I don’t quite remember when I realized I was playing football with dead people. Tecmo Super Bowl has been a part of my life about as long as I could remember. It exists at the perfect junction of accessibility, depth, realism, and fun. Its legacy is so well regarded that decades after launch, unlicensed cartridge versions with updated NFL player and team rosters are still released annually. But it wasn’t until last year that I first connected the death of NFL linebacker Junior Seau with the classic video football game.
Football players who develop CTE sometimes die young, and occasionally violently.
Seau’s remarkable career made his death by suicide at age 43 national news. He’s one of a number of players from the Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl rosters who have died since the games’ NES-era releases. Others include Terry Long, Mike Webster, and Andre Waters.
Like all the players mentioned above, Seau was diagnosed postmortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more popularly known as CTE. There’s still a lot we don’t know about CTE, but we do know a few things. It’s influenced by head injuries. Former football players develop it very, very often. It’s connected to the subsequent appearance of mental symptoms and behavioral disorders. And football players who develop it sometimes die young, and occasionally violently.
Wrecked and Broken
My dad played football in Alabama where football, alongside Christianity, serves as the state religion. He once shared a dinner with Bear Bryant, though he couldn’t quite make the cut at Tuscaloosa. He actively encouraged my football fandom, and actively discouraged me from ever actually playing ball. It was a dichotomy I didn’t understand for a long time.
The fandom took, though I never had the patience or perseverance to become an athlete. I grew up watching the Crimson Tide and Washington Redskins, and I adopted the Carolina Panthers when the expansion team was seeded in nearby Charlotte. Channeling my inner grognard, I became a fantasy football geek of the nerdiest caliber… my custom keeper league featured an extensive offseason program of steals, deals, trades, and simulated free agency. Football became a social hobby, an excuse to keep in touch with college friends, unwind on a Sunday, stay up late on a Thursday night when I should have been catching sleep before a busy Friday workday.
Severe injuries to the head and body often never really get completely better.
But on a cold night in November of 2014 on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, my wife and I were hit head-on by a drug-impaired driver speeding the wrong way up the highway. My physical injuries were minimal. My wife’s were life-threatening and permanently debilitating, including traumatic brain injury.
She’s since struggled through an intense recovery, learning to walk again, undergoing a host of surgeries, going back to school to learn a new vocation. Three years after the accident she was back at work. She’s better, but not well. She’ll be in constant pain for the rest of her life. She’ll always have mobility issues. And the head injury has changed her. Her memory is spottier. She simply can’t remember some events. She used to be a math whiz. Now she has problems with simple equations. Her personality is altered in subtle but fundamental ways. Those things aren’t likely to return to the way they were. Severe injuries to the head and body often never really get completely better.
Pain and Gain
A while after the accident, I started feeling sick watching football games. We watched the Super Bowl together that year. I got anxious and nervous. I tried to power through it and keep watching games. I enjoyed football. I wasn’t going to let some accident take that away.
Football appears to be killing people.
And then one afternoon, while watching an injured player getting carted off the field, it clicked. I had for my entire life previously accepted watching a human strapped down and wheeled away for their own safety a regular matter of course as a part of my entertainment. But that injury I’d just witnessed would never likely fully heal. That player’s pain would linger forever. The concussions, the head and neck hits I saw every game… I couldn’t reconcile my old love for the game with what I’d learned about the human cost of this form of entertainment.
Last year, I quit watching.
A Collision Sport
Football, it’s been said, isn’t a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. And we now clearly understand that the men who play it professionally do so at their peril. CTE is ending lives, and it’s showing up in the dead bodies of an absolutely huge number of players. That’s no longer in dispute. We’re finally really stopping to think about the human cost of this game and what it does to the bodies of its players. Football appears to be killing people.
Even though what’s happening on my screen isn’t hurting anybody, it’s hard to disassociate the events on that screen with the very real, parallel events that have happened in football history.
