Something happened recently.
Our boys were lined up as we’d had the most success (including half a season unbeaten, though second in the league after too many draws), utilising the pace of Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson as wing-backs, in a 5-2-1-2 formation. The interplay between the midfield three, Lucas Leiva and Stewart Downing sitting behind an attack-minded Steven Gerrard, had been excellent. Our two strikers, Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, were combining with gusto: something to which a Liverpool team fielded by me had become accustomed. I was 1-0 up, against a friend who is generally better than me at video games. I was playing well. And for added salt-in-the-wound factor, the friend had chosen to play as Liverpool’s fierce rivals, Manchester United.
But something happened. After around 30 minutes (of game-clock time, not real time) I blocked an attack with skill and launched a counter-attack, using that compact midfield triangle as a way of getting the ball quickly to Luis Suarez, who beat the opponent’s defensive line and, latching on to a through-ball from Downing, was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. All I had to do was take a routine shot in order to go 2-0 up and see my play rewarded. It was, quite simply, beautiful.
But Suarez’s strike-partner, the bullish Andy Carroll, was running in towards goal, slightly ahead of his marker (slower than Suarez, he is) but with a little more work to do. Still, it would be an easy chance. Suarez’s position made his easier; but Carroll’s was still easy. So I passed to him. He hit it first time. It went past the goalkeeper.
Let’s pause the match there.
I’m playing a game: a game of football as well as a game of a game of football. And the object of the game is to win, by scoring more goals than the opposition. And, generally (although you could argue about this for years) to win by the highest margin is to register a more victorious win.
In every situation then, as long as I’m playing a video game, my pass was a stupid one: keep the ball with the player most likely to score, and shoot. Go 2-0 up. Get to half-time safely, maybe run away with the game. The object of the game is to win, and by the highest margin. It’s a video game; and a lot of goals is the same as getting a record level high score. So you do that however you can; and that will generally mean playing the percentages, taking the easiest chances as often as you can.
But if you’re a football fan you’ll known that Andy Carroll is a hot topic of conversation. Replacing the (previously) impeccable Fernando Torres as Liverpool’s no. 9 in January 2011, for £35m – a record for a British player – he’s so far scored nine goals in 50 appearances; hardly enough for a player who is a massive hulk of a man, and who has no obvious attributes except scoring. And possibly heading the ball.
So Liverpool fans, if they’re not hating on him, are dying for him to score. Every time he plays, they want him to score. Every time he could be in a position to score, they’re willing the ball towards him so that he can score.
I want him to score. So much. I really, really want him to be good, and to score goals. More than I want most things. Because like every fair person knows, you’re only as good as your worst participant. Andy Carroll has to score goals.
So I passed the ball, for no good (gaming) reason at all, to Andy Carroll. And his shot went past the goalkeeper.
And dragged wide of the right post. Mr. Carroll (or me) dragged wide of the right post. The game remained at 1-0. I held on but shortly after half-time my opponent equalised.
Then I was under a lot of pressure and perhaps deserved to go behind. And it was all Andy Carroll’s fault. Luis Suarez, in an act of solidarity and with an understanding of his teammate’s lack of form, passed him the ball so that he could score. And he missed. It was his fault. His fault that I would suffer this humiliation. His.
The real problem
Football fans are neurotic, and so are gamers. Sports simulation games cater to the worst kind of human being: one that wants to have fun in the most regimented possible way. Sports simulations are not fun in the way that, say, Zelda, is fun. I don’t take any gaming pleasure in playing a formation with five defenders. Nor do I take gaming pleasure from playing counter-attacking football. I take pleasure from the success of Liverpool Football Club, in this game of a game, FIFA 12. But bound up with that is the status of the real Liverpool Football Club.
I’ve seen this time and again. I’ve played against people who will insist that if, in the real world, players that have left a club, or are currently suffering from long-term injuries or suspensions, should not be eligible to play. In a computer game. I’ve picked players (like Andy Carroll) based on what’s going on with the same name in the real football world. I’ve heard a friend remark, on an AI-scored goal finished by strange-haired Brazilian, Ronaldo: “He is good, isn’t he?”
No, he isn’t. ‘He’ is a set of fixtures, coded into a game engine, onto which graphical likeness is rendered and certain attributes, mapped out in terms of the interior rules of the game in question; considered in relation to this pixelated likeness. There is no reason why a video game which mimics a sport should be realistic. There is absolutely no reason why each of us should handicap ourselves, dampen our chances of winning (the aim of a game is usually to win, and that’s the aim of the game that this is a game of), in the name of realism.
But we do. Part of the reason I’d enjoyed my first stints with FIFA 12 was that I’d forged, using players which are flopping in real life, a formidable Liverpool team. Most importantly, I’d got Andy Carroll scoring. In a league organised by a friend, he leads the top scorer’s charts; he’s a new player. So, I’d effectively solved a problem that Liverpool’s real-life manager, Kenny Dalglish, couldn’t solve: I’d got Liverpool their money’s worth with their most expensive signing.
Really the real problem
The clue, I suppose, is in the name: sports simulation. People who like sports simulation games have a tragic flaw: a subservience to realism. It isn’t enough to win. You have to win in a way that is befitting of reality – or that solves a problem which is pertinent to reality and which creates a credible alternate one. So Andy Carroll gets to score. So nobody tries to play a long ball game with Barcelona. So Pele isn’t made 18 again and then plopped in the Chelsea team.
FIFA 12 is not fun. It isn’t really a game. It’s the playing out, semi-indeterminately, of all of our footballing fantasies. It’s narcissistic; it’s delusional. But somehow, it’s football. I mean, just watch this painstaking FIFA 11 reconstruction, including the number of minutes played in the game, of Fernando Torres’s painful miss against Manchester United last year.
With a minute to go, Suarez spared Andy’s blushes, and mine. Again the midfield three did good work, releasing Suarez deeper this time. He brought the ball to the edge of the eighteen-yard box, beat a player, and took the ball to a tight angle, before thumping it into the net. Classic Suarez. It was mischievous, it was graceful; and it was the opposite of what had happened with the Andy Carroll miss.
It was a solution to one problem but it only compounds, emphatically, the real one.