Hat in right hand, right hand over heart, I raised my beer cup with my left and took a sip. Dad chided me for that, so I put it down. The singer was behind the beat on The Star-Spangled Banner. My thumb tapped against my cap's bill. A distinctly video-game thought came to me: Can't we just button through this?
America's mandatory moment of patriotism precedes nearly every spectator sport, whether it's the Super Bowl, or a dirt track race (frequently accompanied by a prayer), or a Thirsty Thursday in single-A ball, Even a college tennis meet, where most players worth a damn were probably born overseas, begins with The Star-Spangled Banner. By my reckoning, there are only two kinds of sporting exhibitions played on American soil that are brought to you without jingoist interruption: golf, and any video game.
It takes about 96 seconds for someone to sing the national anthem of the United States. In that span, I tried to account for all of the video games I've played that imposed this civic obligation. Back in the 1980s, Hardball! on the Commodore 64 led off the top of the first inning with a jazzy chiptune rendition. It would play until a ball was struck, so if you couldn't get the first batter out without him making contact, I guess you didn't love America.
Konami's Double Dribble is more familiar on the Nintendo Entertainment System, where it opens with a fast version that leaves out one verse (either the first or the second). The arcade version of Double Dribble played the entire thing, with a synthesized voice singing the words. In its time, it was an impressive inclusion for purposes of verisimilitude.
Madden NFL, true to the league it represents, frequently opens with the most militarized and nationalistic ceremonies of any current sports video game. But even it doesn't play the full Star-Spangled Banner or, in the most current edition, any excerpt, even for the Super Bowl. Madden NFL 12 would have flyovers and the last few bars of the anthem for regular season games. Madden NFL 13 covers the field with an enormous flag during postseason games and follows it with either three attack helicopters or a stealth bomber overhead. but no music. All of it can be dismissed with your thumb.
MLB The Show punched up its postseason presentation and players will stand on the baselines, hands over heart, as a flag animation waves on the center field video screen. That's it. NHL 13 will play an excerpt of the Star-Spangled Banner during its Winter Classic mode as players gaze at their skates solemnly. It's really amusing if you select two Canadian teams (although, technically, the home venue's anthem is played last, so if you assume the broadcast skipped past O Canada, this is still correct protocol). In tournament mode, when national teams play, both sides will stand at the blue lines to hear the home country's anthem, but as this is necessarily a national competition, playing the song here is more akin to a fight song in NCAA Football—where I have never heard The Star-Spangled Banner played, by the way.
None of these instances—truncated, altered, minimized, dismissed—have resulted in any condemnation of these games' makers or accusations of disrespect. Nor should they be. But if it's in the game, it's in the game, right? And The Star Spangled Banner is in the public domain. If the Winston-Salem Dash, tomorrow, decided it would skip the national anthem in the interest of time, or of organizational effort (they have to find someone to sing it) or for any other reason, what kind of a nationwide talkshow fury do you think that would raise?
No, actually, I don't think these cases are all that different. In both matters, you've paid money for an entertainment spectacle, not a civics lesson. If the American national anthem is just harmless aesthetic garnish, a sporting tradition, then why isn't it completely available in a sports video game? NCAA Football makes the effort to run out a buffalo before Colorado's home games, after all.
Is it because, in a video game, I'm a participant more than I am a spectator, and thus get to be exempted? OK. The participants in a real game have even less choice than someone in the stands. Do you really think a ballplayer vying for a good managerial report and promotion is going to opt out of this salute? Over the course of a 138-game season he'll spend 3 hours and 40 minutes honoring America, born here or not.
Is it because, enjoying a video game, I am alone on my couch, while enjoying a real game, I'm patronizing a public accommodation with a large gathering of fellow citizens? Then why don't movie theaters play The Star-Spangled Banner before the main feature? Do they hate America?
I don't have any problem with The Star-Spangled Banner as a song (some complain about its military imagery; this always strikes me as a pretext), or with playing it at a sporting event that truly represents the nation, such as at the Olympics or another national competition. Domestically, it's simply being overused in a tacky way. It's reducing the song to the level of Boston's More Than a Feeling, the kind of ballad that needs years between performances to come anywhere close to exciting or memorable in an unironic way.
Marvin Gaye's performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game is as much a part of the league's lore as Dr. J's rock-the-cradle dunk in The Finals later that year. Whitney Houston's version at Super Bowl XXV, even as the kindling of the modern coercive patriotism movement during Operation Desert Shield—remember that name?—still puts a lump in my throat. The Cowsills finishing out "home of the brave," before breaking into the chorus of "Hair" at the 2004 American League Championship Series set the perfect tone for things to come in that showdown.
Only once have I not stood and removed my cap for The Star-Spangled Banner. The other times I felt like remaining seated, I was with others who didn't come to the park to see a political protest, to say nothing of the ridiculous irony of going to a baseball game to make a political statement against political statements made at a baseball game. The time I did sit silently I was with a friend of a like mind, and we were in San Francisco, so we hardly deserved any credit for political bravery. The song still played. It probably always will.
In Little League we were excited to hear The Star-Spangled Banner before a game not because it was a special song, but because it made us into pretend major leaguers. Yet I go home to play a pretend major leaguer on my television and I never hear a note of it.
I pondered all of this last Thursday as the anthem wound up and finished. Dad and I put our caps back on and sang, without coercion, the final two words of The Star-Spangled Banner which everyone knows are "Play ball!" I picked up my beer and took a sip. The P.A. began calling out the opposing team's batting order and home team's defensive positions. And I drummed my right thumb against my thigh, trying to button through all of that, too.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.