Digital identities and the real-life power of FIFA’s player ratings

By Neil Merrett

Electronic Arts used a slick new promotion for the upcoming 2021 edition of its FIFA videogame series to give professional footballers an overall value of their skill and worth as athletes within the game. 

Regardless of each player’s self-belief or personal understanding of their skills, FIFA’s rankings now have a real-world power that can impact their global perception. Is it just a clever gimmick, or does the stunt say a lot more about where humanity may be heading?

Young gamers in the 1980s and early 1990s would have faced the not unreasonable maxim from suburban parents that videogames were nothing but an indulgent time sink.  They were seemingly nothing but a new kind of toy that would pass with the next fad to arise, whether that be pogs or yoyos.

The prevailing logic of the era was that you couldn’t make a viable living from games. More importantly, there was nothing to be gained from playing them but distraction and potential deviancy.  

Having lived 36 or so years as a straight white male with some form of Nintendo, Sony or Sega system at hand, not to mention a passion for all things Toadette – these are not unreasonable accusations

Games were something boys and girls were supposed to grow out of, not to grow up with. This perception was partly because of both the relative youth of videogames as a culture and its primary audience of the time.

Nintendo and Sony were far from the first gaming companies to lead the market, but for millions if not billions of people, they have been a constant source of escapism, frustration and entertainment for the entirety of their lives. These companies are videogames and games are as ubiquitous a part of daily lives as much as Walt Disney movies or television were for the best part of the 20th century.

Videogames are now arguably a central pillar of popular culture and artistic expression as much as music and film – certainly from an economic standpoint.

Recent research conducted by Juniper Research predicts the global videogame industry will reach a value of over US$200bn by 2023, up from US$155bn this year.

A young medium

The perceptions then of gaming as valueless pastime, wasn’t unreasonable considering the youth of videogaming as a medium – but times have changed.

By definition, there was nothing ‘real’ about videogames, and there were no obvious ramifications of your actions in a digital world extending beyond your screen. This is unless you count the ongoing debate about whether virtual violence leads directly to real world copycats and crime.

Games themselves are still developing as a prevalent culture, at the same time that their audience are developing a more nuanced understanding of the value of programming and design choices.

As such, it would have been hard to predict that the industry would grow to have a truly global appeal that spans age, gender, sexuality and faith to be a vital part of the human experience for many born from the 1980s onwards.

Games now mean something to humanity. For better or worse, they offer a tangible form of entertainment, therapy, training and even livelihood.

In the last decade in particular, the hateful and misogynistic so-called ‘Gamergate’ movement that masqueraded as a fan backlash against certain kinds of creators ultimately preceded a cultural lurch towards grievance-based populist politics that has infested so-called developed democracies the world over. 

Blame it on Space Invaders

This development was not entirely unpredicted. Games can let you live out fantasies of having power to shape worlds as being exactly how you want them to be, why should politics be any different?

In what is regarded as one early example of critical study into the emerging culture of videogames via the prism of Space Invaders in 1982, the writer Martin Amis both delighted and warned of the almost narcotic pleasures he derived from games.

Amis’ tome, entitled, ‘Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines’ was described by the Guardian following a recent re-release as a combination of anthropological study and videogame tips book.

Simon Parkin wrote for the paper, “Amis instinctively feels that video game playing is a morally ambiguous pursuit. He aligns it with ‘pornography and its solitary pleasures’. This is a book peppered with cautionary musings about the effects video games might have on young minds – and, in the case of one young actor Amis refers to, whose obsession with Pac-Man left her with an index finger that ‘looked like a piece of liver’, their hands too.”

“He references parliamentary debates on the risk posed to young people by amusement arcades, which, even in 1982, had gained indelible associations with truancy and iniquity.”

However, the writer also appeared to understand something much more fundamental about the importance of escapism to humanity was being found by gamers in the arcade cabinets of the era. Amis was unaware of the technological advances that would put games everywhere within four decades.

Parkin added, “Amis is simultaneously aware, however, that there is more going on here than mere onanism. ‘Perhaps the foul-mouthed arcade youths aren’t just improving geometrical and spatial awareness: they’re searching for the meaning of life,’ he ambitiously wonders.”

“Certainly, he believes that the videogame’s challenge invites self-improvement, while the emergent plots that play out on the screen crown a player as a storyteller.”

Just as with the stratospheric growth of domestic internet access from the late 1990’s onwards, few could have predicted the cultural, economic and societal impact online games and fan communities would have on all aspects of culture and even politics over the next 30 years.

