Good Game Design Shows Us Why Football is the Greatest Game in the World
Originally a rejected article for Cracked.com presumably because it was too damn brilliant, I repost here for you, ladies and gentlemen of HMD. If you're a fan of American rules Football, then you already know why it's the greatest sport on Earth. But for those who may not share the opinion, I present my exhaustively researched (seriously) scientific treatise for you to consider - why football is the greatest game in the world using good game design theory as a basis for my argument.
The NFL creates the most watched television in America. That's just a fact. Currently, 23 of the 25 most watched tv shows are NFL games.
It’s also the most lucrative, last year bringing in over nine BILLION dollars.
But have you ever stopped to consider why? “God, no, of course I haven’t,” you sputter through a mouthful of cheese dip and beer. I did for you. It turns out the roots of football’s popularity can be traced back to the same psychological principles the top video game designers use. While all sports follow some level of game design (they are, after all, games) only football truly hits the sweet spot on engaging us in the way our brains are hard-wired to love. Here are the reasons.
1. Achievable, Tangible Goals
With all the glory of magnificent hail-mary passes, bone-crunching hits, and pretty solid commercials once a year, you may scoff when I say that the secret to football might be the most humble of achievements: the first down. But it’s this milestone that makes us tick. In her mind-expanding book Reality is Broken, author Jane McGonigal describes how game principles can be used to improve reality. She states:
“Satisfying work always starts with two things: a clear goal and actionable next steps toward achieving that goal.”
All sports have goals, but while baseball has a lazy pace and basketball a constant back and forth and don’t even think about mentioning goddamn soccer, only football brings these regular goal markers. Incremental achievements (first downs) always give the next goal and a step to achieve it, and like great video games, this leads to bigger milestones (in opposing team territory) and yet bigger ones (the red zone). This is scaffolding, another principle of game design used for escalating action.
2. Clear Problem-Solving Strategy
“But what about all the commercial breaks and injury reports?” you ask. Quiet, I am sick of your fucking questions, I already told you I did the research. Yes, it’s true, of the three hour broadcast, only about 11 minutes is actual football playing. Granted, this is a large increase now that we no longer have John Madden spending 12% of all broadcasts describing players’ favorite sandwich condiments. Still, this surprising fact may work in its favor. Football brings us the ‘armchair quarterback’ (at least according to people who still use words like ‘armchair’), fans who call plays, second-guess coaches, and otherwise ensure the room’s douche quotient is met. But still, it’s exactly this quality that engages us. Like playing along with game shows (who doesn’t shout out Wheel of Fortune answers or yell to bid $1 on the Price is Right), breaks for play calls let us attempt to strategize and solve problems. And you know what else problem-solving is tied to? The way all human beings engage in learning. M. David Merrill, in an effort to prove he is a man with nothing better to do, researched all the different studies on learning, and set forth his First Principles, which describe the commonalities of how all people learn.
The common thread and key factor in all studies of successful learning was the ability to engage in problem solving. “Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.” The breaks and prevalence of play calling in football engages the part of our brain wired to learn, while not forgetting the part of our brain that loves to see fat guys squished into tiny football helmets.
Imagine if each alien race or fantasy class from your favorite game was a sports team. No, racist Native American caricatures don't count. Imagine the Boston Dragonborn vs the New Orleans Hydralisks. If you think of NFL teams like races or classes, you will find that football is the most balanced sport.
If you're going to log on to GrindQuest, you expect every class to be a viable option. If one rises to the top of PvP, it gets nerfed. If you're competing for a cash purse in SoAddictingYouStarvetoDeathCraft, you should be able to win playing any race. If not, there is an update. Balance drives the top gamemakers, with positions held just to do that, and constant updates tweaking balance to ensure fairness, which we expect.
From an excellent article on the subject: "Gameplay is all about making choices and in a poorly-balanced game, many of the choices available to the player are essentially rendered useless. And this, in a nutshell, is why game balance is so important -- it preserves your game elements from irrelevance. In an imbalanced game, one or more "dominant strategies" quickly emerge, limiting other strategies useless except for some un-intended purpose"
So, good games have balance. Now, why do the Yankees always win? In baseball, the Yankees have over $300 million more than the lowest team, and $140 million more than the next closest. The fact is, they are like a spoiled kid playing a freemium game, and simply buy their way to victory, picking up all the best players all the time.
The NFL is keenly aware of this, and strives for parity. They instead offer revenue sharing. So a giant market like New York does not lead to a perpetually unstoppable Giants team; rather, that money is spread 32 ways through the organization so a rural, industrial, beer-drinking, and curdled-dairy-wearing community like Green Bay can be competitive.
