By Neil Merrett
There can be such a thing as taking sports, and by extension sports games, too seriously.
There is something to be said for how games allow for parallel sporting achievements that allow for gamers to right the wrongs, slights and humiliations of the real world football through the virtual mediums of FIFA or PES. However, actual life and its complicated politics can never be entirely ignored, even in a virtual world.
This week it seemed the real world hit back against games, both via state-sanctioned homophobia and the vagaries of on-league football. As the old adage goes, it’s a funny old game.
Writing in The Guardian, Keza Macdonald noted that Fifa 17 has become the latest videogame to earn the ire of Russian MPs and the country’s strict laws outlining homosexuality. In this case, a legitimate global superpower was threatened by the spectre of downloadable rainbow uniforms for videogame characters to wear.
“In 2013, Russia’s parliament unanimously passed a law forbidding ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, essentially making it illegal to distribute any material on gay relationships or gay rights via the internet or any other kind of media, or to hold gay pride marches or rallies,” wrote Macdonald.
Therefore, the game’s developer Electronic Arts may not have realised it was playing with fire by showing its support for campaign group Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign as a means to raise the issue of homophobia in football and challenging prejudice.
To support the initiative via Fifa 17, gamers were able to download rainbow kits for a limited period as a means of virtual solidarity. Harmless enough and completely optional for those that may disagree or be unconcerned about the issue, what therefore could go wrong in allowing the download.
“The Russian MPs in question want EA to either remove this ‘offensive’ gay code, or face consequences involving either a higher age rating or restrictions on the game’s distribution in Russia,” wrote Macdonald.
“This could theoretically have financial consequences for EA, as the video games market has been booming in Russia in recent years and is now valued at more than $1bn, although it doesn’t represent one of Fifa’s biggest audiences.”
Putting aside the financial clout and considerations of the modern gaming industry, the issue is also perhaps indicative of the growing cultural value games have on a mass global audience.
Censorship is not new in game design, particularly around violence, but increasingly, politics is also likely to come into play.
As Macdonald states, “games reflect the world as it is – not as reactionaries would like it to be.”
However, the prospect of games mirroring and recreating reality can only go so far, particularly for those who dream of managing a real football club beyond the confines of a PC.
Altrincham FC, which presently plays in the National League North in England, took to social media this week to clarify that it would not consider videogame achievements in management sims like Football Manager as qualifications for its vacant manager role.
Please note, CV’s for the vacant manager role must not be based on FM or CM achievements.
— Altrincham FC (@altrinchamfc) December 6, 2016
Having terminated the contract of former manager Jim Harvey this week, the club made national headlines in asking keen gamers not to put forward their virtual managerial careers as proof of experience and skills.
Yet the pleas were not as ridiculous as they might sound, especially considering the number of professional teams that are themselves trying to capture a part of the lucrative ‘esports’ market, linking up with players of major sports simulations like FIFA.
Writing earlier this year for Dexerto, Mike Kent noted that a host of Major European clubs were following the lead of German team Wolfsburg in selecting an official representative to play Fifa games under the clubs colours.
“David Bytheway from Wolverhampton was picked up by the German football club of Wolfsburg. The city well known for its ties to car manufacturer, Volkswagen, were the first major European football club to stake a claim in esports. The organisation look committed on FIFA and have yet to make an advance into other titles,” Kent wrote.
However, other major clubs including Ajax and Manchester City have unveiled their own esports teams to distinctly non-sports games like shooter Overwatch.