As an adolescent, I was a child who lived in two distinctly different worlds. I loved to play Dungeons and Dragons and video games with a small group of friends, and I was on the football team as well. I loved the competition and teamwork of sports, but I also loved the imagination and strategy of gaming.
When my teammates inevitably found out about my gaming habits, they were quite thorough with their mockery. It was one of those crossroads moments in my life. I chose to spend time with the nerds who at least accepted my jockness over the jocks who chose to close their minds completely to the joys of my nerdiness.
I don’t ever regret that choice, but back then I would often find myself wishing that there was some way to get those guys to play D&D just once so they’d know where I was coming from. Decades later, I realize now that they have; many times without even knowing it. It turns out that video games are the great equalizer.
It really amuses me today to know that the jocks who exiled me socially and ridiculed my choice of hobby now understand the inner workings of RPG mechanics better than they’ll ever be aware of. Not coincidentally, the very thing which would nudge these stubborn mules into my geeky shadow realm of fantasy games was one of the icons of their beloved sport.
As if by divine providence, the year I quit playing football was the year that John Madden Football made the leap from PC to consoles. It released for the Sega Genesis in 1990, and was followed shortly by a SNES version in 1991.
Not to take away from the amazingness that was Tecmo Bowl and Super Tecmo Bowl, but the Madden franchise gave sports gaming a legitmate face, and so it finally began to be acceptable for popular, athletic, fraternity bound males to engage in gaming.
By the time I got to college, I began to hear some very familiar sounding dialog from the same frat types that once looked down their noses at me for my D&D/RPG ways. As they discussed their favorite players in Madden, they used terms like power, agility, speed, and stamina.
Substitute the terms Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution for the Madden stat categories in those conversations, and you basically have a circle of gamer geeks discussing the best build for a spellcaster! Believe me, the irony of the fact that most of those guys now religiously play “fantasy football” always puts a huge smile on my face.
Outside of sports games, the second genre to become accepted by the old football crew was shooters. The explosions, violence, and overall machismo (there were no Frag Dolls in the mid 90s) generally associated with shooters at that time made them all right for the popular jock types to indulge in socially.
To this day, you’d probably get a derisive laugh out of one of them if you mentioned a D&D staple like hit points. The reaction would be different if you explained to them that hit points are a core function of their beloved shooters and fighting games.
As time has gone on, more and more RPG elements have seeped into the genres generally embraced by the crowd that cast me out all those years ago. Like zombies surrounding a barricaded building, it’s not a matter of if they will get you, but rather when and how.
Madden now features literal character creation tools and the ability to engage in character progression, where stats improve with time and practice. Shooters now incorporate elements like classes, player customization, and even the outright use of experience points in games like Modern Warfare 2.
To my delight and surprise, the steady invasion of the RPG in all genres of video games has opened the minds of some of those who once judged me so harshly. Having been exposed to the basic vocabulary, the leap of faith into the wider realm of RPG gaming becomes much easier to make. Now I see some of these same people playing games like Fallout 3, Fable 2, and even Final Fantasy X. But not on Sunday afternoons or evenings, of course.
Today, as I sample all the wonder that gaming has to offer, I feel elated that I chose the path I did back in school. When I hear former meatheads refer to things I once thought were the realm of nerds alone, like “levelling up”, “building up their stats”, and “grinding out some prestige”, I feel a deep sense of smugness and serenity wash over me. Only now am I able to appreciate it. Only now do I realize that, in the end, I did choose the winning team.
So thank you, John Madden. Thank you for unwittingly becoming the architect and catalyst for my sweet, sweet revenge. My enemies have finally become the very thing they once hated.