Opinion: The role of play
Written by Mike Walker.
The past two weekends I’ve spent away from SCAD Savannah, despite the end of our Fall quarter looming, with so many exams to prepare for and seminar papers to finish and hand in to professors. Two weeks ago I was in Naples, Florida for the Sun Conference Cross Country Championships as the assistant coach for SCAD’s Cross Country team. This past weekend, I was at SCAD Atlanta attending SCAD Film’s inaugural Gaming Fest. From both experiences, I have brought back a lot of ideas and learned things I think are invaluable to how I see sports, gaming, and intersections thereof.
First off, I’m very pleased to tell you that SCAD is now the Sun Conference Men’s Cross Country champions! We are going to the NAIA Nationals this week to compete in the national-level cross country finals and hope to do very well there, too. Coach Patrick Reagan has built up incredibly solid men’s and also women’s cross country teams for SCAD and our men’s team outperformed teams with a longer history, and probably more resources, from larger universities in our conference. That’s testament to Coach Reagan’s vision and expertise but also to the very hard work of our artist-athletes.
At the SCAD Gaming Fest, the keynote address was delivered by the vice president and two developers from EA Sports, the hallowed outfit behind such games as the “FIFA” franchise and “Madden NFL.” I don’t think I can overstate the importance of EA Sports to gaming nor their success: if “FIFA 17,” the internationally-popular soccer video game, had been a major motion picture, its sales revenue would place it in the top ten of all major motion pictures, ahead of most of the “Star Wars” films. Seriously. That’s commercial success right there.
However, although EA Sports could have dwelt on those facts for the wow factor of their presentation, they did not. Instead, they asked a serious question: how many of us are gamers? They knew nearly everyone in the room was a gamer, and some even students of game design, but beyond that? How many of us in society are gamers? EA Sports said this: look beyond video games. How many of your parents played a high school sport? How many of you play board games or even play fetch with your dog? Well, then you’re gamers. Humans need to play, and video games are just an extension of something going on for centuries.
Those words took me back to the cross country meet. To the willingness of our athletes to run a difficult course in growing heat, beset by pesky insects, early in the morning against challenging opponents. And to do it so naturally. That’s the basis of sport. What EA Sports asked next was a core—and very exciting—question: How do we bring the vitality of real-world sports into the video gaming environment? EA Sports is already probably better poised to answer that question than nearly anyone else in the world, considering their own success in actually bringing ball sports like soccer, football and basketball into the realm of video games.
The EA Sports response was simple in premise but very challenging in action: by using the best technology and the best people, you study the sport you wish to emulate, you find its nuances and you replicate them. Yet you go beyond that, for having the blades of grass on the field the football player’s helmet ‘just so’ simply isn’t enough. You find narrative, you go for the story.
With “FIFA 17,” EA Sports introduced a new way of approaching the game of soccer, with a playable, narrative story called “The Journey” focused on a fictional up and coming player named Alex Hunter. It provided what happens off the pitch, the inside story from the outside of how a young pro athlete approaches the game and the pitfalls as well as triumphs he encounters. The verisimilitude of this struck me at once because as a coach it’s something I see in my own athletes, in our conversations at the banquet the night before the final conference race or as they quietly do their homework on the bus back to SCAD.
The reality of engrossing games is, they need to be real—it’s that simple. They need to tell a narrative which, no matter how far removed from our own reality, feels true. Whether we’re flying a starship or battling a feudal lord or playing soccer for Manchester United, it must feel real. That’s why role-playing games such as “The Last of Us” in recent years have sold so well and earned such high critical praise for their narratives and their artwork alike. We are at the point in terms of game engines and associated technologies where such a semblance of reality is possible, but beyond all that engineering an understanding of sport, an understanding of play also is vital.
SCAD is rare among its art school peers to have intercollegiate athletics, yet the fact we do is invaluable because it allows a first-rate, tangible interaction with the world of traditional sport which is so important to understanding the role of play in general in life. And that role of play carries over, as EA Sports made resoundingly clear, to game design.
I am so glad to be at a university which values both sports and the techno-creative future of gaming and related fields such as film, motion graphics and animation. We have a bright future and we’re in step with the best of the best in the industry, too. All that said, when you put on a pair of cross country spikes and smell the dew-covered grass, that’s where all other realities necessarily begin.