Instant Re-Players - From Sports Fans to Video Game Players: A Cognitive History
by Tom Kemper

"90 percent of this game is half mental."
- Yogi Berra
"A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time."
- Marshall McCluhan

The video game player has introduced a new participant to the sport of spectator analysis. These new participants, nonetheless, still share certain traits with their predecessor-- the traditional media consumer. On a basic level, both pay money to engage with a manufactured and marketed product. Within popular discourse, however, the video game player is often portrayed as a radical transformation of the traditional spectator. Recent films like ExistenZ depict the video game player as a new species of spectator that merges with the media, biologically blending with the new technology in some digital-Darwinian evolution. Although framed in sober prose, social critics and media analysts tend to be equally sensationalist in their responses to video games. Critics frame their discourse about video games from the position that this new technology operates upon children. Their critical and conceptual analysis metaphorically pins down the spectator as a drone--being operated upon, affected, and transform ed by the media. These views, in turn, download traditional notions of the spectator as a passive receptor of media into the video game player trapped by the even more powerful illusions and connections created by the interactive dimension of the new technology. Defining the spectator vis a vis a particular media, such as the video game, we tend to accept the fact that the media or genre single-handedly controls and constructs spectatorship. In this light, video game players are often described as "zombies," "hypnotized," "zapped," or "enslaved" by this new technology. In the context of conferences like this one at MIT, however, we are hopefully moving away from such sensationalist characterizations.

Still, a more historically informed reconsideration of the video game player needs to be explored. Part of this exploration will rely on re-examining our traditional notion of the spectator in the context of recent work on cognitive theory. In light of a historical and theoretical understanding of the spectator, the video game player seems less of an alien and more like one of us. Understanding previous negotiations between spectators and media technology historically can shed light on how humans interact with technology in general. The digital revolution will look less like a radical new game and more like a replay of the social and cultural games people played in previous communications revolutions. This paper examines the historical construction of the sports spectator as it extends to the video game player. In particular, I am interested in framing and broadening issues of spectatorship as they have been more generally discussed and defined within media studies and cognitive theory.

Cognitive Theory and Spectating

In his work on cognitive theory and narrative comprehension in film, Edward Branigan divides the spectator's experience into "bottom-up" and "top-down" perceptual activity. "Bottom-up" processes deal with basic, immediate data like color, sound, screen size, etc. These are areas that are processed fairly instinctively and rapidly, requiring only short-term memory. "Top-down" processes, on the other hand, refer to information that gets processed based on acquired knowledge and schemas. Branigan describes spectators working "top-down" on the data, using their expectations and goals as principles of organizing the information presented by a filmic narrative. According to Branigan, "top-down processes are indirect in the sense that they may reframe data in alternative ways independently of the stimulus conditions which govern the initial appearance of the data." (Branigan, 37) In other words, the spectator brings innate capacities to their perception of media. The spectator's top-down processes are fluid in relation to the media, allowing the data to be reconstructed within certain parameters offered by the narrative. Narrative comprehension operates through various acts of analysis involving hypothetical exploration, speculation, confirmation, and composition of possible combinations of goals and actions.

Sports spectating accentuates the cognitive activity of spectatorship in numerous ways. Enjoying the narrative of a sporting event demands a capacity for understanding and interpreting the formalized and standardized rules of the game. Furthermore, the active sports fan is constantly engaged in hypothetical speculation on various short-term and long-term outcomes of the game, from pivotal plays to possible strategies. The fires of such analytical observation are further fanned by sports statistics, which are incorporated into the spectating experience through technical devices--radio, scoreboards, and television graphics--and the speculations of commentators. In fact, televised games require both the interpretation of the play-by-play announcers and additional information derived from player interviews, expert analysis, commentary from former players, and post-game specials engaged in analysis and hypothetical speculation on alternative game scenarios.

