PAUL ROUSE: Video gaming competitions blur the lines between sport and play

The boundaries between ’real’ sport and video games have shifted and will shift again, writes Paul Rouse.

The only certainty in the world of sport is change. No sport can stand still and imagine its present status is enough to guarantee its future. And the world of sport itself is all the time subject to the shifts in the organisation of wider society.

It is a simple truism sport reflects society. And so it is this month the world of televised sport in Ireland will witness a new departure.

BT Sport, who have just announced an extraordinary new deal which has seen them secure extended rights to broadcast the Champions League, are embarking on a venture which sees them broadcast video games live on TV.

Through March and April, BT Sport will show a series of championship matches in the FIFA 17 gaming competition.

What this means is the best FIFA 17 video game players from around the world are playing off in a series of regional competitions in which the overall winner will earn a six-figure sum – some £130,000. Using their Xbox One and PlayStation4 consoles, gamers enter the competition and progress through various competition phases until the live TV stages.

Those live matches will represent the first time viewers in Ireland will be able to watch virtual football live on TV in this form of competition.

This convergence of TV sport and the world of gaming is a thoroughly natural progression. As Simon Green, the head of BT Sport said, ‘competitive interactive football gaming is a rapidly growing industry,’ and the fact that it is an industry dominated by younger cohorts makes it still more attractive for advertisers.

For their part, those who run the gaming industry are equally enthusiastic about the new partnership. Todd Sitrin, the senior vice president and general manager of the Competitive Gaming Division, EA, said: ‘There’s a profound opportunity for competitive gaming to achieve mainstream success and the key to accomplishing this is accessibility. We’re thrilled.’

The rise and rise of video games is a truly unique aspect of modern popular culture. And if anyone doubts just how deep of a hold it takes on its devotees, they would do well to read Simon Parkin’s brilliant book Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline.

Parkin has written extensively about video game culture in publications such as the New Yorker and the New Scientist, and in this new book he explores what it is that makes video games so attractive.

And, as the title of the book suggests, this is an attraction that lures people to their death. There are many recent examples of people dying during long sessions of playing video games, in arcades or internet cafes or at home on their consoles. Among the more extreme examples is the 2012 story of 23-year-old Chen Rong- Yu who went into an internet café in New Taipei City in Taiwan and logged onto the hugely popular game ‘League of Legends’. Over the following 23 hours, he played and played, stopping only to rest his head on the desk in front of him to sleep in brief snatches. On the last occasion he lay his head on the table, he remained unmoving for nine hours until he was approached by a person who worked in the café – but he was, by then, already dead.

This was one of a series of fatalities – particularly in the gaming halls of the Far East – that have taken place over the past five years, but it is a catalogue of death is nothing new, and nor is it peculiar to that region.

For example, as far back as 1982, in a city in the American state of Illinois, an 18-year old gamer – a brilliant young student who had plans to study medicine – fell dead after recording a record high score on the arcade game ‘Berserk’.

Now, people die playing all manner of sports every year, but the deaths of gamers lend themselves to a very particular idea – the notion this loss of life is confirmation that gaming is a particularly useless way to spend your days. Indeed, since their emergence from the computer research projects of America’s universities and institutes, video games have always been looked down on as a complete waste of time by those who frown on their relentless growth in popularity.

From the first arcade games, the rise of ‘Space Invaders’ and ‘PacMan, the growth of Atari home systems and onto the phenomenal success of Xbox and PlayStation, there can be no denying that this virtual world of play is defying its critics and will surely continue to do so.

Those critics dismiss video games as not being a suitable way to pass time. It’s greatest defects are presented as being a failure to properly stimulate either the body or the mind. For example, it is considered to be in no way as wholesome as the fresh-air and exercise central to ball games or the mind-expanding joy of reading books.

Indeed, as Simon Parkin wrote, they are seen instead as impoverished or depraved or infantile. And the image of the video gamer sitting almost motionless apart from the repeated twitching of their thumbs, transfixed by a screen, faces contorted by is one of the great emblematic images in the minds of those who decry all that is wrong in modern popular culture. Indeed, it is an image which reinforces the worst aspects of the loneliness and antisocial strains of the modern world.

People have feared the impact of video games from the very beginning. In fact, in the 1980s the British House of Commons almost introduced punitive legislation which would have dramatically curbed the capacity of those who wished to play them.

And at the same time police in England claimed that the phenomenon of playing ‘Space Invaders’ had actually doubled the amount of house break-ins in the south of England.

Much worse than that, it is routinely claimed – usually with the most unimpressive of evidence – that violent video games are the cause of multiple shootings either by the delusions fostered in shooters or in the training they are purported to offer to those who wish to commit crimes.

But in depicting video games in this matter, critics are missing the positives that those who love to game point to as among the benefits that can accrue. Research shows that video games can ‘improve hand-eye co-ordination, cognitive flexibility, decision making and even vision. Video games are increasingly sociable and inclusive. And, at the philosophical level, play does, of course, educate and prepare us for usefulness in the world.’

More than that, video games also offer an unparalleled escape from the realities of life. The joy of escapism is central to a happy life. And if video games provide and escape from the intolerable, the distressing or simply from the mundane, then how can they be so roundly condemned?

What is plain is that video games are loved by many, they are an essential part of popular culture, their development continues to attract more and more players every year.

The instinct to dismiss this play as not constituting real sport and being in no way suited to sports TV broadcasting is understandable, but the boundaries have shifted and will shift again: it has always been thus.

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