A Study Returns Easy Answers to Questions Not Yet Asked

Poring over the data, sifting through more than 1,700 specimens, a team of MIT researchers is, as we speak, cataloging the species known as the sports gamer. The data is, so far, unsurprising.

98.4 percent are male; 95 percent watch sports on TV; 70 percent have, and play as, a favorite sports team. Many answers to the survey place respondents in supermajorities.

"Do you worry," I ask one of the researchers, "that your results are, more or less, ‘No shit?'"

Perhaps, chuckles Abe Stein, part of the three-person team conducting the study. But you have to start somewhere. The thing is, this isn't work anyone's done before. Not for the public, anyway. 2K Sports and EA Sports have, undoubtedly commissioned private market research, but in the field of gaming studies - in which you can't swing a dead cat without hitting another World of Warcraft research paper - sports are essentially unplowed earth.

"Here's a massive community, and we have ideas of who they are, and what they do, but there are no studies on it," Stein says. "If it supports what we already thought, well, at least we have the evidentiary support as a backbone, and we can take the study further."

Stein, 30, is in some ways studying himself. A lifelong sports fan and a lifelong sports gamer (we had to schedule this interview around the Boston Bruins' Game 7 against Montreal), he's viewed video gaming as a new expression of someone's sports fandom, rather than something adjunctive to it.

So while responses like "Have you ever created yourself in a sports video game," return an 87.3 percent for "yes," and lay readers would say, "of course," Stein views it as another affirmation of the larger importance of sports gaming.

His team's research isn't finished, but it will be published, presented, peer-reviewed, everything you expect of an objective academic investigation. And the MIT branding on this says plenty, too. But Stein's gut feeling resonates with me. I think sports video gaming is more than just a hobby, it's fundamentally a part of how people relate to a larger real world experience

A Study Returns Easy Answers to Questions Not Yet Asked

That's a pretty heavy thing to lay on video gaming, and I'm not sure the same can be said for other game genres.

"There are all sorts of reasons someone would play something like Gears of War," says Stein. "But I don't imagine it's because they wish they were, in fact, gigantic space mercenaries in life-or-death combat. The fact that this is based in the real world, there's another access point sports have that other games don't."

One of the questions Stein was most interested in asking concerned playin, or re-playing, real world sporting events in a video game, especially around the time they actually take place. Whether it's simulating a Super Bowl to predict the winner or going back into what was an agonizing loss and rewriting history, Stein views this as a big reason sports gamers pick up the sticks, and certainly features like 2K's NBA Today or the Madden Moments Live support that.

Of 1,718 respondents, 82.5 have simulated a real game or a series of games, Stein says. "That, coupled with the high percentage of respondents thinking the accuracy of rosters is very important, suggest that simulations are what's going on here," he says. "That's something they want to see, there's this desire to play out their own sports fantasy through sports simulations."

Even greater numbers, 89 percent, have simulated entire seasons within a sports video game. "These people are investing serious amounts of time in this," Stein says. "A baseball franchise, as you know, a season can take forever [it is 162 games]. It's on the order of a long-form story or role-playing game. They answer that they're playing at least a few times a week, if not every day."

Still, the idea persists that sports gamers are something beyond a subculture to video gaming; they're an outlier altogether. In fact, Stein says, sports gaming still has all of the markers, habits, and obsessions of the core in first-person shooters, role-playing games and other genres.

"I think what we'll see is that they are getting things out of [sports gaming] in relation to their fandom, but they're still playing with the habits you'd expect of those heavily involved in other video games," Stein said.

The study will assuredly have many applications in games development; for gamers, that's where this study's big breakthrough could be: In identifying how much sports gamers have in common with the rest of the core. Within the culture, the two sides are, if not antagonistic, at least feeling completely apart in the experience..

A Study Returns Easy Answers to Questions Not Yet Asked

Sports gamers lack geek cred, in other words. We're bro-gamers, to use an extreme pejorative.

"If you're interested in games, I don't know why you wouldn't be interested in sports," Stein says. "Look at them. They're extremely well designed games. They have to be, because they've lasted for a very long time. It has to be a cultural thing, ‘I felt excluded' because of sports, but that's another research project."

While I may not be representative of the entire population, I think my experience speaks to plenty. I played baseball in high school. I won the "most improved" award my senior year, so that should tell you I was pretty bad at it. I went to baseball camps where I had little in common with any of the hitters and nothing in common with the pitchers. I could quote you, from memory, every World Series winner, loser and the score (still can, in fact). And we know about the time I put into baseball video games, which wasn't time spent in a weight room or a batting cage.

Who's the jock in that situation? Who's the geek? If there's any social rejection associated with sports, I have felt it. You never forget that day when you're standing in right field and you realize what a daydream it was to think you were ever going to be a major leaguer, much less any good. Follow that shattering revelation with another petrified strikeout with runners on, and the stares of teammates who knew you would, trust me, I'm Peter Parker, not Flash Thompson. (Hell, using that metaphor alone should convince you.)

Stein's research may right now provide a lot of obvious answers to the outside community, but I think it's also going to take a step further within gaming. It should cement sports gamers in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in shooters, in RPGs, in RTSes, on consoles and PCs.

We are all pouring the same time into it. We are all creating and remembering and leading extraordinary lives not lived.

A Study Returns Easy Answers to Questions Not Yet Asked
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.