerates time so that players can complete a journey from the lowest level of single A ball6 to the highest level of professional baseball.

  • 7 The catcher crouches behind home plate and attempts to catch each unhit pitch from the pitcher, the (...)
  • 8 Pitches are thrown in sequence and are counted as strikes or balls. A strike is a pitch at which th (...)
  • 9 A groundout is a batted ball that is hit on the ground to a defensive player. That player then thro (...)

31At a most basic level, The Show eliminates all but a few of the static aspects of baseball. The player does not see throws back to the pitcher from a catcher7 after each pitch or her avatar stepping out of the batter’s box between pitches. There are no glances toward the third base coach or manager for tactical instruction. While on base, the player sees a generated ball-strike count8 for the hitter so that there will not be any waiting for pitches that fail to yield overtly significant outcomes. The process is actually so quick that it can occasionally be difficult for a player to be oriented to the game situation before the first pitch of a time at bat arrives. In a matter of seconds, The Show might move the player from a groundout9 in the second inning to the next at bat in the fourth inning with little regard for context.

32While on defense, ‘Road to the Show’ accelerates time so that players rarely face situations in which they are not involved. If the player has chosen to be a third baseman, plays in which a ball is hit to the right fielder would be simulated such that the player never sees them. The Show’s simulation engine would determine whether or not the player should be involved. If a player does not have an at bat or does not have an opportunity to catch or throw the ball, the game zooms ahead to the next situation where the player can act.

33As a result, Madden’s ‘Play the Moments’ feature becomes a de facto mode of play in The Show. Each time the player might act, the game allows the player to intervene. If no overt action is to be taken, the game will zoom ahead to the next possible intervention. The consequence of this acceleration means that instead of the conventional three plus hours game, games in the ‘Road to the Show’ can be completed in as little as five minutes.

Shared forms of acceleration

34Accelerated time in Madden and The Show is not only sport-specific. Both games share a form of acceleration linked to the athletic career, i.e. that duration of time for the athlete. As with acceleration and individual contests, so too does touch play an important role in the acceleration of the athlete’s digital career.

  • 10 Swinging for contact represents the safest way for a batter to hit the ball. This approach aims to (...)
  • 11 Swinging for power represents the riskiest way for a batter to hit the ball. This approach aims to (...)
  • 12 A knuckleball is a very slow pitch (usually 60-80 mph) that is thrown without spin. Its lack of spi (...)

35This legerdemain of touch can be found in the control schemes of sports games like Madden and The Show. A simple one finger button press or stick movement can yield virtual feats that take years of specialized practice for the real world athlete to master. For example, in Madden, players can order a quarterback to throw a looping touch pass by double tapping the X button or a quick bullet pass by holding down the square button. Once the target has the ball, the player can subsequently spin by holding the circle button and moving the right stick or hurdle a defender by pushing the triangle button. In The Show, batters may choose to swing normally by pressing the X button, swing to make contact10 with the circle button, or swing for power11 with the square button. Pitchers, depending on the real world skillset being simulated, can throw up to five different pitches. A simple press of the triangle button may allow for anything from a 100 mile per hour fastball to a much slower dancing knuckleball12.

36Across both of these games, the legerdemain of touch compresses the time and energy the real athlete expended to master the specialized skills needed for success in modern, professional sport. The simplicity with which a player can learn and execute these skills accelerates Guttmann’s (1978) process of specialisation in modern sport. To learn how to throw a touch pass as a quarterback under the pressures of incoming defensive linemen or to learn how to swing at a pitch for power without compromising the mechanics of one’s swing is something many who play real football and baseball never master. Yet, the way in which these games mediate these skills accelerates and abstracts the time required to learn them outside the digital realm. The immediacy with which the player can execute these skills elides the arduous, heavy work of ongoing training and careful attention to technical detail. Mastery is immediate with the touch of a button or a swipe of the finger such that the shift from amateur to virtual professional happens almost instantaneously.

37This legerdemain of touch and its relation to the acceleration of time is also expressed in another game mechanic. Throughout a variety of game modes, both simulations position the player to witness to and participate in the accelerated career progress of athletes—a progress that has historically been subject to more extended observation and measurement in time (Lopez-Gonzalez, 2014). In both Madden and The Show, players are positioned to not only experience the mediation of individual games, but entire football and baseball careers.

38Both Madden and The Show invoke the role-playing game mechanic of the experience point. In the role-playing genre, the experience point system represents the level of progress one’s avatar or party has attained while playing the game. A warrior might gain experience points for successful battles or a healer may generate experience points for binding an ally’s wounds. Experience points end up being accrued so that a player’s avatar or party can level up and gain access to more powerful skills and abilities.

