For all the pretensions I could contrive about gaming, I come back to a plain fact: games are regularly a form of fantasy-living for me.
I write about games, think about games, and play a variety to both enjoy myself and fortify that writing and thinking. But when I think of the hours I’ve spent actually just playing games, most of them have been spent on sports simulation. Not even that, but something narrower: football simulation. And not even that: formerly Pro Evolution Soccer, latterly the FIFA series; and perhaps with the greatest level of immersion, the Championship Manager (or Football Manager) series.
You could say that football management simulations, but particularly Championship Manager (I’m going to refer to both this and Football Manager as ‘CM’ from here), don’t make for very good games. Not as a game. Really, they’re foils for all a player’s foibles, dreams, fantasies. And for his or her imagination.
For example, I can remember some of the interviews I gave as manager of lowly Boston United, a team I took to the UEFA Cup final (as it was then – now the Europa League) with a squad made up, mostly, of other team’s rejects. I would answer questions, posted by myself in my head, about whether I was future England manager material, fielding questions on how I had eked talent from forgotten players like Jon Macken, my number 9, averaging-a-goal-every-game striker.
Was I proud that I gave local talent a chance to flourish? How had Frode Kippe, a Norwegian defensive midfielder cast off by Liverpool, masterminded the team in my storybook cup run?
What did I make of the form of these two players, three seasons on, when my Boston United team had remained in the Premier League after successive promotions?
That was my story while playing one of my many games on CM 01-02. And I am not exaggerating, for colour, when I say that I can name the Boston United starting 11 that played in that UEFA Cup final, to this day (though I don’t remember the opponent). I am not exaggerating when I say that, when discussing the rise of my Boston team with the interviewer (me), I considered whether it was fair to compare myself with Ralf Rangnick, the manager who took German side Hoffenheim from obscurity to the top tier of German football.
Quite rightly, you are likely thinking: why does any of this matter?
It’s reductive to say that, at the heart of it, these games are nothing but numbers on a screen — because what game isn’t, at the heart of it, numbers on a screen? — but there’s something overly honest about the presentation of the CM games, and especially the earlier ones, which makes them more moving than a game with a narrative, a setting, a tone.
Often it’s what you can’t see that counts. That’s true of CM but is an important feature of games that place a high value on a player’s input in some way. You can see that in the long-running, labyrinthine forums of Nation States, a game of a sort; and most famously in the much-loved city-building free-for-all Dwarf Fortress. It’s a beautiful example of a community’s power to take a game, and make it more than a game; to suggest that the story outside the game is often better than the game itself.
In a game like Dwarf Fortress or CM, much of the player is symbolic — because the graphics do little more than sign post — so that the game, really, has less to do with the game itself and much more to do with the interactions between players, like a game of chess.
You can only get out as much as you put in. Which explains how this:
Can end up as this.
Or, to take an example of a player from long-serving CM forum The Dugout:
I’m resuming my Watford game that is currently in season 2019/2020 and despite years of unprecedented success I find myself hanging on to my job. The fans are upset with me and it looks as if I shall be sacked sooner rather than later because ex-chairman Elton John’s successor will accept nothing less than the kind of success we had from 2002 to 2016.
Although I’ve guided the club to 16 successive Premiership titles, 11 Champions Leagues, 9 FA Cups and 5 World Club Championships, my policy ever since of playing local lads and sacrificing the cups has not gone down well with the new regime. So I’ve decided that the current season will be my last.
As with Dwarf Fortress, CM offers little but the instruction to make use of my imagination, and to connect it with the game’s own statistics and the real world of football — which is why I still fondly remember the day that, thanks to a feature introduced in the mid-2000s, I was able to see that, when managing Liverpool, ‘I’ became a favourite of club captain Steven Gerrard (captain for my Liverpool, and for Liverpool in real life).
In that way, CM offers greater levels of escapism than most other games precisely because, if you don’t escape into your imagination, the game could be quite boring. In it’s own little corner of the world, CM is a form of meditation – where the results don’t really matter but the world you build up around them does.
In this it differs from other games – including other sports simulations, such as the FIFA series, where the game’s high-quality graphics mark it out as closer to life, and so less, counter-intuitively, about fantasy.
But the games play an important social function, too, and again in a way that FIFA (or its ilk) can’t match, perhaps because their smooth, hyperreal graphics define them as games, more than imagination kindlers.
Put simply, the game has tangibly shaped a very real aspect of my life: that is, my age and relative worth. Playing CM back in my impressionable youth, a player could be classed as:
- Indispensable to the club
- An important first team player
- Used in a squad rotation system
- Back-up to the first team
- Hot prospect for the future
- Decent young player
- Not needed by the club
It was down to the manager to decide the squad status of each player. Options five and six, for the promising and not so promising youngsters, could only be applied to players until their 24th birthday, at which point they would have to step up, or join the scrap heap.
My school friends and I talked constantly about this, often over beer, during our 23rd year. There had always been a comfort in knowing that, above all, you were potential class rather than an actual success of failure. As each of the five of us, excepting one, have birthdays within two weeks of one another, I waited for those weeks with dread. How might we be categorised by the world?
I turned 27 last Friday, and still miss feeling as if my peers, teachers, parents and employers might see me as a decent young player or a hot prospect – something to mould and shine into a finished product.
Three years on, my friends and I still couch our birthday celebrations in CM’s terms. One friend, who turned 27 two days after me, wished me happy birthday by email. In my response, I said:
And to you! May you become an important first team player.
He laughed in his response. I think he was laughing at both the memory of the joke and at the idea that, in different ways, he is and is not an important first-team player. I consider myself as a squad rotation player; or a very able back-up for the first team. I will likely never become indispensable.
This is the sinister kernel of CM’s honesty, its ability to focus you on your own thinking rather than the game’s mechanic. Because, while I have a long way to go in the many aspects of my life, I am at least slightly convinced that, like every footballer who doesn’t find an afterlife as a coach, pundit or manager, it might all be over by the time I’m thirty-five.
I don’t know if I can blame CM for that thinking. But I can call it out, in part, for facilitating the execution of my sillier thoughts in the first instance.