A “chaotic, nihilistic” moment

David Bowie, an avant garde rock star who was often at the forefront of taboo breaking popular music during the 20th Century, foresaw that the interactive nature of an emerging digital culture and online fandom would change the course of humanity in a truly subversive way.

His death in 2016, would have prevented him from seeing some of the wilder developments in online culture – but his 2000 prediction of the true nature of our ongoing digital revolution is prescient.

And so we come back to FIFA 21. This whole tangent has ultimately built to writing about a corporate social media promotion for a football videogame.

The video shows current players for English football team Tottenham Hotspur being given shiny copies of the latest blockbuster videogame FIFA 21 ahead of its global launch.  Every player of the squad is filmed receiving a personalised copy of FIFA 21, along with an icon card depicting their digital avatar and their value as a player within the game for that year.

Were they any better, slower, quicker or smarter on the pitch from the previous year?  Were the player’s progressing or regressing in their chosen profession? In short, what is their worth to the world around them?

It’s a fascinating watch, akin to some existential scene you might see in a fantasy movie or Arthurian tale where a protagonist is forced to confront their true nature in a literal mirror.

The player’s individuals scores will have no real-world impact on how an unpredictable season of sport will play out amidst an ongoing global pandemic.  Yet to many of the players, especially younger squad members – the FIFA rankings matter.

The significance of the game’s global player base means that many more people will likely experience the player’s digital avatars than their real-world selves.  The fact that FIFA games with their purchasable ‘Ultimate Team’ packs now have a real-world economic value further highlights the changing nature of spectators and audiences, as well as the parallel value of our online world.

For an additional cost, players can purchase player packs containing real-world players with the option of using them to compete with other gamers online. The more they spend on top of the game’s purchase, the more opportunity to get highly rated players to fill out their digital squad.

Concerns about the fine line between the “surprise mechanics” of Ultimate Team and its player packs and online gambling has not gone unnoticed by real world governments that are considering where legislation may be needed.

Put simply, the way we play and buy our games matters. It impacts our wallets, our politics, our mental health and, it seems, our professional athletes. FIFA player ratings are just the latest example of the blurring of boundaries between our digital actions and selves, and the everyday world where we all exist as genuine flesh and blood people.

Superpowers such as China are already understanding and trying to utilise the idea of a Social Credit System that would build upon the currency of attention that has driven the phenomenon of social media and made real world heroes and pariahs out of some of Twitter, Facbook, TikTok and Youtube’s billions of combined users.

Nicole Kobie, writing in Wired last year, said that the system being looked at by Chinese authorities was an extension of functions such as credit checks that are provided by data brokers the world over concerning how we settle our debts. We are then scored accordingly on our financial viability as people.

She said, “We also have social-style scores, and anyone who has shopped online with eBay has a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you’re out of luck.”

“China’s social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.”

The statistic heavy world of sports science has long tried to value and quantify the attributes of specific athletes down to the most precise micro factors. But FIFA’s annual rankings, which are reported to be diligently based on the work of hundreds of data specialists and thousands of specialists reviewers and talent scouts, brings the concept to the fore as a kind of indisputable value.

These are not just athletes anymore, but videogame characters that have a separate value and potential that extends beyond real world sport.

You may not know of or even care for the current Tottenham Hotspur side or football as a whole. Yet you have doubtless been one of these players in your own life, whether when falling short or exceeding your expectations during some form of test or evaluation.

You may have been Japhet Tanganga, full of youthful joy at having begun to prove yourself to the world, not only with a professional contract and promotion, but also a respectable digital score of 71 to prove your literal wealth.

Perhaps you are 19 year-old Jack Clarke, suitably happy to be ‘someone’ on FIFA, even with an underwhelming score after a piecemeal first year in the real-life Premier League.

You might be Harry Kane, previously regarded as one of the 20 best players in the previous game, who now feels he has something to prove due to a relatively low rating on his passing ability. Success is in the eye of the beholder.

Alternatively, there is Dele Alli, a talented and at times mercurial talent that football writers would say is at a crossroads in his professional career.  His own reaction in the video – whether he is elated or deflated, concerned or ambivalent – is a pretty universal reflection of someone facing an uncertain future.

When confronted with digital scores, there is something strangely humanising about seeing real world athletes coming to terms with being ranked as videogame characters.

FIFA player rankings matter to the players, it seems, because videogames ultimately matter, both as a time sink and legitimate means of expression and escapism. Whether as a videogame character or a virtual citizen, numbers will increasingly be part of our future as a means of defining ourselves, our needs and the systems we rely on. Pretty soon we might have a lot more common with professional athletes in this respect.

As the great philosopher and ‘Fraggle’ Jim Henson once said, “Everything is important. Either that, or nothing is… I prefer the former.”

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