The habit of insisting that the virtual life is somehow not part of real life has diminished with time. Few people regard, say, online magazines as fake magazines anymore. And more than one politician has been felled by a scandal involving sex that was purely digital. So even though it wasn't physical, it must have been real. Right?
But when it comes to the deeply physical realm of sports, many people still regard virtual competitions as illegitimate. Hugely popular among fans and athletes alike, Madden NFL is routinely one of the top-selling titles in video games. Last year's version was outsold in the United States only by Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Not long after Tuesday's release of Madden NFL 25, the silver-anniversary edition of the game (named after John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster), someone will have bought the 100 millionth copy of a Madden game.
And yet Madden NFL is largely ignored by the people who write about, and study, video games for a living; neither sport nor video game, I spit you out, they sneer. This quiet disdain for video game football is why it was shocking to so many, a decade ago, when it emerged that National Football League players love to play Madden NFL. Why would real football players spend their time playing fake football?
Because it's not fake. It's football.
Sports fans are masters of taxonomy. I could spend — OK, I have spent — a long evening at a bar debating whether activities like golf and bowling are sports because of the limited exertion involved. Or whether acts of aesthetically pleasing physicality that are judged and rated by experts — gymnastics, diving, figure skating — should be regarded as sports. And what about auto racing, with its reliance on technology?
As Ian Bogost, director of the graduate program in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, puts it in a new academic anthology, Sports Videogames, "Sports are weird and hard to pin down even before video games enter the picture."
The new edition of Madden NFL has all the usual trappings: the ability to control the avatars of professional players and teams, with graphics that approach what you would see while watching a game on TV. And if you're especially ambitious, you can put Tom Brady on the New York Jets, or, in this version's new owner mode, move the New England Patriots to Oklahoma City.
But if Madden NFL isn't football, what is it? Bogost states his claim starkly: "Sports video games are not simulations of sports, but variants of sports. Or, put differently, sports video games are just another way to play sports." For him, Madden NFL "is just a kind of American football." In this line of thinking, video game football is best thought of, as Bogost writes, as "a kind of sport rather than a type of media about sport."
Among dedicated video game players, you'd probably have more success arguing that strategy games like StarCraft II or League of Legends are the truest manifestations of virtual sports — certainly not Madden NFL, which garners about as much respect as a tabletop game of electric football, with its plastic figurines vibrating on a plug-in board.
But despite my affection for barroom arguments, I don't particularly care whether anyone thinks Madden NFL 25 is a sport. Is backyard touch football a sport? Is H-O-R-S-E a sport? Is playing catch with your dad a sport? Whether they are sports or not, these activities are real.
They are beloved by the people who love sports. They provide many of the same joys that sports bring to our lives. Like H-O-R-S-E or catch, Madden NFL is not an imitation of football that people are foolishly using to substitute for the version with millionaire players in corporate-sponsored stadiums. It is its own pleasure.
The things we do online and in virtual places, whether in video games or text messages or comment threads or Facebook pictures, are not distinct and separate from the lives we muddle through offline. In the virtual world, people fall in love, get in arguments, bully one another and, yes, play sports. These activities aren't imitations of reality. They aren't lesser versions of what goes on in the real world. They are the real world.
And the virtual world might be a better place — less vitriolic, more empathetic — if everyone remembered that more often.