Once a year, EA release the latest instalment of its flagship game, FIFA. The football simulation accounts for nearly half of the company’s revenue, despite EA publishing a range of other bestsellers including the Need for Speed series, Medal of Honour, The Sims, Battlefield and Mass Effect. Each year, the game comes under fire in the media with headlines like ‘The kids emptied our bank account playing Fifa‘, which spurs on countries to enforce strict law on in-game purchases on the basis that the game’s ‘loot crate’ model encourages irresponsible and addictive behaviour.
I want to ask what it is about FIFA that lets the game year on year improve upon its ~20 million sales. With gameplay standards notoriously in decline, FIFA seems to thrive instead on compulsive gaming habits. More and more, the title relies on the agitated gamer to make poor decisions with time and money until decision is outperformed by tradition or routine. The danger is that such mechanics eventually inspire a lifestyle that very quickly becomes hard to go back on. It’s all too easy to arrange a commute around new content or a weekend around an online league. Eventually, payday can quite easily finance a summer sat inside, waiting for the release of a few blue cards.
For those who don’t know, FIFA’s most popular game mode, Ultimate Team, is an E-rated (‘Everyone’) card-collecting game. The player builds their team with football stars (cards) released over the year and compete with other players and AI to earn rewards. The game has two inbuilt currencies for buying players, coins and FIFA points. Coins you earn very slowly for playing the game or manipulating the transfer market. FIFA points you pay for with real money, allowing you to open packs of random plays instantly.
It’s important to note that the game itself is a disaster. FIFA isn’t played as a realistic football simulation. Online modes are devastated by poor servers and lag. EA denies that game outcomes are scripted, but silly concessions in the final seconds and unresponsive players fuel conspiracy. Skill is seldom rewarded so much as appealing to the ‘meta’ – exploiting bugs and overpowered commands to get unearned wins.
As a consequence, the FIFA community takes no prisoners. Concede one goal and your opponent can disconnect and reconnect their internet to register a win without having to play the full 12-minute game. Refusing to skip extended cut-scenes is common, as an irritable opponent is more likely to make mistakes.
In short, the game is not arranged to be enjoyable, and its 1.5-star rating on the Microsoft Store is a testament to the apathy of its developers, who often neglect to fix issues and release content. One begins to question the pull of a game that famously refuses to improve, covering over flawed updates with new opportunities to roll the dice. Miraculously, FIFA works on the basis that ‘one more game’ or ‘one more pack’ might be enough for you to start enjoying the game again.
My own relationship with the game began midway through my university career, during a two-week modafinil course which, like everybody else, I took for narcolepsy. Modafinil not only keeps you awake but focuses your attention onto a single task for several hours. It’s easy to confuse the effects with the feeling you get when you actually enjoy doing something. The challenge of learning a new game blossomed into a daily ritual, and it was soon easier to play than not to play.
It is funny how the term “lifestyle choice” only applies the moment a habit ceases to be a choice. One seldom recognises the fate they are damning themselves to when picking up a cigarette or dousing sorrows in ethanol. Life is never that serious until it is. And of course, the compulsion to play a video game you don’t particularly enjoy is little more than a bit sad from the outside. On the inside, you fail to recognise yourself become that much quicker to temper. You don’t recognise the distinction of ‘choice’ until it’s Friday night and you haven’t made plans.
I think what I’m pointing to is the failure to properly address and understand these compulsive, subtly addictive behaviours that enter our lives unexpectedly and develop into a routine. Private life habits don’t carry the same obvious risk as smoking, overeating or gambling, and can be hard to have a serious conversation about as a result. Gaming never got in the way of my career. Artificial worlds, characters and histories have informed my work over the years. But it took me a long time to realise that I didn’t enjoy what I got out of FIFA, and that that is a problem in itself.
Back in 2016, heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua came out as a FIFA addict and the world just sort of went, “wait, what?” The boxer reported playing until 5 am, sleeping until 7 am and then getting up to train. But it seems silly to talk about addiction in this context. Video games don’t destroy lives. It’s FIFA, for God’s sake. Until Belle Delphine needs to start selling bathwater to finance the Ronaldinho SBC, we don’t need to have that conversation.
But then a friend tells you how much more they prefer life when they’re not playing the game, and you feel that. You realise how many weekends you missed in June for the chance to get a card that will be meaningless in September. You tell people you don’t have the money to go for a drink, but feel you deserve to put £4.99 into the game at the end of the month. It’s fine. You earned it. You’re not even that into football. You hate FIFA. You hate lad culture. It’s post-irony or something. It’s good to have for when friends come round.
Perhaps it is time to rethink how we approach these potentially dangerous behaviours. After four years of quite average summers, I’m happy to be able to switch on and play the odd competitive game without the compulsion to spend money or piss away my evenings. But every so often I catch myself swearing at my screen and remember how easy it is to miss the bigger picture. Perhaps it is time to have a conversation about the accessibility of these E-rated games in which ‘one more game’ is always an option, but never one you want to have to play.
Words by James Reynolds