It is 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 crew from GamesMaster, the TV show that I was presenting at the time, down to see what they claimed would be the future of gaming. A badly-lit office and a grey plastic table strewn with spaghetti’d cables did not promise much. But then a switch was flicked and the earth moved for me. Years before Tim found Dawn, I found Fifa International Soccer on the Mega Drive.
I’d had football game relationships before. Match Day was my first love when I was 12, and I shared my time between it and its cerebral sibling Football Manager. Kick Off was the one that got away, because I couldn’t perform when it mattered. I was considering settling down with Sensible Soccer, but then along came Fifa in all its 3D isometric finery, promising four players the ride of their lives. I felt I had torn through the fabric of time to spy on the future.
Over the next 29 years I would spend thousands of hours playing incarnations of that same game, through births, deaths and marriages, from Cockermouth, Cumbria, to Martin’s River, Nova Scotia. While everything else in my life changed, Fifa was there every single year, with slightly altered ball physics. But this year I won’t be buying Fifa 22.
It’s online gaming wot done it. I never bothered with that malarkey until I moved to Canada in 2009 and had no real-life friends to play with, other than check-shirted chaps who didn’t realise that NHL hockey games peaked in 1994. Puck that, I thought. I’ll play Fifa Ultimate Team over a wavering internet connection instead. But let’s face it: most things online are horrible, even when they were once intended to be forces for good. Twitter exposes hypocritical politicians while spreading socio-political hate. Your nan’s photos on Facebook are adorable, but it’s also a chasm of Covid misinformation that could actually kill her. Online gaming, which should be the apex of reaching out across the world to unite us in fun distraction from our daily shitshows, becomes just another way to be a shit.
A lot of the time, you don’t just get beaten online. You get humiliated. Someone will score a cheap goal, perform an excessive round of celebrations, and pass the ball around the back for the rest of the game. That was online Fifa this year. You might say, well, that’s what real football is. If you paid me Messi wages, I would suffer it, but I am supposed to be out here having fun.
Adding anonymous communication to competition was always a terrible idea for our insecure civilisation, and when I beat some faceless whoever and the words “GOOD LUCK SWEATING YOU F*G” appear onscreen? That is not the content I am here for. I have read about particularly bilious Fifa players threatening physical and sexual abuse on others if they lose. Of course, I can switch off my messages, but that doesn’t stop the knowledge that this is what human beings are choosing to do with their time. Perhaps it’s Trump, Covid, or environmental catastrophe burning down the world and releasing toxic clouds of misanthropic nihilism, but it’s all gone a bit Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.
It makes Dave Perry’s infamous reaction to failing at Super Mario 64 on GamesMaster look positively noble. And this is where I feel a smidgeon of guilt. GamesMaster fostered competitive gaming. Before online play and competitive esports, I dished out my share of withering comments to the vanquished. I never thought it would get to this global level, any more than Tim Berners-Lee thought his internet idea would result in Two Girls One Cup.
Talking of ideas, here are two of the worst ones in gaming: microtransactions and loot boxes. Vile concepts in 2021’s economic wasteland. Loot boxes are basically gambling, gambling is addictive, and microtransactions are the most efficient addiction delivery system since the cigarette. I’ve been seduced by them in the past, they are so cleverly done – it is weaponised behavioural science. If loot box designers had been put in charge of Covid we’d have had just a few isolated sniffles.
Given that EA pulled in $1.62bn from Fifa Ultimate Team transactions alone in 2021, this is not going to change. But I can.
It’s not just about money, it’s about time. When I was doing press for the GamesMaster book that’s out next year, everyone asked if I still played video games. I said yes. But I realised I don’t, really. I just play Fifa. Sure, I’ll batter through blockbuster games of the GTA, Mass Effect and Witcher variety, but my own kids have urged me to play games they love, and I have ignored them because I’ve had to score three volleys in a rivals match to get my final swap for the Vidić icon card. How sad. I’ve had my pick of all the gaming cuisines out there and all I’ve really done is eat at McDonald’s.
Ironically, it’s things with great narratives that my kids have gotten into – games such as Outer Wilds, Edith Finch and Life Is Strange. I fell in love with video games because they told stories. You bashed buttons and whatnot, but Jet Set Willy was a story. Atic Atac was a story. Pyjamarama was a story. The only story Fifa tells is Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill every day only to restart at dawn with another meaningless achievement to grind for. And Sisyphus didn’t have to replace Xbox joypads twice a year because he’d smashed them against the wall in an incandescent rage during Weekend League.