What the Video Game Vendor Selling Hot Dogs Knows About Life

Considering the source, it's an unlikely statement. When Oregon was marching to a No. 1 ranking and a berth in the national championship game in 2010, Richard Hofmeier was running an art gallery in Eugene's funky Whiteaker neighborhood. Where nearly every video game treats all-star status and on-field glory as the player's birthright, Hofmeier built a game to put you in the shoes of a guy selling hot dogs, far away from any stadium lights.

And yet, "I'm obsessed with sports games," says the Seattle-based games designer and artist. "I want to make sports games, actually."

It might take someone fascinated by sports video games to build something so antithetical to their experience, as Hofmeier, 28, has done with Cart Life, an independent game that released in May 2011 and has captured considerable critical attention of late, much of it coming from Europe. It's not a sports video game, by any stretch. It's a "retail simulation," a cheerfully ironic label that disguises both the drudgery of working-class life, and a dispassionate game where success is hard to recognize, if it even comes.

In "Cart Life," you inhabit the character of someone who is not destitute but would likely be considered working poor, marginally secure at best. The game takes place over the span of a week. The characters serve coffee, sell bagels, run a newsstand. There is a lot of drudgery deliberately included in the game—from folding newspapers, to traveling to your work site, to smoking a cigarette. In one, you're a divorced woman living on her sister's couch, facing a custody hearing at the end of the week. In another, you're a widower living in a motel off the meager payout from your wife's life insurance, trying to pay the next week's rent. There are two other scenarios.

None of these careers open, or close, like the Frank Merriwell tales you build in the career modes of NCAA Football's Road to Glory or MLB The Show's Road to the Show. As Hofmeier developed Cart Life, he says he thought back to his own adolescence, when he also played sports in high school. Even if he didn't succeed conspicuously at them then, his artistic talent elicited similar praise from well-meaning family and friends who believed it would make him as rich and famous as any athlete. The outcomes became analogous in his mind.

What Hofmeier has done with Cart Life isn't the kind of challenge posed by unlicensed all-comers like Backbreaker, nor is it the kind of niche-sport insurgency represented by NLL Lacrosse. That's not to say Hofmeier doesn't challenge the status quo of sports video games design, particularly in what is seen in their individual career modes, a feature that became ascendant in this console generation.

The antithesis of a sports video game also speaks to the sense of exceptionalism taught by them.

Sports video games, says Hofmeier, "distill the solipsism" of the sports fantasy. Basically, that means the only thing existing in this universe is the player and the only perspective that matters, and really the only force acting upon that universe, is his. I've slipped into this mind state repeatedly, whether it was winning The Masters, the Heisman Trophy, or making the major leagues. I've never created a player in my own image who was not the rookie-of-the-year, the all-star, the franchise leader and then the hall-of-famer. The odds against an average American becoming even the least of these are comparatively as long as those against a professional player becoming all of them.

This sense of exceptionalism is at the bottom of any mode of play in mainstream gaming, whether that's in something as uniquely American as college football or something as internationally enjoyed as FIFA's Be a Pro mode, which is still developed by a U.S.-based company. Outside the genre, everyone else is saving the galaxy or the realm or the whatever, and many of these games are built by American companies, too. Hofmeier supposes that may be why Cart Life has earned such attention from Europe, which is rightly dubious of America's notional exceptionalism. Indeed, of the "Deluxe-O" Special editions he's sold for Cart Life (coming in a gleaming silver paint can), dozens have gone overseas, yet only one has been sold in America.

Cart Life's basic argument, if this game follows the auteur theory of film, is that you are not unimportant—but you really aren't special, either. You live around other people, they don't live around you. Look at the Republican presidential debates for how much that value is accepted here.

Hofmeier thinks he might have been better served as a teenager if, instead of his family and friends' compliments and his escapes to racing video games, he had been presented with role-playing scenarios for more realistic, even unfavorable outcomes, to life. Not that it would have become a kind of scared-straight warning to do well in school or else, but it would have shown him another layer of life, led by people whose ambitions may be more prosaic than a Super Bowl trophy but are no less meaningful to them than that goal is to Eli Manning next week.

And if that didn't make the virtual life he led in a video game something more authentic at the time, it would at least have earned the escape it represented later, or placed it in an appropriate light.

"There's a necro-nostalgic quality to it," Hofmeier says, almost coining a new term for the appeal of a sports video game. He's basically talking about the remembrance of a dead dream. "As a kid, you're still educating yourself, so when you play a sports video game, you're still in some way researching that game, you're coming to understand the playbook, you're acquainting yourself with the game."

As an adult, however, it's not that you cease to learn about a sport, it simply ceases to have a practical application. "When you reckon with your own physical limitations, then all of those things become entertainment, or comfort or a diversion," Hofmeier says.

Other video games work in an inverted way. "As a kid, you spend so much time playing games you get a secondary education through them," he says. You emerge from them feeling like you have a set of practical skills in adulthood, when you really don't. "I'm really, really good at driving super fast, but it's against the law. I have no future in the military, and would in fact be a poor fit, but nonetheless, I believe that I have some fundamentals of military tactics through games."

***

Hofmeier's name may be familiar to some Kotaku readers. He was featured in December 2010 as the ringleader of a band of Eugene artists whose custom-built arcade cabinet for a local breakfast place earned free waffles for life for a teenager named Devin, whom they'd taken under their wing. Hofmeier and his girlfriend moved to Seattle shortly afterward, though they stay in touch Devin, and invited him up to celebrate his 16th birthday this weekend.

The money Hofmeier has made from Cart Life is, for him, akin to the earnings of the game's protagonists—it's not a gold-trophy, game-over success, but it pays the bills. Hofmeier's now expanding into other projects. Sports, however, lays a little too far outside the reach of his independent development audience.

"I'd love to make a video game about an amateur women's softball league," Hofmeier says, almost with a laugh, knowing such a title would have almost no hope of commercial success. "Or a game about people playing overseas in a Chinese basketball league.

"Sports games are probably most often targeted with the stigma given to all of video games, being too falsely complimentary, or too fantastic, or they encourage you to escape from life," Hofmeier said. "They're seen as dishonest about who we are, and to play them is to lie to ourselves." Maybe these same games can teach us to have more realistic expectations.

Download Cart Life, by Richard Hofmeier

What the Video Game Vendor Selling Hot Dogs Knows About Life
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.