So the NFL is constantly updating itself, with each class (team) having an equal distribution of points (revenue) and constant, fair updates (drafts) to weed out any cheats (Bill Belichick).
4. Perfectly Tuned Reward System
When I talk about rewards, I don’t mean for the players. Yes, the average salary of an NFL player is $1.9 million. For those of you who can only contextualize 1.9 million as a high score and not dollar amount, if you converted that into Mario coins and those into 1-UPs, players would have roughly infinite lives, which is about what they’ll need given the horrible concussion trauma most are dealing with.
No, the rewards I am talking about are for the fans, the beautiful, beautiful gift of touchdowns. Yes, this is a football article and yes, it took me this long to get to scoring, and yes, that’s what she said. The incredible thrill of a long touchdown pass and grudging, mild enjoyment of a successful field goal aren’t just dramatic events in the game, they are scientifically proven to trigger our brain’s pleasure response. While many different game designers have written on the subject of rewards, this all goes back to the psychology pioneered by behaviorists back in the 1950s, led by B.f. Skinner. You might remember him from your intro to psychology class as the guy with the box...
...who had an unhealthy obsession with rats.
When B.F. Skinner, C.B. Ferster, and any other prominently-initialed gentlemen were making rats push levers for food pellets, they weren’t just jerking off (not just doing that, anyway); they were carefully scheduling and recording different patterns of reward schedules. Too few rewards and they ignore the activity, not finding it valuable. Too many rewards and the pleasure of each diminishes. The reward schedule is as important as the amount. In general there are two types of schedules – fixed schedules, wherein rewards are given at regular intervals, and variable schedules, where the rewards come sporadically. It turns out rats’ brains and, indeed, our own, are much more engaged by variable reward schedules. From their writing:
"Variable ratio schedules tend to sustain high rates of responding, with little evidence of pausing, other than the time required to retrieve the reinforcer (if necessary). The cumulative record is a steeply angled line with occasional "blips" marking the moments when the reinforcer was delivered.
The absence of significant post-reinforcement pauses is a striking feature of variable ratio schedules, given their ubiquity on fixed ratio schedules. The lack of pauses appears to be due to the fact that occasionally even the very first response or two after reinforcement will yeild another reinforcer, due to the schedule's inclusion of a few very low ratios among the variable ratio sizes provided. Consequently, initiation of a new ratio run is sometimes strongly reinforced by nearly immediate reinforcer delivery, so that this behavior remains a relatively high-probability one even right after completion of the previous ratio. The steeply rising cumulative record is due both to the elimination of pauses and, as in fixed ratio schedules, to the built-in direct relationship between rate of response and rate of reinforcement."
So in basketball, the relatively regular schedule of scoring settles into something closer to a fixed pattern. Even if there is not a score every time, the back and forth schedule is largely maintained. And in baseball and hockey, there aren’t enough rewards to sustain peak interest. You can probably guess how I feel about soccer's place on the reward schedule - wait, it doesn't place, because 0-0 IS NOT A SCORE!
Football, on the other hand, has a near perfect variable schedule. Drives vary in length and don’t always end up in scores, and when they do score the significance is much greater. Plus there is greater variability of the scores themselves (touchdowns, field goals, extra points, two point conversions, and the elusive non-dance-related safety). And turnovers lead to unexpected scores. Football doles out surprise rewards of significant impact on a variable schedule, and just gets our brain all wet with happy chemicals.
The most popular games follow the same idea. There is a reason Minecraft makes you dig for useful ores randomly dispersed throughout the ground, Candy Crush sporadically can set you up for special candies, and any MMO mob has a %.001 chance of dropping that epic loot. It all goes back to the rats. Maybe Skinner didn’t just enjoy the art of torturing them because people enjoy violence.
Oh, but people TOTALLY enjoy violence.
No really, we really fucking love violence.
As Megan Zlock says in the NPR article, "If you want to create a good narrative, you need to create conflict, and violence is a really easy way to create conflict." The Greeks knew it. Shakespeare knew it. Are you going to argue with Shakespeare? Half his plays end with everybody dying. Hamlet? Uncle kills father, Hamlet seeks revenge, everybody dies. Macbeth? Macbeth meets witches, Macbeth steals the throne, everybody dies. Romeo and Juliet? Boy meets girl, everybody dies.
And today’s game designers know it. That’s why 3 out of the top 5 games for all Xbox and Playstation consoles have gratuitous amounts of violence. And that’s why even though we may wish real ill on no one, we want to see them smashing into each other like modern, American gladiators, (but not the Nitro and Turbo kind).
So there you have it. Take two weeks to do as much research and prove me wrong. I dare you.