  • 13 A touchdown pass means a successful scoring play in which a quarterback throws the ball to a receiv (...)
  • 14 A quarterback sack is registered by a defensive player when the defender tackles the quarterback be (...)

39Although functioning slightly differently than the conventional role-playing game, Madden and The Show employ the experience point system in a similar way. As players accomplish game specific goals and/or perform well, they accrue experience points for their avatar(s). In Madden, these goals might involve individual game milestones like throwing touchdown passes13 or sacking the quarterback14, season long goals like running for 1,000 yards, or career goals like winning a certain number of games as a coach. In The Show, experience points can be similarly earned for multi-hit games, a thirty home run season, or striking out 1,000 batters. No matter what players do in these individual games, they earn experience points that can be applied to their virtual athletes. This experience points system extends Guttmann’s (1978) notion of quantification even further given that players can be awarded points for the most mundane of actions. For example, merely seeing one more pitch as a hitter in The Show allows a player to accrue extra points.

  • 15 A stolen base occurs when a runner on base advances to the next base as a pitch is thrown and as th (...)

40Rather than level up and gain a major jump in skill like the typical role-playing game, both Madden and The Show operate on a more gradual scale. Each of the football and baseball players is rated on a 1-100 scale across a range of variables. These variables might involve physical abilities like speed and strength, mental skills like awareness and discipline, or technical abilities like accuracy and base stealing15. As players accrue experience points for every press of a button and move of a control stick, they generate the capacity to improve their virtual athletes and teams. This being said, each athlete in these two games has a preprogrammed aging curve built into his career arc. Virtual athletes improve until they reach a preassigned peak rating in their respective variables. Improvement occurs most quickly early in a career, incrementally in mid-career, and then a decline occurs as this career comes to a close. Even athletes in digital sports games experience the ageing process.

  • 16 A running back is the designation for the player who stands behind the quarterback. The running bac (...)
  • 17 The gap is the open space between outfielders.
  • 18 A shortstop is the designation for the defensive player who stands on the right side of the infield (...)

41However, the way these careers unfold sets aside “the corporeal experience of ageing” (Woodward, 2013, p. 22). Again, this setting aside can be tied to the legerdemain of touch. Where athletes are often reported to be feeling the aches and pains of ageing, the ease of touch in the digital sports game elides this pain completely. For a player to push the right stick and juke a defender with a twenty-four year old running back16 at the height of his powers feels the same as attempting to make that same move with a thirty-three year old running back who has experienced a decade of punishment. For a player to push the square button and muscle a fastball into the gap17 with a twenty-two year old rookie shortstop18 feels the same as doing the same thing with a thirty-eight year old shortstop in the twilight of his career. Enacting the movement in the virtual space involves the same flick of a thumb or finger without the correlative of all that goes along with “the corporeal experience of ageing” (ibid.). Given this ease of movement, time does not restrict the player’s corporeal capacity as it does the real athlete, but only restricts the outcome of a flick or movement as simulation engines calculate results.

42Across both Madden and The Show, players experience an acceleration of the time-sport relation. Whether this relation is sport-specific or shared between the two digital games, players step into a virtual football and baseball that works much more quickly than that which they simulate. The next section speaks to some of the potential consequences of this acceleration for players and for sport.

Mechanisms for Accelerating Time

Madden

 

The Show

 

Offensive tempo (Normal, No Huddle, Chew the Clock)

Elimination of all non-interactive events

 

Play the Moments’

 

 

 

Skill mastery via simple touch

 

 

 

Accelerated career progress

 

 

 

Accrual of experience points

 

 

 

Virtual growth and the denial of age

 

Figure 2. Summarizing mechanisms for accelerating time

Implications

43Sports video games do not cause their players to embrace this accelerated perspective on time and sport. To make this argument would be positing a technological determinism asserting that individual technologies have the capacity to produce the social in and around sport. Alternatively, video games are not completely “a function of social interpretation or… ‘textually’ constructed” (Tomlinson, 2007, p. 12) either. After all, subjects do experience and play these games in different ways. A player can choose to play the sports of football or baseball as closely to the real world time-sport relation as possible or enact accelerated football or baseball in Madden or The Show. As such, digital games may establish possibilities and affordances as players experience them, but not necessarily dictate the precise meanings players may take from them. Digital games offer subject positions, but players are not bound by this positioning. In their mediation of time within the context of immediacy, these games do not force players to engage with their form of mediation, but they “invite us to respond to them in particular ways” (ibid., p. 132).

