February 9, 2013 by nrbontha
In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga coined the term “magic circle” to make the argument that there is a boundary between the world of a game and the outside world. Huizinga’s theory, therefore, suggests that events in any game do not affect real world experiences and vice versa. Of course, Huizinga lived in a much different era of gaming. Since his book was published, video games have been invented and the video game industry has grown into a global and multi-billion dollar industry. Since the rise of the rise of the video game era, scholars and writers that study the industry have raised the question of whether or not Huizinga’s concept of a “magic circle” applies to video games. A host of video game writers have attempted to discredit and disprove the magic circle theory and its application to video games. These scholars primarily argue that the boundary between the video game world and the outside world is blurred because video games are interactive forms of entertainment, not passive ones. Thus, video games are not confined to magic circles because the player actively controls the events and actions in a video game. And, furthermore, video games can serve as simulations for real world activities. For example, a flight simulator is functionally a video game for flying airplanes and it actually prepares pilots for real-world flights and missions.
Writer Eric Zimmerman agrees with these arguments and says that “games are a context from which meaning can emerge.” In addition to the flight simulator example, the critically-acclaimed and best-selling EA Sports series FIFA is a video game that has changed the meaning of soccer, or “football” for millions of the game’s players. For example, before its release, millions of Americans only knew the sport of “world football” as “soccer” because of the popularity of American football in the United States. Before FIFA hit the American market, soccer was not only unpopular in the U.S., but some important figures actually resented the very existence of the sport. Even in 1994 when the U.S. was selected to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup tournament, an event that was expected to generate millions of dollars in profit, former U.S. House of Representative Jack Kemp from New York said that “[American] football is democratic capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport.” (BusinessWeek). Of course, not everyone shares or shared this belief, but most Americans certainly had very little interest in soccer at the time. Even though soccer was founded before American football, baseball, and basketball, the United States did not have an extensive, big-money professional soccer league until Major League Soccer was founded in 1993. And, even today, Major League Soccer is still not nearly as big or as a profitable as the National Football League, Major League Baseball, or the National Basketball Association. Additionally, high school and college athletics programs across the country produce only a handful of professional soccer players each year.
However, the trend in America has been changing. In his recent study, social scientist Rich Luker said that soccer is now America’s second most popular sport for people aged 18-24. Luker says that not only are more young people playing soccer and participating in both formal and informal leagues, but they are also starting to watch live and broadcasted professional soccer games at a much higher level than ever before. The availability of high-quality content for both domestic and foreign leagues has improved substantially over recent years due to the advent of new Internet and cable services. For example, big media networks such as ESPN and FOX Sports now devote more air time to professional soccer games and soccer news. Twenty or so years ago, these channels would maybe set aside a minute for coverage of foreign soccer leagues. Now, thirty minute episodes of soccer-specific shows regularly air on these channels. These shows cover the MLS as well as the English and Spanish leagues.
In addition to increased coverage of the sport, Luker also notes that he was surprised by FIFA’s impact on the rise of soccer in the United States. He says that “for the longest time, [he] believed that video games and fandom of sport were not connected…but games like FIFA have done more to advance the popularity of soccer than [he has] seen with any other sport” (ESPN FC). However, video games should not be thought of as a minor factor for the rise of soccer’s popularity in the U.S. A video game analyst even examined Luker’s findings and said, that according to his own research, “the American audience enjoys interacting with our game more than watching soccer passively on television” (ESPN FC).
In the video game, the player controls a professional soccer team during a simulated game against another professional soccer team. The game has a selection of hundreds of teams from over thirty different countries. Each player on a team is modeled to physically resemble his real-life counterpart. Furthermore, each player in the game is assigned a numerical rating from 1 to 100 (1 being the worst rating, 100 being the best) that is determined by evaluating the player’s real-life strengths and weaknesses on a football field. An overall rating for each team is also calculated by averaging the individual player rating. The game also, more or less, knows all of the teams’ strategies. The result is that each team has its own unique characteristics depending on the combination of its players and tactics. Thus, each game is always different because no two teams are the same. The game is also just as difficult as the real sport, so it is not uncommon for games to end in a low score or even a 0-0 draw (yes, that can happen in soccer).
Since the game is an incredibly accurate simulation of a professional soccer match, FIFA really can break down the boundary between the game world and the outside world. More specifically, the video game has the ability to break down the stereotypes Americans have about soccer in general. For years, Americans have thought that soccer players are weak and therefore not as athletic as a football or basketball players. Jamie McKinlay, an avid FIFA player, says that the game “destroys everything an average American has been taught to feel about soccer” and “it made [him] realize the power of netting a single goal, which feels like scoring 12 touchdowns simultaneously” (ESPN FC). While more access to content may be a big reason why Americans are getting interested in the sport, the impact of video games cannot and should not be understated. FIFA has given gamers the ability to learn about the ins-and-outs of soccer and bring their own strategies to the sport in a way that has never been possible before. The next time a FIFA player sees a goal scored in real life, he or she will know how much effort and skill went into making that goal happen.