I hate the artificial divide we have erected culturally between those who are into sports and those who are into videogames. It forces us to come up with self-loathing terms like ‘e-sports’ or to assume that anyone with any physical talent is automatically a lesser grade of intelligence. Worse, the myth-telling we do to reinforce these social configurations – the typical American high school war between nerds and jocks, for instance – are rarely considered for how extremely anti-female they are. It is one thing to assume that all athletes are dumb and another to criticize all gamers as lazy, but at least with those stories men can aspire to be physical Achilles or cunning Odysseus. What do women get? Either they are a Helen of Troy cheerleader or someone not worth mentioning because, let’s face it, it is a man versus man world and women are the prizes.
We can all imagine exceptions to these cultural rules. We know of female athletes worthy of equal respect and veneration as their male counterparts. We know of athletes who have serious brains, at least up until the point where concussions knock the sense they do have out of them. We’ve probably even met the elusive nerd who can kick our ass at Zelda trivia or a round of Halo AND still hold their own in a pick-up game of basketball. We know exactly how silly these stereotypes are, yet many of us are convinced to stand firm on either side of the line we ourselves have drawn, especially with a far too common ‘sports OR video games’ dichotomy.
I bring this up to talk baseball. Last year, I wrote a post comparing baseball to RPGs and no one read it. Now that Spring Training is over and the regular season is underway, I thought I’d try again. I get three strikes, right?
I grew up playing baseball in both senses of the word. I played in our local city league and I played baseball videogames. Right beside my copy of Dragon Warrior and Super Mario, there was R.B.I. Baseball. Sadly, I sucked at playing the real thing. Though I loved the game (and still do), I didn’t have the passion or drive to excel at it. It is a fun activity for pick-up and play games with friends, but when you force the uniform on me the game stops being fun.
Baseball is magical to me. Despite the generation gaps, it was the one thing my grandfather, my father, and I all had a common interest in. They didn’t have videogames or computers, and both were more content with a good Western novel than I will ever be. Given the rapid way the world changes, especially with new technologies around every corner, it has to be incredibly difficult for a parent or grandparent to relate to younger generations. Baseball is immune to that change and has remained timeless (and vaguely similar) since its creation.
The sport is also magical for other reasons. It’s a game of chance. Unlike other sports where you can outmaneuver the opponent with well-practiced strategies, baseball always boils down to a duel between two individuals. One, throws whatever they got wherever they can put it; the other is tasked with the nearly impossible challenge of ‘putting it where they ain’t’. Like the critical hit that saves your life in a RPG or that little bit of RNG (random number generator) that finally sees you get the loot you’ve been raiding for in a MMO, baseball is a game about statistics that comes alive when the impossible is made possible.
I understand it isn’t for everyone. Over the years, I have come to realize that I see baseball differently from those who don’t care for it. Where they are bored, I am on the edge of my seat. While they wait in the hot sun, half-drunk from overpriced beer and stuffed on oversized hot dogs, for a thunderous crack of the bat and a ball long gone, I watch the pitcher make the ball dance. It isn’t as simple as a difference of opinion: it’s closer to being from different planets.
Perhaps that’s why it astonishes me how sports are rarely treated as games and how real games can’t be about sports. When I say I am a gamer, I don’t mean just the videogame kind. I am open to board games and card games, to word games and trivia games, and yes to sports. There is something so incredibly human in deciding upon a set of rules to facilitate meaningful, organized play with one another. No matter the medium, my humanity makes me a gamer at heart and in my soul.
A good baseball game and a good RPG aren’t as easily distinguished as you might think. Especially in modern baseball games, a lot of time is spent on building your own personal avatar or managing his party (team). You level up your skills and you go into battle, taking turns in a variety of ways. The theming is different, of course. Unless you’re playing Japanese baseball there are no dragons to slay. There is also an air of seriousness to the whole affair that even I sometimes get turned off by. Developers and fans alike often hide behind the idea that these aren’t games, they are simulations.
I can assure you they are games. Often, they are games worth playing.
Outside of Mario-branded sports titles, many of us (including myself at times) are quick to write-off any game based on a sport. This is based on sport x? I hate sport x! I may be mistaken, but I doubt this was always the case. When sports games were less obsessed with having true-to-life grass and more interested in just getting the basics down, more people were willing to give them a go on early systems. I bet some of you have never owned a Madden game in your life, but you’ve tried Tecmo Bowl. Better yet, when sports games were allowed to run wild, I bet even more of you played NBA Jam or Mutant League Football. I was one of the few regular players of MLB Slugfest on Xbox Live and I wish I had it back.
We all have our reasons for not playing or playing these games and that’s perfectly normal. I only ask that we be less harsh on judging others for sticking to relatively few games that they enjoy a lot. That includes “non-gamers” who stick to Madden and FIFA or “core gamers” who only play RPGs. I also hope we can at least be a little bit willing to come out of our shells every once in a while and try something new. I’d absolutely kill to have a league of MLB The Show friends who are just as comfortable naming their teams the Tupelo Tornadoes as they are the Helgen Dragonslayers.
Even if sports games take themselves too seriously, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have some fun with them, right?