44However, if something like the rhythms of television and its forms of flow become taken for granted (Williams, 2003), it would also seem possible that the rhythms of a newer medium like the video game may become assumed as well. Video games offer a rhythm grounded in interactivity, an interactivity that does not generally allow for periods of waiting. The slow build up that yields the fruit of patience becomes marginalized under the pressure of compressed and accelerated time. Tomlinson argues that the considerable benefits of anticipation “may quietly slip away…[in] being routinely undermined in our interfaces with impatient and immoderate technologies” (p. 133). These technologies may work against a waiting to satisfy, a waiting that delays the gap between desire and its satiation. This mitigation of waiting appears in both of the sports games discussed above.

45In Madden and The Show, their respective mediations of time render the satiating of desire almost immediate along several lines. Madden’s focus on the seemingly more important times of a football game and The Show’s emphasis on eliminating any part of baseball that might require waiting position players to rarely experience the anticipation of satiating desire. A yearning for the interactive and, ostensibly, exciting moments of digital sports games marginalizes the possibility of player patience while also satiating a player’s desire for significance. In professional sport, not everything that occurs in a given game will revolve around a particular athlete. A quarterback’s pass may travel to the opposite side of the field or a batted ball may be hit away from one’s position. However, in these sports games, the medium’s emphasis on interactivity means these non-interactive moments can be sidestepped as the game engine accelerates toward the next interactive sequence. Under the power of compressed time in these games, there is no waiting in insignificance as the simulation races ahead to that which is interactive and deemed meaningful.

46More covert than game modes that eliminate overt forms of waiting, the subtle hapticity of control schemes also foster speed and the culture of immediacy. The way these two games allow players to learn advanced athletic moves closes the gap between the desire to be a highly skilled athlete and virtually becoming that athlete nearly immediately. Just about any player can pick up a controller and hold down a trigger allowing her to sprint faster than she ever could in real life or press a button that allows her to swing at a pitched ball with more power than she could on a real baseball diamond. The accelerated nature of this skill acquisition minimizes the amount of time and perseverance required for real world athletes to acquire these abilities. This haptically induced immediacy also contributes to a potential impatience in players who may develop unrealistic expectations of skill development in real sports. In a related vein, the digital sports game’s acceleration of the experience of athletic corporeality may also be problematic with respect to injuries and aging. Although the sports game routinely provides detailed diagnoses of injuries that occur in simulated sports universes, the accelerated and virtual nature of healing with these injuries positions players to see the arduous, difficult work of real world injury rehabilitation as invisible. The heaviness and sheer physical challenge of rehabilitation is exchanged for the light and simple press of a button as months of real world physiotherapy become compressed in a matter of seconds. Again, this form of digital immediacy may elide the corporeal nature of sport via accelerated time.

47Perhaps more pernicious for the leagues licensing these games, the acceleration of time may have deleterious effects on the experience of their sports. With the way Madden and The Show disrupt the temporal rhythms of these respective sports, these games may yield impatience in players who engage them in other mediated forms. With both MLB and the NFL struggling to retain audiences for their televisual broadcast content, asking players to sit patiently through an entire televised baseball or football game may be an increasingly difficult request. Madden and The Show do their players no favors in positioning them to see the real sport as that which either takes too long or, even worse, actively wastes time. As such, these professional sports may actually be contributing to their own demise as they provide developers the permission to provide players with simulated, accelerated versions of their product.

48The notion of wasted time can even apply to time spent within the worlds of Madden and The Show. Martinkova and Parry (2011) critique event sports through Heidegger’s notion of original temporality by asserting that they are reductive in binding us to objective time. Event sports and their pernicious forms of measurement tend to condense the athlete’s performance to statistics deriving from the regulation of time. As such, athletes become “haunted by time” and this haunted objective time “directs existence, rather than existence developing from within itself” (p. 28). They go on to suggest that measurement in time yields a body that is a machine, one that is an inauthentic human being. This critique applies to the mediation of the event sport that is baseball in The Show, however, it also applies to the record sport that is football in Madden. In both cases, the quantification of all activities through the experience point system becomes just as important to the simulation as winning and losing. For without the ongoing increase of experience points, virtual athletes become stuck in time and do not reach their simulated potential. In addition, players do not reach their simulated potential either in being unable to improve the talent on their virtual teams. The experience point thereby becomes the embodiment of the haunted time that directs the virtual athlete’s and the player’s existence. The player need not participate in any part of a game that will not shape the growth of an avatar or team such that actions that do not accrue experience points end up being wasted.

