Life imitates the virtual

NPR’s On the Media did a bunch of football related stories this past weekend (wonder why?); one really caught my attention as I drove back from the marsh. Bob Garfield interviewed Chris Sullentrop about Sullentrop’s recent Wired article, Game Changers. Game Changers is an survey of how sports-based videogames may be feeding back into the sports they’re based on – especially the Madden NFL/football loop. Football is especially fertile ground – a mix of complexity and speed for individual plays combined with  relatively infrequent games.

Just before he reached the end zone, with 17 seconds remaining, Stokley cut right at 90 degrees and ran across the field. Six seconds drained off the clock before, at last, he meandered across the goal line to score the winning touchdown. For certain football fans, the excitement of a last-minute comeback now commingled with the shock of the familiar: It’s hard to think of a better example of a professional athlete doing something so obviously inspired by the tactics of videogame football. When I caught up with Stokley by telephone a few weeks later, I asked him point-blank: “Is that something out of a videogame?” “It definitely is,” Stokley said. “I think everybody who’s played those games has done that” — run around the field for a while at the end of the game to shave a few precious seconds off the clock. Stokley said he had performed that maneuver in a videogame “probably hundreds of times” before doing it in a real NFL game. “I don’t know if subconsciously it made me do it or not,” he said. *

No wonder younger quarterbacks are finding more and more success at the college and professional levels. This season, a 19-year-old freshman started for USC, a perennial Pac-10 power. In the NFL, rookie quarterbacks are entering the league and excelling immediately at an unprecedented rate (think of the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco). In decades past, young passers sat on the bench for a year or two while they mastered reading NFL defenses. Now, having learned to differentiate between zone and man-to-man coverage over the course of years on their Xboxes and PlayStations, the rookies are less in need of such apprenticeship.

It’s one thing to suggest that videogames may be making us smarter. It’s another thing altogether to say they might be making us better athletes. But when you add it up, the evidence starts to look pretty overwhelming. At the Pop Warner Super Bowl in 2006, the winning team had 30 offensive plays, which it had learned through Madden. (”I programmed our offense into Madden to help me memorize our plays,” one 11-year-old told Sports Illustrated. “It was easier than homework.”) Dezmon Briscoe, an all-conference wide receiver for the University of Kansas, credited Madden 2009 with teaching him how to read when defenses “roll their coverages” — move their defensive backs to disguise their strategy. Chuck Kyle, a high school coach who has won 10 state championships in football-mad Ohio, has programmed his team USA playbook into Madden and uses it to teach players their assignments. So have coaches at Colorado State, Penn State, and the University of Missouri, among other schools. An offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the videogame as a preparation tool for an entire season, scouting his opponents digitally. While even-more-sophisticated software is available for virtual sports training, coaches and players at all levels of football say that Madden’s off-the-shelf simulation is good enough. *


I’ve been hearing some good things about Frontline’s Digital Nation – I may need to carve some time out for it – especially the section on learning.

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