Historical Overview of the Sports Spectator

The contemporary sports spectator and video game player derive from a longstanding history and tradition of cognitive sports-watching. As urban spectacles, baseball and football recast the frontier simplicity of rural life in their fields with the pace, energy, and physical demands of city living in the early part of our century. The mastery demonstrated by the players represented skills valuable in tackling the demands made upon urban citizens. Indeed, the rise of organized sports in America is intimately tied with the rise of cities and the urban culture. Organized sports were not widespread in America before 1860. By the mid-1920s, there were 200,000 football players and 10,000 coaches in high schools alone. The spectacle of sporting events became an arena that reflected the values of city living: dexterity, skill, mastery of mechanics, rules, quickness; these were values common to city living. Athletes demonstrated these skills on the playing field, recasting the pace of urban (and industrial) life into a form of entertainment. The most popular sport in the first half of this century, baseball, although celebrated for its supposed rural, frontier origins, was always a city sport. Urban spectators got a charge from the fast play and the rational design of professional baseball. Navigating the labyrinthine streets and rapid pace of the modern city had awakened urban spectators to value the skills embodied in professional sports like baseball. They were astonished at the mastery of skills involved in the swift execution of split-second plays.

The sports-city connection was galvanized by the development of the telegraph and print media. Telegraphers wrote game scores on blackboards in local taverns, thereby instituting an urban network for sports-followers. Early on, statistics of individual players became an integral part of sports reporting. Sports journalists elaborated analytically on the simple facts of the game and the box scores which were now a regular part of a newspaper. Statistics and sports commentary encouraged a cognitive frame of mind in the rising generation of sports spectators. They learned the details of games in ways that enabled them to become more engaged with the suspense of the game. But the statistics also supplied them with new systematic approaches to the game. An educated fan could become less fanatical and more analytical. Sportswriters taught the spectator how to interpret the game and how to transfer the stories on the playing field into the field of common language and into the fields of their lives. They framed the outcomes of game in larger conceptual metaphors--like the efficacy of discipline and perfection--which could be translated into meaningful lessons in the urban spectator's life. Journalists praised athletes and coaches for their rapid responses to situations in the game, for "thinking quick on their feet." Each new game demanded an inventory of past situations and projections based on how such information might fuel future contests. Playing the field was similar to playing the market or navigating a career.

Just as one could develop a competence in sports, so one could develop a competence in sports spectating. Learning how to watch a particular sport involves learning the working methodology of a complex symbol system, laden with values and possible combinations. Understanding the multiple variations within a game and each play, the symbolic meaning and value of lines, numbers, positions, players, and rules is akin to understanding the relation of discrete units of data and their relationship to larger schemas of knowledge. Sports fans test their developing skills and educational growth with each new game and each new play, measuring hypothetical moves against the players or manager's choices. Each play or each game is a pop-quiz with immediate feedback.

On the most basic level, to follow a game a spectator must know the assigned value to a ground-rule double in baseball, or to a three-point line in basketball, or the number of yards per down in football. Such actions on the field are designated values within a variable system of factors. In fact, the rules in sports are value-laden in a mathematical sense. They generate meaning and answers by creating possibilities in combination with other value-laden objects or events. Player and game statistics add new figures to multiply the number of possible outcomes of given scenarios. For example, how many times the batter hits into double-plays, what the batter's average is with runners on base, against right-handed pitchers, against left-handed pitchers, with runners on base in late innings. This information must be weighed against the many values that belong to a given situation. Television and radio are technologies that heighten the speculative activities common to watching games. Commentators supply statistics that are pertinent to a fan's engagement with the game (computers have played a role in expediting and expanding this process, dispersing the data faster to the commentators and helping to manage new statistical averages. In short, deciphering this information involves interpreting and categorizing multiple interacting variables. The sports fan is engaging such top-down, cognitive processes as weighing the value of various data to speculate on multiple outcomes of different scenarios. The sports fan is fluidly moving backward and forward in the narrative of the game, and reformulating values as the game unfolds. In the cases from sports media above, the various apparatuses employed by the media are working with the innate capacities of the sports fan.

Speculating on and combining the varying values in game situations is carried to extremes in Rotisserie baseball or Fantasy Football, leagues organized by groups of fans that recreate imaginary games based on the values of players and plays. Using the statistics of individual players in actual professional games, the fantasy leagues assign values to players' performances in imaginary "games" on teams arranged by the player-fans. The fantasy league models itself on a limited range of the rules of the particular sport. The fantasy owners model themselves on the workings of the league owners: trading players, selling players, and managing the teams. The leagues display the shifting conceptual modes of identification of sports fans, from admiring the skills of particular players to thinking and strategizing like an owner or manager.

