For an 11-year old, a specky is not your everyday football accomplishment. At that age, it is imagined by most, but accomplished by few. Today my son was part of the few.
You might imagine my sense of pride as a father to know that I was there to see my son’s first specky. Darting his way through the pack, he accelerates to make a lead. His teammate kicks the ball in his direction, but in a high arc. My son dodges another opponent, and accelerates to the anticipated drop zone. With eyes only for the ball, he leaps skyward between two opponents to take the ball at the highest point. With both hands outstretched, he hangs in the air, and marks it!
As any follower of Australian Rules Football knows, the laudatory term “specky” is reserved for a spectacular highflying mark. It is a manoeuvre that requires daring and power, not to mention precise timing. While tracking the ball’s flight path and judging its descent, the footballer executes a running vertical jump, often springing off the back or shoulders of an opponent high into the air to achieve “hang-time” at the point of reception.
It was a moment of achievement, but it was shared only by the two of us. You see, in this case, the event occurred from behind an analogue game controller in a PlayStation 2 computer game called AFL Live: Premiership Edition.
The extension of the player through a game character is achieved in this footy match through a game controller. It is a handheld device with several types of navigation buttons that control player movements, including direction (forward, back, sideways) and speed, as well as kicking (torpedo, drop punt, stab, chip, off ground), marking, bumping/pushing, hand ball, tackling, shrugging a tackle, evading a tackle, punching the ball away, and so on. Any particular game action will involve the sequential tapping or holding of a button and, in many cases, tapping and holding two buttons simultaneously to execute more advanced game skills.
The navigation sequence of a “specky” could be as follows: The game player detects a kicked ball (on screen), estimates velocity and trajectory, and judges that the ball will land in the midst of a pack of players 30 metres in front of his game character. The right analogue button is pushed to move the virtual player towards the pack, and the circle-marked button, to evade an oncoming opponent. The right analogue button is depressed to move the game character towards the pack, and the left-shoulder button (L1) simultaneously depressed to accelerate. As the virtual player approaches the pack, the square-marked button is tapped at the same time the right-shoulder button (R1) is depressed in order to execute a high-jumping motion, with timing precise enough to successfully complete the highflying mark.
This anecdote is telling for at least two reasons. The first goes to the issue of immersion and identity in this computer game. My son triumphantly claimed, “I did my first specky!” not “Dad, I just mastered the game controller in such a way that my game character just achieved its first specky”. Even though the game player occupies a third-person perspective in this particular game, the distinction between the game player and the game character seems to disappear, or at least merge in the action.
The second, related point has to do with skilful play. The term “sport” is usually reserved for games that feature and value physical prowess. Some sports (e.g., football, netball) feature large muscle group activity, while others (e.g., pistol shooting, archery) involve smaller muscle activity.
Subtract the gross motor component, and the virtual “specky” requires tactical daring (to attempt a manoeuvre with such a low probability of success) and nimble, fine motor skills to produce an equally well-timed and effective highflying mark. In other words, the so-called virtual version requires fine motor skill, plus a considerable amount of tactical game sense.
Moreover, this anecdote raises the issue of what counts as sport. I contend that the computer version of football involves physical prowess (i.e., fine motor physicality and tactical skilfulness) and can be recognised as a sport in its own right.
Yet, I suspect that many will recoil at this thought. How can computer game football really stand up to the “real” thing?
Many might not be able to put their fingers on just what is disturbing about this connection. It may be that computer football seems more like remote control sport. It may be difficult to accept the equating of game controller or keyboard dexterity with athleticism. It may also be the case that the computer version poses a threat to those of us whose sense of identity and community is closely tied to conventional sport.
I suspect that committed athletes, who have had their identities forged and refined in conventional sports, especially the competitive and contact type, would find it hard to accept as athletes their computer sport counterparts. A similar social logic might be at work when some reject the legitimacy of, say, women’s tennis because it only involves three as opposed to the men’s five set matches. Similarly, an aesthetic sport such as synchronised swimming, dominated as it is by women, may be rejected outright as sport.
Well, the barbarians may be once again at the gate. This time, it may be the computer “geeks” whose dexterity and tactical ingenuity poses a new threat to “real” (i.e., conventional) sport and those who lay claim to it.