49A theorist like Virilio (2008) warns about ignoring the implications of speed. Virilio critiques speed as a violence that is expressed in a loss of “time for reflection. The power of speed is that” (p. 71). Both Madden and The Show mitigate a potential for reflection on the flow of sport in their accelerated pacing. As both games position players to preoccupy themselves with the interactive, i.e. that which the simulation deems significant, this interactivity forestalls reflection. This marginalization of reflection is also accompanied by a preoccupation with “the intensity of the instant, and not the stability of the duration” (p. 110). Madden’s ‘Play the Moments’ and The Show’s focus on only those interactive moments crystallize this intensity at the expense of patience, waiting, and durability. Virilio also asserts that, “Most people think of speed as progress, they believe that speed simply means going faster from one point to another; but they forget that the world is closing in on us and that we’re being asphyxiated by our way of life” (p. 222). To apply this notion of asphyxiation here, Virilio would warn about what is lost in the acceleration of sport the digital game affords its players.

50Tomlinson (2007) is careful not to vilify immediacy and its consequences. Immediacy may indeed yield fear, loss, and anxiety, but it also has the capacity to yield pleasure and fascination as well. That players can experience something like a four month or eight month season of real sport in less than a week through a video game allows for the pleasure of projection and a step into an unknown future. Similarly, frequent participation in the intensity of the instant, those most important moments in a game can allow for increased levels of excitement and a heightened enthusiasm for sport. There may indeed be virtue in speed and immediacy.

51Whether there may be gains or losses attached to the experience of time in the digital sports game, engaging how these simulations position their players can provide one entrée into broader questions about the time-sport relation. This essay represents an initial step into understanding how this new medium ultimately shapes our understanding of this relation.

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Games Cited
EA SPORTS, 2016, Madden NFL’17, Tiburon.

SONY INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT, 2016, MLB The Show’16, Sony San Diego.

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Notes

1 An inning concludes when both teams have had a chance to be on offense and defense.

2 A pitching change occurs when the defensive team’s manager believes a new thrower would be advantageous for facing opposing hitters. Each change takes roughly five minutes. Changes are allowed as long as the defensive team has unused pitchers available.

3 The dugout is the place where the offensive team sits until it is their time to switch to defense.

4 The batter’s box is the area around home plate where batters stand to hit. If they are outside the batter’s box, the pitcher is generally not allowed to throw the ball.

5 At the beginning of each play, the snap of the ball occurs when the center, the central player on the offensive line, picks up the ball from the ground and moves it back between his legs to the quarterback who then begins executing the play.

6 Single A baseball represents the lowest rung of professional baseball. Players move from A to AA to AAA to Major League Baseball. Talented players may skip one of these levels, but many make these moves gradually.

7 The catcher crouches behind home plate and attempts to catch each unhit pitch from the pitcher, the player throwing the ball.

8 Pitches are thrown in sequence and are counted as strikes or balls. A strike is a pitch at which the hitter swings or one that passes through an imagined box made by home plate and the distance between the batter’s elbows and knees. A ball is any non-strike. Batters are allowed three strikes before being called out and sent to the dugout or four balls and being sent to first base.

9 A groundout is a batted ball that is hit on the ground to a defensive player. That player then throws the ball to first base before the batter can arrive there safely. The batter is subsequently deemed out and must return to the dugout.

10 Swinging for contact represents the safest way for a batter to hit the ball. This approach aims to merely hit the ball and prevent a strikeout.

11 Swinging for power represents the riskiest way for a batter to hit the ball. This approach aims to hit the ball as hard as possible in hopes of a home run, but risks a strikeout.

12 A knuckleball is a very slow pitch (usually 60-80 mph) that is thrown without spin. Its lack of spin causes it to move erratically.

13 A touchdown pass means a successful scoring play in which a quarterback throws the ball to a receiver who either runs for a touchdown or catches the ball in the endzone, the scoring area.

14 A quarterback sack is registered by a defensive player when the defender tackles the quarterback behind the line where the ball was snapped.

15 A stolen base occurs when a runner on base advances to the next base as a pitch is thrown and as the batter does not hit the ball.

16 A running back is the designation for the player who stands behind the quarterback. The running back is typically handed the ball from the quarterback and must advance as far as possible before being tackled.

17 The gap is the open space between outfielders.

18 A shortstop is the designation for the defensive player who stands on the right side of the infield between second and third base.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Andrew Baerg, « It’s Game Time: Speed, Acceleration, and The Digital Sports Game », Temporalités [En ligne], 25 | 2017, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2017, consulté le 16 août 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/temporalites/3655 ; DOI : 10.4000/temporalites.3655

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Auteur

Andrew Baerg

School of Arts & Sciences, University of Houston-Victoria, 3007 N. Ben Wilson, Victoria, TX, 77901, USA, baerga@uhv.edu

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