Watching a sport took on an interactive dimension through imitating the sports in amateur games. As early as the 1880s, instructional manuals were published with titles like Batting and Pitching with Fine Illustrations and Scientific Baseball. Department stores and mail-order houses added sporting goods sections to their sales rosters. The 1895 Sears, Roebuck's catalogue included eighty pages of sports items, including baseball paraphernalia. On empty city streets and vacant lots, in parks and in the growing playgrounds, boys and men tried to imitate the professionals. Furthermore, as sports spectators, participation in amateur sports ideally sharpened their skills as followers and interpreters of the games-a doubling of spectator and participant.

The interpretive/interactive nature of sports spectatorship grew with television sports broadcasting, and eventually produced radical changes in the relationship of professional sports, media, and the spectator. ABC's Roone Arledge is commonly celebrated for introducing a new analytical attack in television's coverage of sporting events in the early 1960s. Arledge employed an arsenal of new media technological developments to revive fan interest in, what was at that time, the struggling sport of football: directional microphones, end zone camera, 'canned' interviews, isolated shots, split-screen effects, and graphics of athlete's statistics. Redesigning television coverage with an emphasis on the medium's capacity as a tool for analysis built on and expanded the tradition of the analytical sports spectator. Television allowed the fan to conceptualize the game into units of play, to dissect plays into shots, thereby interacting and interpreting. In Arledge's early 1960s football coverage, the hand-held shots of the sidelines that punctuated the game coverage and the isolated close-ups of plays, which analytically penetrated the game, reinforced the notion of an interactive viewer, appealing to a tradition of sports watching as an interpretive act.

The sports announcers, whose critical commentary adds to the varying angles of coverage, replays, and especially the printed information over the images, further facilitate televisual analysis. Previews and highlights of upcoming games fragment the narrative of the games, reminding the viewer that the game functions in an overall narrative that measures a season's schedule of games and the competition for first place. Commentators analyze a player's statistics (printed on the screen, or superimposed over the player's image), measuring a player's performance in similar scenarios in past games or against the particular opposing team or particular opponent. Football coverage employs computer graphics, which turn play diagrams into 3-D icons with Xs and Os sweeping across a grid. Such televisual tactics highlight the speculative and interpretive process of sports speculating, engaging the viewer in the top-down process of reframing the game data in possible variations. The commentators and graphics aid the spectator in imagining how a previous play or new play might change or could have changed the course of the game.

The replay, especially the slow-motion replay, is the apotheosis of Roone Arledge's methods. The instant replay could be used to detect whether a player or ball was in or out of bounds, whether a player fouled another player, whether a player made a tag or not, reached base before the throw or not, or made a shot before the buzzer. In short, the television viewer could scrutinize the close plays that eluded the actual spectator and even the players, coaches, and officials.

The most interesting case of the instant replay occurs on those occasions when television reveals a clear mistake or missed call on the part of the sports official. At such moments, the television spectator is put in a privileged position in relation to the game. But it is an oddly negative epistemological advantage. The television spectator's knowledge in this case has an empty value in relation to the factors that determine the outcome of the actual game. The game being watched now goes on as if the official's call were correct, leaving television spectators to imagine a different possible game in their heads. Thus, the information or data supplied by the instant replay is essentially meaningless. Reading (traditionally) vis a vis the media, we might say that the sports instant replay illustrates the manipulative quality of television in that it fools the spectator into a position of illusory privilege. However, these specific instances of the instant replay (where there is a split between game knowledge and television knowledge) play into a tradition of sports spectator interpretive-inter-activity, where/of imagining different/alternative outcomes of specific plays and games. The instant replay plays into such cognitive top-down processes of manipulating given data into alternative scenarios, of playing with facts, and moving forward and backward in conceptual replays of linear events.

In addition to expert commentary and the instant replay, television has added graphs and animation to enhance speculation on upcoming plays and analysis of previous plays. Football coach turned commentator John Madden has established a televisual signature (camera-stylo) with his famous electronic pen, scribbling diagrams across the television screen like a chalkboard.

