Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just Doing What the Lions Do Best

Black Friday, Best Buy. Just the day before, I watched the Detroit Lions play football. It was probably the first non-Super Bowl football game I’ve watched with any degree of focus since last year’s Thanksgiving—unless I missed the Lions last year (I can’t remember) in which case it would have been the year before that. To call myself a sports fan in any degree would be a gross injustice against the people who have put the requisite amount of blood and sweat and tears toward earning that title. But I will go ahead and say that I love the friggin’ Lions.

I’m originally from Detroit, a town not lacking for champion-class professional sports teams. I grew up with the ’84 Tigers, the ’89–90 back-to-back Pistons (to say absolutely nothing of stellar seasons from 2002–08 and another win in ’04), and a Red Wings team who have made the NHL playoffs 25 out of the last 30 years and claimed four Stanley Cups within the same period.

But then there’s the Lions, the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 regular games within a single season. The Lions, who have won all of four games since 2008. The Lions, who could have picked up a game last Thursday, if only football games were exactly half as long. This particular game was of standard length, and so the Pats came from behind to feed the Lions their shorts. What’s not to love, really? The Lions are the quintessential underdog, a team with a record so poor that there’s no need to pay attention—in an uncertain world, the Detroit Lions are always right where you left them.

So there I am, standing in Best Buy on the day after Thanksgiving with Madden 2011 in my hand. On sale. I hadn’t owned a sports title since the 8-bit generation (Blades of Steel, if you’re curious), but I’d swallowed the bug. I walked out with a new one.

Shortly thereafter, I fired up the game and selected to play as the Lions in my premier exhibition outing. As it turns out, they were an appropriate pick, because a big part of picking up a sports game is learning how to lose. My typical gaming preferences lay somewhere between GTA and Fallout: involved, immersive gaming experiences that count hours by the dozens, and where “losing” equals “failing.” You lose in these games by dying and returning to your last save or checkpoint. In most cases, all progress achieved since reaching those points has been lost—often a nuisance and occasionally a crushing waste of time.

In Madden, my calculated button-mashing strategy quickly backfired. Apparently when you have a single defender in the backfield during a passing play, random buttons have a way of instructing him to make an inexplicable dive away from the ball; the receiver free to help an old lady cross the street as he waltzes into the end zone. Circling the drain after giving up two touchdowns and a first-quarter safety to the Colts, I hit the start button and hesitated over the option to restart. Was it better to say, “fuck this,” and return to the beginning, or to press forward into almost-certain defeat?

In the end, I went for it. By the fourth quarter, I had even learned enough to stop falling for my own play-action passes. The game escalated into a gratifyingly bloody battle, but my comeback tear came too late and the Colts served it up to the tune of 30–14. By most measures, the game was a spectacular loss, but nothing even approaching failure. What better way to honor the Lions, my hometown team who never fail to sweat it out season after losing season, than by following suit?

Restarting the game and avoiding the loss would have been the only way to “fail” in a manner similar to being fragged by Russian mobsters or devoured by a rampaging deathclaw. The frustration of expiring in Liberty City or the capital wastes comes from a loss of investment: you invest time in pursuit of narrative progress, and forfeit that stake when you fail to perform. A loss in football is not without consequence; it manifests as a black mark on a team’s record or just the pain of defeat—but either way, it’s still progress. The loss moves with the team, lending context to matches that follow and enhancing the depth of future victories. Avoiding it to the point of “reset” actually means missing a vital part of the experience.

Because what good is a bowl game if nobody loses? Defeat is the opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes, an obstacle to overcome, a taste for revenge. With a narrative structure like that, the closest things you’ll find to checkpoints in a title like Madden are the beginning of the game and—win or lose—the end.
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