There are few activities in life that feel sillier than playing an Olympics video game. There are fewer activities that better illuminate how ridiculous the act of playing a video game can be.
You're not running a 100-meter dash. You're pretending to run one. You're pretending by waiting for the signal, then—press that A-button!—you're off.... tap-tap-tap-tap that A button to keep running and running. Taptaptaptap faster to speed up! Toofast! Taptap-tap-tap-(wait)-tap-tap....OK. Good rhythm. Almost there. 2nd place? PRESS-A-TO-LUNGE! Finished... Yes. Second place. Silver medal.
You just ran the 100 meters. More specifically, you just tapped a button a lot.
Want to swim the 200-meter breaststroke? Hopefully you're good at pulling two analog sticks in sync.
London 2012, as with so many official and unofficial Olympics video games before it, is a translation of primal sporting activities into a collection of mechanical challenges. In the real world, we would hurl a javelin by running with it, aiming it and throwing it. In London 2012 we would tap the A button to build running speed, pull back a joystick to begin establishing the throwing angle and then we would jolt the joystick forward, as straight ahead as could be, to launch our virtual spear. In real life, we would dive or vault using a series of jumps and twists, folding and unfolding of our body; in the video game version we would press certain buttons at the right time.
The classic Olympic competitions of track and field, of swimming, gymnastics, rowing and shooting, are a contest among the people on this planet who have most successfully mastered simple series of body movements that they have practiced thousands of times.
These classic Olympic activities are adorned every four years with the made-for-TV narratives of the young athlete grasping from an impoverished childhood for a gold medal or of the older athlete just proud to be competing after some disaster of a stumble four years ago. The implication of television broadcasts of the Olympics is that the pure competition between people who have mastered such pure actions as running 200 meters in the shortest time possible, jumping as high as possible or throwing a heavy ball down a field is insufficiently interesting without the addition of human narrative.
London 2012 is a repudiation of the broadcast TV theory of the Olympics. It is wonderfully bland. It is devoid of named athletes and freed of any drama in, say, the women's 100m hurdles other than the unfolding story of who among a group of competitors has most successfully mastered a simple series of body movements that can get a person down a track, beyond a series of barriers.
How wonderful that in a video game, that most anti-athletic of pursuits, we find this celebration of pure sporting contest. Learn the actions. Practice the actions. Excel at the actions. Be better than anyone else at the actions.
As a single-player video game, London 2012 is perhaps an all too effective simulation of Olympic athletic purity. It may be true to the spirit of unmedicated, unsentimental sport-for-sport's-sake—however unrealistic that may be—but it also presents a case for how boring being the essential actions of elite athleticism must be. There is, no doubt, a real world thrill to being able to reach to the ground, grab a barbell loaded with heavy plates and hoist it above one's head. There is also no doubt that doing the same thing repeatedly for days and years of training renders that extraordinary series of movements as the routine. The video game version is similarly all routine. None of the 40-some activities in London 2012 is much fun to execute the first time, and all have lost any of their physically interesting qualities by the 10th. They are routines, better practiced with a mind focused on perfection than distracted by fun. The only joy to be found in the tapping of the A button during the 100-meter dash is the joy of tapping it with a good enough rhythm to win. Single-player London 2012 is training. Its 40-something tests of finger discipline, all mechanical metaphors for Olympic feats. It never once suggests that being an Olympic athlete is fun, which feels right.
Multiplayer London 2012 is the game's stadium, its arena where we can test the repetitious actions we've mastered in single-player against the world's best practitioners of the same. A couple of weeks since the release of the game, the problem is that the Xbox 360 version of this stadium is not well-stocked with athletes. There don't seem to be many people competing in these Olympics. Try to randomly join a contest. Don't want to do the discus that the five people you're matched with are doing? Then back out. Try for a new match. Surprise! It's those five people again. Perhaps the activity will pick up closer to the start of the London games later this year, but if not, an opportunity is lost.
It's irresistibly exciting to volunteer to wear the Team USA uniform, hop into a virtual rowing contest against real people wearing the flags of the U.K. and Canada and Kenya and then to hear the in-game announcer shouting about the amazing performance by the surging Americans. It would be even more exciting if the game somehow forced players to only represent the country their Xbox, PlayStation or PC is in. But letting players fudge it works well enough. National pride appears to compel plenty of people to identify with their real home country. The U.K. currently stands atop the game's online national pride leaderboard.
Divorced from the Olympics, London 2012 would seem like a mere mediocrity. It is not very fun and it is not improved on Xbox by its awkward, optional Kinect motion controls. The game's human announcers have no real-life human drama to prattle about, so they're left to spout generic lines of praise or despair. They're cued clumsily. They will enthuse about a male gymnast's superb vault just because he flipped well while ignoring that he landed with the grace of a stumbling toddler.
The Olympics, of course, are not really just about the purity of physical competition. They are a contest of nations and therefore a competition of societies' techniques for nurturing elite athletes. They are complicated by efforts to illicitly enhance performance and by legitimate improvements in the technology of, among other things, shoes. It is arguably unrealistic for a game like London 2012, which is an official, antiseptic licensed product of the International Olympic Committee, to not include the moral gray of the Olympics amid its brightly colored rings. But where there are games, there will always be competitors who will find shortcuts. When earlier Olympic games such as the old Track & Field required players to rapidly mash two adjacent buttons, players figured out that rubbing a fork or spoon back and forth, tightly across the buttons, rather than tapping each one with a finger, generated the most speed. Surely, the best London 2012 gamers will find some spoon tricks of their own and the game will seem more realistic because of it.
Some people will find London 2012 boring. That assessment will confirm one or two things. They either have no tolerance for the translation of the sports of legs and arms into contests of the fingers or they ultimately prefer an Olympics that is a tale of people rather than a performance of feats.
London 2012, however, looks good enough and runs well enough to effectively simulate the experience of doggedly practicing some basic task to become the world's best at it. That is an Olympic ideal. Tossing a javelin in this game may not be as interesting as scoring a headshot in Halo or slingshotting an Angry Bird, but as a method for conveying what it might feel like to actually be in the Olympics, it seems superior to watching someone toss a javelin in real life. The human drama is stripped away, but in its place is a celebration of practice and perfection and of reaching a pinnacle of achievement.