Players behaving badly.

This week I was setting up my franchise on Madden 10 with the Bears. Obviously, they need WRs, so I went to free agency. Marvin Harrison‘s the top WR, but he’s got those gun charges and is accused of shooting some guy. Matt Jones, actually pursued by the bears, was a coke-head and just violated his parole. Reggie Williams, who i thought fit the Bears well, got tasered in April for shoving a cop, after which they found his coke bag. Then I thought, well Brandon Marshall wants out of Denver, maybe I could make a trade, but then he’s had a couple domestic abuse issues. And so on.

My brother and I talk discuss this phenomenon as players being “ruined for us.” The clearest example for me is Brady Quinn. I went to Notre Dame and saw Quinn play several times in college. I always root for ND players in the NFL, so I’ve followed Brady’s career a little. As far as gaming goes, I used to trade him onto the Bears as it seemed like an easy way to improve their roster with a relatively likely move. But, after finding out about Quinn’s involvement with a beating outside a gay bar, I’ll never play with him again and now actively head-hunt him when playing against the Browns.

For some reason, all these real life problems made it weird for me to put them on my virtual team. Its perhaps the weakest form of self-righteous moralism, taking a stand against drug and gun abuse by refusing to use the likeness of any one whose offenses I happen to have heard about on my virtual team. On the flipside, you’d think I’d be magnanimous enough to show mercy and forgiveness in the equally empty gesture of signing them to my team. After all, the moralizing only goes so far: Lance Briggs drove his Lamborghini into a lamp-post then tried to pass it off that his car had been stolen, but I still play with him and have never seriously considered dumping him. Even the whole Jay Cutler saga has soured him somewhat for me, but I’ll keep him on the team and hopefully he’ll improve his image this year. On the other hand, when I play NBA games I don’t search out Ray Allen, Grant Hill, or whoever just because they’re stand-up guys.

It shouldn’t make any difference for a game. If you assume the object of the game is to win, you suit up the best guys. Moreover, in digital gaming you don’t have the associated risk of repeat offenses and Goodell’s suspensions, which is probably why folks like Jones and Williams don’t’ have jobs right now. But I feel weird about using those players, sort of like I condone their activities, even though that’s absurd. In the end, I always want players I like on my team, even if that means taking lower rated players and it is hard for me to like players who are I know to have been reckless with their lives and the lives of others.

The whole episode, and also the whole deal with Vick, made me wish there were some way in which EA had put ethical suspensions in the game. There was that one version of the game, i can’t remember which, in which players did odd off-season things (for some reason Adam Archuleta kept getting hurt playing in NBA summer league) and NCAA used to have a suspension mechanic if you weren’t managing practice time with academics and such. I have no idea how they would add morality as a player characteristic for an NFL or NBA game without seriously offending people (actually, would players rather have a high or low moral rating? would Housyourmomma get up set?), but it would add a realism that’s lacking, put a real personality on the players, and give some strategic value to being reluctant to use players with a record.

For me, the lack of such a feature and my resulting reaction indicates 1) how porous the supposed “magic circle” surrounding the field of play is, that the real world activities can influence in-game decisions, permeating down even to representations of games, 2) and how indifferently reliable each of these convergence of algorithms representing players are, how much these collections of approximated stats run through a simulation lack in relation to the embodied individuals the represent. On last year’s game, Pierre Thomas and Antowain Smith were both free agent RB, both asking the same amount of money, and both had basically the same statistics, give or take a few in a category or two. What is the difference between them? Based on what criteria do I choose between them? If there is no statistical, algorithmic difference, they are basically the same to the machine and give me basically the same chance to win. What sets them apart is the real life figure they are pinned to through name, number, bio, etc. So, how do you pick between, say Brandon Marshall and Anquan Boldin? They are about the same size, about the same overall rating, and about the same WR stats (Marshall has a cheaper contract, but forget that for a moment. Its just virtual money anyway). I’d say its the real life person those stats represent. The associations we make with the person represented, the aura of the real life person mapped on to the collection of stats, carry their real-life behavior into the game as an unaccounted attribute affecting our emotional investment in the teams. And so, when players behave badly, their virtual representations look different to us.

So, while what players do in their lives outside football has nothing to do with how their virtual counterparts play in Madden, it does contribute to the persona that gets skinned onto a particular set of ones and zeros, which separates each player model from other equivalent sets of ones and zeros. In that sense, a player’s real life behavior can’t be separated from their in-game representation without doing damage to the very representational logic of the game, which makes it more than an elaborate spreadsheet exercise.