When something happens in real life sports, my first instinct is to see if I can replicate it in a video game. It's partly why they exist, after all. But the New Orleans Saints' infamous "bounty" system, which paid premiums to players who delivered devastating hits, would seem to be beyond the means of a game like Madden NFL 12.
Injuries are done by background calculation, so it's impossible to deliberately knock another player out of the game. Late hits were removed from Madden two console generations ago.
Then I unlocked an achievement.
I thought about this a lot as the Saints' scandal played out on talk radio in the past week. New Orleans defenders, particularly in their Super Bowl year of 2009-2010, reportedly were compensated extra for big hits on big name players, especially if that player had to leave the game as a result. The reaction from both the establishment sports media and its contrarian opposition has been nauseously typical.
American football is necessarily a violent contact sport. But it's intellectually dishonest to say there's no difference between being paid to stop another team's offense and being paid to deliberately remove its players from the game through injury. The achievements offered by Xbox Live and the trophies on the PlayStation Network help us understand this.
Why? Because a bounty is paid for a specific act, regardless of its morality. Paying bonuses for a single result creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, that a team's personnel is trying for a result other than winning a game. Point shavers may also want to win while trying for a result other than victory.
The result of a violent hit may help a team win a game, sure. But sport's legitimacy comes not only from objectively enforced rules, but from two teams pursuing the same goal. And American football is North American sports' ultimate, results-oriented, only-winning matters enterprise.
That's what exposes the criminal intent of the Saints' bounty program. I have every faith someone would have collected $1,500 for putting Brett Favre on a stretcher even if New Orleans had lost the NFC title game in 2010. The bounty program and its funders can't claim to be motivating extra effort to win when the bounty conditions can be met in a loss.
That brings me back to achievements. Look through the achievement list for Madden NFL or any simulation sports game. In Madden, only two have winning the game as a condition.
This isn't to damn EA Sports or accuse it of endorsing or promoting the behavior its licensing partner condemns and will, assuredly, penalize severely. But it does highlight what a bounty does. There's playing the game, playing the game hard, and playing it differently.
Madden's "Kenny Britt Award" is given if you gain 225 yards, or more, with a single player. It memorializes the Titans receiver's three-touchdown, eight-reception humiliation of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, If I'm trying to play real football to win, that should be an exotic accomplishment, meriting the 25 Gamerscore on Xbox Live. But I could go into a game and throw it at a single receiver the entire time, pick up the bounty, and conceivably lose.
Similarly, the "Michael Vick" award gives you 30 Gamerscore on Xbox Live for running your quarterback 130 yards. If that, and not winning, was the singular objective of a game, I'm pretty sure I could pull it off, too.
In this you understand the distinction made by the more sane sports radio hosts this week, such as Dan Patrick, in discussing why the bounty system deserves punishment. The existence of a bounty doesn't break any on-field rules (it assuredly violates the league's compensation agreement with its player's union, though). But it perverts their spirit. A sport's rules are there to ensure the legitimacy of one outcome—the final score. Playing the game for the purpose of a separate outcome would require a separate set of rules, as well as competitors agreeing to them.
And that's why I think so many sports gamers react negatively to achievements, and achievement hunters, who can pick up these bounties through "boosting." I've done it myself, with the person who has the world No. 1 Gamerscore among all women on Xbox Live.
Kenny Britt's 225-yard game stands out because his performance contributed to another goal; it wasn't the goal itself. Laying out a bounty for a specific result—whether injuring players or running up the score against them—creates a different set of winning conditions. For example, look at Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, which celebrated its 50-year anniversary last week. While the Philadelphia Warriors did win, it's generally accepted his teammates were giving him the ball to score in hopes of creating a singular moment outside of the final score.
Maybe I can't injure someone or knock them out of a video game. But I was only partially wrong when I assumed that video game sports do not replicate the spirit and execution of the Saints' bounty system.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.