People get hurt playing football. It may seem inevitable when you've got three 300-lb. pass rushers bearing down on a quarterback over and over again. But how could that reality be different? That's the question that came up during Practice, New York University's inaugural game design conference that was held this past week.
After a talk titled "The Game Design of Football" given by Rogers Redding—Secretary-Rules Editor for the NCAA Football Rules Committee—a room full of video game designers wound up brainstorming ideas about how to, essentially, improve a 100-year-old sport.
Video game and board game designers constantly tackle the realities of how players engage with systems. Stripped of all the sweat and strain, football's just another system, right?
So, if the problem is athletes consistently getting hurt, why not improve their armor? That was a real question, asked in video game terms, by a member of the New York-based Smashworx development studio. Of course, it's not called armor in football. After some polite laughter, it was noted that quarterbacks, offensive linemen and their teammates wear shoulder pads, not +5 pauldrons. Redding addressed the video game solution to real-world injuries by saying that, while heavier, sturdier padding might make the game safer, it might make it more boring. Troublesome as they are, the explosive impacts of linesmen, running backs, wide receivers and corners are what people want to see. Throw players into outsized Gears of War-style equipment and all of that trademark smash-mouth football gets extinguished. The importance of action was something that game designers could understand.
Another person in the audience of game developers—driven maybe by the easy pliability of virtual real estate in computer games—wondered about changing the dimensions of the field. Giving players more room to run, for example, might give them time to react to oncoming threats. Or, doing the opposite—shrinking the turf size—would create less velocity as a result of smaller spaces to run. After all, Redding's lecture peppered in examples of how the shape of the gridiron has changed over football's lifespan. Why not just do that again? There are problems. Now that college football's a multimillion-dollar revenue generator, he countered, widening or lengthening isn't as easy as it once was. TV networks, boosters, trainers and other stakeholders would all want determining power on such change.
Okay, then, could there possibly be a shift in the numbers of the players on the field? Such a change might be easier to officiate, Redding offered, but then you'd have to scrap entire playbooks, which are institutions among themselves. The whole mode of strategic thinking around the game would have to be re-thought.
How about scrapping the whole ruleset all together? If college football as it exists is, maybe, version 10.8.5, then throw it all out and start a fresh reboot from version 1.0? With all the studies and data around the sport now, another designer speculated, you'd surely wind up with a safer game. True, Redding admitted, but the idea that there's a tradition continuing with every Saturday game is part of college football's appeal. Asking alumni and students to come watch something that might be entirely new would be a much harder sell. So, football has to do what first-person shooters do: offer slight balancing turns on what people want to be a familiar experience.
Surprise: video game designers didn't revolutionize America's favorite sport last weekend. But, what did become apparent in the back-and-forth between Redding and the assembled designers was a strong mutual respect between one field of gaming people and another. Seth Killian, special consultant on Capcom fighting games like Street Fighter, likened Redding's work to what he and his colleagues do when balancing and refining the company's martial arts series. "It's not that different," he said of the rules-making in football and fighting games. "You're trying to establish what players can and can't do, while trying to keep the competition entertaining. In a very real but sometimes invisible way, the rules make the sport. You change them and you risk losing what makes it special."