The beautiful game has become ugly: why I broke with Fifa | Games

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IIt’s always tragic when a love turns sour, especially one that has lasted longer than any other adult relationship. But in 1993, I lost my heart in an office in Slough. Electronic Arts invited a motley team from GamesMaster, the TV show I was hosting at the time, to see what they claimed to be the future of video games. A dimly lit desk and a gray plastic table littered with spaghetti cables didn’t promise much. But then a switch was flipped and the earth moved for me. Years before Tim found Dawn, I found Fifa International Soccer on Mega Drive.

I had already had relations with football matches. Game day was my first love when I was 12, and I split my time between him and his brain brother Football Manager. The kickoff was the one that escaped me because I couldn’t play when it was important. I was considering settling down with Sensible Soccer, but Fifa arrived in all their 3D isometric attire, promising four players the race of a lifetime. I felt like I had torn the fabric of time to spy on the future.

Love on the first byte… the original Fifa International Soccer, 1993. Photograph: ArcadeImages / Alamy

Over the next 29 years, I spent thousands of hours playing incarnations of that same game, across births, deaths and marriages, from Cockermouth, Cumbria, to Martin’s River, Nova Scotia. While the rest of my life has changed, Fifa was there every year, with slightly altered ball physics. But this year, I will not buy Fifa 22.

It’s the online game that didn’t. I never cared about this malarkey until I moved to Canada in 2009 and had no real friends to play with other than guys in plaid shirts who didn’t realize that the NHL hockey games peaked in 1994. Puck that, I thought. Instead, I’ll be playing Fifa Ultimate Team through a flickering internet connection. But let’s face it: Most things online are horrible, even when they were once meant to be forces of good. Twitter exposes hypocritical politicians while spreading socio-political hatred. Photos of your grandmother on Facebook are adorable, but it’s also a pit of Covid misinformation that could actually kill her. Online gambling, which should be the culmination of reaching out across the world to unite us in a fun distraction from our daily shit shows, becomes just another way to be shit.

Most of the time, you don’t just get beaten up online. You are being humiliated. Someone will score a cheap goal, perform an excessive streak of celebrations, and pass the ball in the back for the remainder of the game. It was Fifa online this year. You might say, well, that’s what real football is. If you paid me Messi’s salary I would put up with it, but I’m supposed to be here having fun.

Raheem Sterling in Fifa 20.
A wizard like Merlin … Raheem Sterling in Fifa 20. Photography: Electronic Arts

Adding anonymous communication to the competition has always been a terrible idea for our precarious civilization, and when I beat someone without a face and the words “GOOD LUCK YOU SWEATING YOU F * G” appear on the screen? It’s not the content I’m here for. I have read that particularly bilious FIFA players threaten physical and sexual abuse if they lose. Of course, I can turn off my messages, but that doesn’t stop knowing that’s what human beings choose to do with their time. It may be Trump, Covid, or an environmental disaster that burns the world and unleashes toxic clouds of misanthropic nihilism, but it all kind of went Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.

That makes Dave Perry infamous reaction failing Super Mario 64 on GamesMaster seems positively noble. And that’s where I feel a hint of guilt. GamesMaster has promoted competitive play. Before online gaming and competitive esports, I handed out my share of withered comments to the losers. I never thought it would happen at this global level, any more than Tim Berners-Lee thought his internet idea would result in the Two Girls One Cup.

Speaking of ideas, here are two of the worst in the game: microtransactions and loot boxes. Vile concepts in the wasteland of 2021. Loot boxes are essentially games of chance, gambling is addictive, and microtransactions are the most effective addiction delivery system since cigarettes. I’ve been seduced by them in the past, they’re so cleverly made – it’s militarized behavioral science. If the loot box designers had been tasked with Covid, we would have only had a few isolated sniffles.

Considering that EA took $ 1.62 billion out of Fifa Ultimate Team deals alone in 2021, that’s not going to change. But I can.

A cynical seizure of money in the beautiful game?  Certainly not… Fifa 21 Ultimate Team.
A cynical seizure of money in the beautiful game? Certainly not… Fifa 21 Ultimate Team. Photography: EA Sports

It’s not just about the money, it’s about time. When I was doing press for the GamesMaster book it’s next year, everyone asked me if I still play video games. I said yes. But I realized no, really. I just played Fifa. Of course, I’m going to fight through hit games of the GTA, Mass Effect, and Witcher variety, but my own kids have urged me to play games that they love, and I’ve ignored them because I Had to score three ends in a rivals match to get my final trade against the Vidić icon card. How sad. I took my pick from all the play kitchens and all I really did was eat at McDonald’s.

Ironically, these are things with big storytelling that my kids got into – games like Outer Wilds, Edith Finch, and Life Is Strange. I fell in love with video games because they told stories. You broke buttons and so on, but Jet Set Willy was a story. Atic Atac was a story. Pajamarama was a story. The only story Fifa tells is Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a hill every day to restart at dawn with another insignificant achievement to achieve. And Sisyphus didn’t have to replace the Xbox controllers twice a year because he smashed them against the wall in a blazing rage during Weekend League.


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