Isolated close-ups of the particulars of a play, slow-motion, and celebratory replays have become such an integral part of the sportswatching experience that stadiums have added large video screens to their scoreboards. This action recognizes the fetishized position of analysis in television coverage of sports and the ways in which it has enhanced the traditional analytical sport spectator. However, television (home viewing) still retains one area of privilege: stadium screens carefully avoid replaying any controversial close calls by referees or umpires. Doing so would upset the integrity of the live sports event. "Playing tips" segments are a central part of sports broadcasting (an extension of this broadcasting device is found in instructional videos featuring superstar athletes). Playing tips…represent a notion of "interactivity" in sports viewing and broadcasting, wherein the spectator is positioned as somewhat more than passive, as a possible participant at some level. Whether or not a large or small percentage of spectators actually incorporate these tips (which is more probable with a sport like golf, but highly unlikely with baseball, which demands a greater number of participants to function), these segments position the spectator in an interactive role, at least momentarily. On another level, these segments fuel the interpretive spectator with new insight into the players and new information for the speculative/hypothetical thinking that is involved in watching sports.

Video Game Players

Understanding the formalized rules of the game, problem-solving, pattern recognition, hypothesis testing, estimating skills, resource management, interpreting quantified and value-laden information (for example, player's statistics), mapping, memory, quick thinking, and reasoned judgments about anticipated scenarios: these are all traits of a seasoned sports spectator. At the same time, all of these skills prepare one for being a good video game player.

A skilled sports spectator deals with multiple interacting variables, assessing new information as the game quickly shifts in value: a team shifts from offense to defense, substitutes a player, the bases are loaded and one team switches pitchers, while the opposing team sends up a pinch-hitter. A sports spectator must weigh this new information with statistics and hypothetical outcomes.

The instructional booklet to the video game World Series Baseball [for Sega, 1992] informs the player: "You'll always control the fielder nearest the ball; when he catches it, it's vital to think fast and gun it to the cut-off man." The same booklet asks: "Are you quick enough to turn a screaming grounder into a 5-4-3 double play?" Likewise, an ad in a recent ESPN magazine [Sep. '99] informs us:

"NFL GameDay 2000 gives you 1,200 new plays and 200 new motion captured moves designed and performed by 45 NFL players. There's a Training Camp Mode to practice plays, and a GM mode to manage your team over multiple seasons. We've even added a revolutionary telestrator along with Dick Enberg and Phil Simms commentary."

Such tactics reveal that video games appeal to multiple levels of the sports fan. The games promise not only the simulation of gameplay but also the simulation of watching sports on television with familiar commentators, analysis, and instant replays. Even Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully adds his voice to a recent baseball video game. Scully, as a protégé of the celebrated pioneer of radio baseball Red Barber, provides the video game with an audio link to the past.

Magazines, from the old Nintendo Power to the new game system zines on the web, feature tips on how to play games. Sports simulation video games include "how to" tips from the superstar players who lend their names to the product - a practice akin to the playing tips columns in newspapers from the early part of the century and the similar segments on sports television. For example, Joe Montana's strategy tips are included in the game-play of his football video game. GameDay 2000 features a playing tips section and a practice mode as part of the video game.

Finally, video games base their appeal to the consumer on the number of variables they offer. Thus, they appeal to a similar speculative activity that fuels sports spectatorship. Each year brings new baseball, football, and basketball simulations which add new variables: different dimensions of more ball parks, more players, more variability in controlling players (for example, shifting player control of linesmen, quarterbacks, and wide receivers; through the various positions of baseball; or multiple-player basketball). New video games allow players to engage in managerial decisions by assessing and trading players. Video games have even recombined historical teams, using statistical averages to allow time-travel with players from different eras playing on virtual fields of dreams.

These shifting identifications have a historical continuity with sports fan culture: from the imaginative interpretation and speculation of the sports spectator to trading and collecting baseball cards to rotisserie leagues to the top-down, fluid level of engagement described earlier regarding the instant-replay.

Re: Play: Conclusion

The manifestation of such intertextual weaving and cognitive interpretation as it relates to the sports spectator reveals the importance of video game culture within the traditional study of spectatorship. Video game players offer an insightful re-play of our traditional perception of the spectator. This paper situates the current phenomena and cultural transformation represented by video games within a historical perspective of earlier periods of social change. The history of the analytical sports spectator and the related technological developments surrounding sports-watching--from wire-service statistics in early telegraphy to print journalism to radio broadcasting to televisual analytical devices such as the instant-replay-- sheds light on the interactive role of the video game player. Replaying spectating as a cognitive activity allows us to recognize an historical (and theoretical) continuum from previous negotiations between spectators and new media technologies (such as the new technology of the instant-replay and its relation to the traditional sports spectator). Video games thereby become positioned within a historical line of sports spectatorship and its attendant notions of interactivity.