“What is permissible is not always honorable.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero
Possibly the highest level of excellence I have ever achieved at any single skill occurred around the spring of 2005, when I destroyed my friend Aaron 52-10 in the Madden ’04 Super Bowl after a glorious run in the playoffs and regular season with my fantasy-drafted Chiefs.
For the past six months we had played that game for hours on end nearly every single day, including Christmas and New Year’s. My triumphant season with the Chiefs was not the only season we – Aaron, myself, Aaron’s little brother Levi and our friend the Brad Bus – played through. It was but one of dozens. But it marked the high water mark of our collective skill. To this day I am convinced that if there had ever been a Madden ’04 world competition, we would have crushed it.
The game had evolved in our time. We had gone from conservative run-first schemes to pass-heavy offenses sprinkled with a healthy dose of the run game to keep one another honest. We understood every detail of every play in each playbook. We used our entire array of receiving options rather than locking down on just one target. Our offenses were juggernaughts, the scourges of the league.
But if offense defined us, defense was where we had most improved. We called an endless array of blitzes, zones, zone-blitzes, double-coverages, press coverages, fake blitzes and more. What’s more, we could control any single player on those defenses to an elite level. We knew where we had to be at any given time to make any scheme work, and we knew when to cheat on our assignments and when doing so would get us burnt. We were masters of both sides of the ball. We were gods of the Madden universe.
But there was a time when such was not the case. Back when we first got the game it was only Levi, Aaron and me (Brad Bus came later) and we toiled mightily. Lost in the myriad XBOX controls and awkward unit movements, we struggled with Madden’s complex defensive designs and struggled with tackling, strafing and covering. Whenever we tried to use linebackers we got juked by the running backs and whenever we played safety we got burned by the receivers.
Given our general impotence, the best strategy seemed to be to minimize the damage we as humans could do to our computer-controlled defense. We’d take control of a lineman, because at least then your duties weren’t very complex, and if all you ended up doing was taking up a blocker, well…that was better than screwing up the entire defense.
I chose to control a defensive tackle and try to bash my way through the middle, but Levi and Aaron had a different method. They figured out that given the way Madden was designed, if they lined up far enough to the outside and sprinted straight upfield when the ball was snapped, the offensive tackle wouldn’t register them as a pass rusher and would look for another unit to block instead, leaving them with an uninhibited path to the quarterback.
Every single time.
It was completely unlike anything in the real football universe. In the real world a defensive end can’t just move two yards to the right, put a smug grin on his face and snicker, “Now they’ll never know I’m coming.” This is because in the real NFL offensive linemen are living, breathing people with (1) eyes and (2) a brain. They’ll move a step backward once the ball is snapped and block you just the same. In the Madden universe, however, offensive tackles are not real people with eyes and a brain. They are bits of electrical signal projected in pixels on a screen and are, as it turns out, entirely incapable of dealing with defensive linemen that line up one measly yard to their left. Which, in the early days of our Madden playing, meant easy sacks for Levi and Aaron and unholy rage for me.
It came to a head one day when my quarterback had been sacked by the infamous “RE #59,” whose name rights Madden had apparently not acquired, for approximately the 13th time that game.
“God damn it!” I yelled, throwing my controller down. “That’s it. I quit. I’m not playing this [stupid] game any more.”
“What’s the matter, Big D?” taunted Aaron, ever the sympathetic companion. “Can’t take the heat from old RE #59?”
“Screw you, Aaron. I just don’t want to play with cheaters any more. It’s pointless.”
Aaron, who had blatantly abused a programming error to assert video game dominance for the past three weeks, now bristled at the implied insult to his integrity. “Cheating, huh? It couldn’t be that you’re just getting outplayed, could it, Dave Man? No, if you’re losing we have to be cheaters.”
“Whatever, Aaron. You control the defensive end, line up way outside, and just run around the offensive tackle every play. When’s the last time you saw a real NFL game where that happened?”
“Any game Jevon Kearse is in.”
“Bull [crap] dude.”
“Dave Man, this is Madden, not the real NFL.”
“Come on, Aaron. The game is programmed to mirror the NFL. In the NFL that [crap] doesn’t happen, so you know the game designers didn’t mean for it to happen in Madden.”
“So you’re exploiting a program flaw and playing the game a way that wasn’t intended. Just because computers are too dumb to figure it out and stop it doesn’t mean it’s okay.”
At this point Aaron made one of his trademark faces of disdain, raising his eyebrows and sneering with every ounce of conceit he could muster down his fiery, freckled nose. It was a look calculated to crush all the opponent’s self-confidence in one eloquent blow and was completely devastating. However, I had been trained through hard years in his company to weather the storm. My skin, exposed to such withering disdain, had grown thick enough skin to stand up to it. But it was still brutal.
“Please, dude,” he said in response to my complaint. “This is the way the game is. We’re not breaking any rules, we’re not committing any penalties. If you wanted to, instead of crying you could draft a fast defensive end and do the same thing. It’s not unfair.”
“I’m not going to do that garbage. It’s bull [crap].”
“Dave Man, what the eff are you even so worked up about?”
“I’m saying it’s wrong to exploit a system flaw you know was unintentional, even if the game allows it. It doesn’t matter if the game lets you cheat. It’s still cheating.”