That increasingly important distinction also applies to another form of entertainment connected to the football and sports world: video games. Football has been a force in video games almost as long as they’ve been a commercial medium, and it remains tremendously popular in the sporting game landscape. Football has contributed mightily to the state of the art. I’d count Tecmo Super Bowl among the all-time greatest video games, and the number of high-quality football games produced over the last thirty years is positively staggering. But I don’t want to play any more.
In many of the video games I play and enjoy, I kill people as a matter of course. I gun down and run over civilians in the streets of Liberty City for amusement without a second thought. It doesn’t bother me. They’re not real. They don’t have names or human counterparts I can identify with. But when I plug in my old copy of Tecmo Super Bowl, there’s Mosi Tatupu, who died suffering symptoms of dementia and heavy drink, and who was diagnosed with CTE.
Sports games are always trying to be more real. The rules of pro football change at a glacial pace, so for decades the new features that sell sports titles have tended to focus on realism and fidelity: ever-updated real-world rosters and playbook changes, team customization, and higher-fidelity renderings of star athletes. Sports games mostly live or die by their licenses and association with real people. And that deliberate recreation of reality makes them startlingly effective for emotional investment, and creates problems when the worse parts of the world they reflect start creeping into our consciousness.
When I play a video football game, I can see the player’s face, I know his record. I’ve watched interviews with him on ESPN. And when I see him take a real-world hit to the head, I now know that hit may be doing permanent damage to his brain. How, then, am I supposed to enjoy simulating that same practice when I sit down with friends and fire up my PlayStation?
Even when I play an abstracted 8-bit game like Tecmo Super Bowl, I steer around an electronic version of John Grimsely, who died while alone at age 45 in a shooting accident. Postmortem research revealed what CBS news described as “brain abnormalities typically seen in elderly Alzheimer’s patients.” Even though what’s happening on my screen isn’t hurting anybody, it’s hard to disassociate the events on that screen with the very real, parallel events that have happened in football history.
There’s also a valid argument to be made that what happens to a digital football player is no more harmful than any of the thousand gruesome deaths I’ve inflicted on bystanders in Grand Theft Auto 5. I bristle when politicians and opportunists brazenly blame video games for acts of real-world violence. But with a very few exceptions, video games don’t require me to kill people whose personalities are modeled on real world counterparts who eventually died as a result of violence.
Dead Men on the Field
I can no longer stand the thought that the next player I control in any contemporary licensed football game might be in the clutches of dementia in another 20 years. I can’t watch football anymore, and I can’t enjoy football video games. I didn’t have a problem doing it only a couple of years ago when I worked at IGN… we used to predict the Super Bowl by simulating a game, and nobody died as a result of that. But the money that feeds the furtherment of football and insulates it from accountability flows from many sources: TV deals, ticket sales, merchandise, and yes, video games. And I’m no longer comfortable with that reality.
I tried to recapture the old feeling a couple of weeks ago, to convince myself that I was being silly. I fired up Tecmo Super Bowl again and muscle memory took over. Reflexes honed by decades of playing the game instantly kicked back into gear, and I was off to the races, winning, and not having any fun at all. The longer I played, the worse I felt. By the fourth quarter, my emotional blandness had given way to a sick feeling.
My heart tells me there’s something wrong with the way we’re treating sports in video games.
I realized I was running all these dead men around the field, people who died in an anguish that many of them could not understand, a suffering inflicted by their vocation… and my patronage. Those blips on the screen represent specific, real people whose bodies were given over to a violent sport for the sake of our entertainment and for the acquisition of profit. My heart tells me there’s something wrong with the way we’re treating sports in video games.
Football has survived rules changes before, and I hope that over time professional leagues will evolve to take into account the monumental repercussions of the evidence that CTE is an epidemic among former players, and reshape the game accordingly. Video games and sports both have escapist appeal, but for the many real-world athletes we admire on the field and in our favorite games, there is no escaping the reality of these life-threatening injuries. Until something changes, I have plenty of other games to play.