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Imitation of Life

Aug. 21, 2006
Aug. 21, 2006

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Aug. 21, 2006

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Imitation of Life

Somewhere someonepresses a button and a bomb drops from a clear sky. Boom!

This is an article from the Aug. 21, 2006 issue

Randy Moss, theball light in his hands, races up the sideline for a touchdown. Boom!

Thecomputer-generated crowd roars.

Welcome to theboom times of the Madden Nation. As Maddenites everywhere know, Aug. 22 is thisyear's release date for Madden NFL 07, the Grand Mac Daddy of video profootball and one of the best-selling video games anywhere. With $250 millionearned for EA Sports last year on something north of six million units sold,the weirdly lifelike simulation named for, and refined by, former coach andubiquitous broadcaster and pitchman John Madden has brought in more than $1.5billion since it debuted in 1989.

Add to this thecollection of trademarks and copyrights that are the All-Madden Team‚Ñ¢, theMadden Bowl‚Ñ¢, the Madden Nation‚Ñ¢ and the Madden Challenge‚Ñ¢--to say nothing ofhis bus, turducken, catchphrase and induction into the Hall of Fame two weeksago--and it becomes clear that in football America, you are never far from theMadden‚Ñ¢ crowd. In fact, you'll be stepping over their sleeping bags thisweekend on your way into your local big box retailer.

ESPN, everadaptable, has even been airing on pay-per-view Inside Madden NFL 07, a $19.95tutorial on the game's new features. It's a high-water mark in advertising: aone-hour commercial you have to pay to see. That football is a simulation ofwarfare, and Madden 07 a simulation of football, and the pay-per-view asimulation of Madden--therefore the simulation of a simulation of asimulation--means you could research your master's thesis on postmoderntheories of cultural regress for only 20 bucks. Or you could just cop somesweet tips for better stickwork.

While themechanics of the game remain the same--L1 or R1 to juke the ballcarrier left orright, for example, Χ to sprint and Δ to jump--it seems that opportunities toportray the broader truths of the NFL are still being missed. To satisfydie-hard fans, in owner mode the combination RIGHT ANALOG STICK + Ο + L2should result in a 63-year-old billionaire passing out from the pain of akidney stone while lighting a Cohiba with a C note on the 1st tee at PebbleBeach. For some reason, it does not. Nor does Π+ D BUTTON + L3 cause yourhead coach to miss his daughter's Thanksgiving pageant for the fifth year in arow. Thus, his third wife's virtual divorce attorney can't yet put a lien onhis 401(k) either.

All of this isbeing accompanied by a national ad campaign that began as a sportswriter'sjoke, then became a viral marketing insurgency--the idea that the Madden NFLrelease date be celebrated as a national holiday so gamers could take the dayoff to play. With his tailgater's girth and his jolly appeal, the coach franklylends himself to it. "Merry Maddenoliday!‚Ñ¢" the commercials carol, andremember to check your online Maddvent‚Ñ¢ calendars! Maddenoliday‚Ñ¢ seems anunwieldy construction, though. Why didn't the EA marketeers use Madden Gras,say, or Maddeween? Cinco de Madden too ethnic?

Certainly the mostlyrical fit would be RaMadden, but given the current state of human affairshere on Planet Madden, one can see why this didn't get much love in the pitchmeetings.

In his bookEverything Bad Is Good for You, author Steven Johnson suggests that videogames, rather than dumbing us down, actually make us smarter by honing ourproblem-solving skills in the virtual world. This is only half true. Withoutreal-world consequences, video games make us no smarter emotionally, andintellect unleavened by empathy is the empty triumph of the technocrat.

Like war, footballis an unforgiving calculus of physical violence. Deliver more pain than youabsorb, and you're likely a winner. Take the violence out of football, erasethe pain given and taken, reduce the grunt and the struggle to the push of abutton, eliminate the magnificent inconsistencies of the human heart and itscapacity for courage or cowardice, and the game, the war, is no more than afast-twitch exercise--a battle fought without personal cost. It is causewithout effect, a victory only for technology and opposable thumbs.

From the Midwestto the Middle East we inhabit a world where too many of us have alreadydetached action from consequence and rationality from empathy. The proof ofwhich is this: Right now someone somewhere presses a button and a bomb dropsout of the clouds. Hands and eyes raised to the sky, what can any of us,anywhere, on this Madden Planet say but,

Boom.

• Steve Rushin ison vacation.

In football America, you are never far from the Maddencrowd. In fact, you'll be stepping over their sleeping bags this weekend onyour way to your local big box retailer.

PHOTOOLYA EVANITSKY