“Dude, it’s not cheating. You’re just mad because you’re losing.”
“You’re right. I’m pissed. I hate losing, especially to your obnoxious ass. But I can handle losing. What really pisses me off is that you’re cheating. You’re abusing the game’s programming. I don’t even have two seconds to see the field before RE #59 is breaking my QB’s spinal column. The only way I can even throw the ball is if I sprint to the right as soon as it’s snapped. That’s not football. It’s just some dumb game where you can only run up the middle or roll out to the right. It’s stupid and it’s boring and I won’t play it like that.”
“So what do you want us to do? Not use the right end any more just because the game programming isn’t perfect?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”
Both Levi – who was standing nearby in his typical quietude while the two loudmouths of the group fought – and Aaron shook their heads in disagreement. “It’s not our fault the game is programmed this way,” Aaron said as if pointing out the simple truth. “We’re just playing the game the way it was made. When you play defense, you can control whatever player you want. But I’m using RE #59.”
Levi, who had (as usual) had listened to all this in silence, concurred in his minimalistic way, seeming genuinely confused as to why I was so angry. “The game lets us do it,” he said. “There’s no penalty or anything. We’re just playing the game.”
Coming off the harrowing image of RE #59 barreling around the end unchecked and crushing my quarterback time after time, I was on the verge of pulling my hair out, punching each of them in the face, setting fire to the Gaming Shack, and retiring to a monastery as far away as humanly possible from the nearest XBOX console. But I took a deep breath and tried one more time, albeit with a distinct edge to my voice and somehow knowing my words, which hinged mostly on archaic concepts that resonated through the fantasy books I had devoured since childhood, were going to ring on deaf ears.
“Look dudes. Even if the game allows it, we shouldn’t do it. We shouldn’t have to rely on programming and referees to stop us. If something isn’t right, we should have the honor within ourselves not to do it.”
Yes, even at the age of nineteen I boiled everything down to a question of justice. Too much Lewis and Tolkien in my youth, I think. The only difference between now and then is that I tend not to throw controllers and castigate friends over video games. Most of the time.
After my impassioned appeal to their senses of honor and dignity regarding XBOX sports games, Levi and Aaron stared at me, apparently trying to wrap their heads around the fact that I had just used the words “honor” and “dignity” in relation to Madden ’04. And then, once they realized I was actually serious, they proceeded to keep using RE #59.
And I quit Madden.
For all of three days. After that I recanted on both my vow and my honor. Despite my soliloquy on valor and dignity, I gave in. I started to play defensive end myself, to line up a yard outside the tackle box and rush around the end. But I was terrible at it. After a while our game styles adapted and we ended up moving away from playing as the defensive end due to evolutions in our game (as opposed to our morality).
After that spat I questioned my own sense of indignation. Given Levi’s and Aaron’s obvious confusion as to my high-minded outrage, I came to assume that I was blowing everything out of proportion (which, given the subject matter, I most certainly was). Furthermore, I began to view my entire tendency to boil everything down to ultimate issues of morality as silly and naive – something that belonged in the fantasy world, not the real.
Funny enough, my experience playing Madden at twenty years old had a profound impact on the way I approached the entire issue of morality. For a while my approach became more cynical. I began to look skeptically on appeals to high principles of justice and to buy into the belief – reinforced unwittingly not just by Levi and Aaron, still two of my dearest friends, but by the entire society around me – that what is permissible is also acceptable; that what is allowed is also okay.
Life, as it turns out, is an amazing and endlessly amusing thing. It has this way of turning up odd and hilarious parallels. Raising children, for instance, is a lot like playing poker. You make plays based on some combination of playing the odds and general intuition, but some factors – like which card is going to turn up next or which groups of friends they join in middle and high school – are completely out of your control and can change the entire outcome of the game.
Another funny parallel is old married couples and younger siblings. Both love each other with a kind of uncontrollable intensity, but the relationships of both are often filled with a pettiness that is amazing for a neutral watcher to observe.
It so happens that a group of friends playing Madden ’04 around their early twenties is a lot like a bunch of American citizens and representatives playing at politics. This is a realization I’ve had within the past several years and it is causing me to reverse my moral course. Although lining up a few feet outside of tackle in Madden ’04 in no way merited my high-minded tirade on honor, I think my younger self had the idea right, in spirit. Those old concepts of dignity, valor and integrity that seem relegated to the dusty shelves of the fantasy and medieval history departments of our libraries should apply to our behaviors now. And if a system allows us to abuse it, we should still have enough honor in us to refrain from doing so.
How did the field of modern politics cause me to have an epiphany about my video game playing days as an adolescent? And how did realizations about virtual football affect my political philosophy in the real world? How did playing Madden ’04 and observing American politics turn me into a follower of Cicero, who also believed that what is allowable is not always what is right?
It is a topic broad enough for a blog entry of its own. To tag it onto this one would be to ask too much of my patient readers. So go, relax your eyes for a while. Tomorrow I’ll explain how American politics, like Madden ’04, calls for a better understanding of what is permissible vs. what is right.
Until then, rest well. I’m gonna go try not to have nightmares of RE #59.
For the second half of this article, click this link – De Forma Rules: A Higher Allegiance in Amerian Politics