Retrogamer: Arson Battlecat’s Majestic Sweater-Vest

For the first 7 years of my life, I had an uncomplicated relationship with football. From time to time I’d wander into the living room and find my father yelling at the television, praying that the Giants would just pull it off, please. Somewhat less often, I’d find my mother rooting for whoever was playing against the Colts, often while reading. Baltimore had no football team, my parents’ allegiances were mild, and I wanted to play outside anyway.

In 1987, Tecmo Bowl came out and suddenly, I had to have actual thoughts about a game I found overwhelmingly dull. While Blades of Steel, Bases Loaded, and Double Dribble weren’t my first choice of gaming, I understood the process and I loved them anyway.

“Who do you want to play?” my brother asked the first time he cajoled me into playing.

Shrug. “The Giants, I guess.”

He laughed. “Sucker. I’m the Raiders.” He proceeded to feed the ball to Bo Jackson, over and over again. After he scored a touchdown, I’d pick a play from the very limited selection and proceed to miss receivers, run into the offensive line and fail miserably. The final score was laughable, though lost to time.

On the rare occasions my brother convinced me to play again, I didn’t improve. I only played when he made me and never got past picking random plays. I was comfortable not growing in this particular area. When Tecmo Bowl went off the rotation, I happily didn’t pick up another football game until college.

My junior year, I stopped over a friend’s house to hang out. All our friends were there playing Madden 00. They were boisterous, talking trash and drinking beer. They asked me to join them and I agreed, but all I could think was of all games, Madden? I had learned nothing in the past ten years and disliked football games on principle.

When it came my turn to play, I picked up the controller and like a dutiful friend, put a smile on my face. I picked the Giants and won the coin toss. On my first play from scrimmage I threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Rather than sticking with it, I threw the controller and grabbed a beer from the fridge, determined to never play Madden again.

While reading 1001 Video Games to Play Before You Die, I come across a single article for Madden 2010, praising the, “…surprisingly impressive range of updates to the on-field action [that] takes the experience strides farther down the realism path,” (Smith, 2010). When I find myself in a GameStop a few days later, I see Madden 2013 in the bargain bin. I ask the clerk if there’s been any change in Madden since 2010. He kind of throws up his hands. “They’re all the same as far as I can tell.”

“So, playing this one is like playing the classic ones?”

He scratches the back of his neck. “They’re all classics as long as you like football.”

Since the early 00s, I’ve learned a lot. My senior year of college, my roommate was watching football. Seeing it was the Giants (and see how I didn’t want to go to my earth science requirement) I sat down with him. A penalty was called and I mumbled how I didn’t know why. He raised his eyebrow and said, “Dude. He was offsides. How did you not see that?”

“What’s offsides?” I asked.

Laughing, he took it upon himself to teach me more than the basic rules. And, perhaps because I was college and ready to learn, I listened. And I enjoyed it. He was a sports guy – a basketball player, a golfer, and a tennis player – and he knew how to break the rules and mechanics down in simplistic, easy-to-digest components. It was one of those moments where I could almost feel my synapses firing, neurotransmitters flooding my brain and electro-chemical reactions shooting through gray matter. Maybe I was ready to learn.

Unlike some people, once my interest is piqued, I must know everything. Like what intentional grounding and horse-collaring are. Or what it means when the referee puts both hands behind his head and extends his elbows like wings: a penalty that causes the loss of a down.

Years after college, when I started dating Leigh, she pointed out how precise the athletes’ movements are. The first time I saw a quarterback throw a 40-yard bomb to a square yard of turf that he couldn’t possibly have seen, I realized, Oh, that’s what running a route is. It was then that I realized that the game is hard and intelligent and like a choreographed dance, if a dance can be had with thousand-pound men ramming each other at full speed.

That brings us to everything I don’t love about football. The violence and constant injuries. The short careers where players are left with broken bodies and no real skills. The sense of entitlement that some athletes have. The ridiculousness of cheerleaders and the marginalization of women in general (maybe women can’t be linemen, but a wide receiver? A quarterback? A kicker? Why not?). And of course, the fans. Lord, do I loathe a vehement football fan.

When I picked up Madden 2013 at GameStop with every intention of buying it, all of these excuses came up. It would be irresponsible of me to support such a thing. I began to replace the game until I stopped, walked to the counter and bought it anyway.

Because the excuses are just white noise. The real reason I don’t like Madden has nothing to do with my (very real and not for this essay) cognitive dissonance. Football has problems, yes, but I don’t want to play Madden because I know, deep down, that I am terrible at football games. That kid who kept on getting schooled by Bo Jackson is still there.

On the face of it, Madden 2013 is simple. On offense, you choose a running play or a passing play. If you choose passing, your quarterback (QB) throws the ball to an eligible receiver, each of whom corresponds with a button on the controller: wide receivers (WR), tight ends (TE) or the running backs (RB) and tries to get down the field and into the end zone. If you chose running, you feed the ball to your RB. You control the QB until the ball is out of his hands and then control switches. Anyone not touching the ball is controlled by the computer.

Defense seems simple also. You can pick from a variety of man-to-man (where the defensive players match up with receivers) or zone coverage (where the defensive players defending a specific area of space) and choose to be conservative, aggressive or “Gameplan” (I find that Gameplan is pointless, but that’s not really the point). You can control one defender, or let the computer do everything.

That’s really all there is to it. Since I understand the rules of football and I know how video games work, I expect a manageable learning curve. But it’s more complex than that. Faced with the reality of choosing between multiple passing targets, all running different directions and the defenders constantly criss-crossing and shadowing, the press of bodies attacking and defending the quarterback, well, brains shut down. There’s a little growth, a little spark in my head space, but it’s like introducing trigonometry to a kid who just learned arithmetic. Developmentally, I’m just not there.

There’s no tutorial that I’m aware of. Madden isn’t really designed for new players. It’s designed for the millions of people who played the one before it. They just know that punting is implemented by manipulating the right joystick in a particular way. I, however, had to figure out exactly how to do it through trial and error.

When I start Madden, I’m shocked by how much there is to take in. What do all the options mean? Why is there a fantasy option? How do I just create a season? Isn’t this like MLB: The Show, where the main point is to create a dynasty? I thought it would be as simple as the old days of the Super Nintendo. But that’s silly of me.

I fiddle around and eventually discover how to create a career. I create a coach, name him Arson Battlecat—because if I’m going to play as a coach, he’s going to be a goddamned badass—and immediately start a preseason that I lose horrifically lose. I can’t punt, kick field goals, pass, or play defense. I quit and restart. And I learn.

The thing about learning is that children learn at will. It’s breathtaking to watch and it makes sense; from an evolutionary standpoint, those that don’t learn quickly don’t live long enough to out-breed those that don’t. And it’s harder for adults to learn. Again, it makes sense: adults have to be able to focus. They can’t go off on a learning spree and forget about raising their children. Evolution has laws.

At a certain age, children’s brains develop to a point where every new experience creates new pathways in their gray matter. Skills come easily, memories are formed and they stay forever. It’s pleasurable and addictive; the firing of neurotransmitters feels good. There’s a reason children are forever asking why. Because learning is a better feeling than any other.

As adults, we lose this. Neural pathways harden; learning becomes more difficult. In our mid-20s, our brains undergo changes that “…include increased myelination and continued adding and pruning of neurons.” (Young Adult Development Project) What this means is that the pathways become more fixed and the neurons die off faster and are replaced in a one-to-one ratio, instead of one-to-lots-and-lots ratio.

Adults learn slowly.

I don’t want to not learn. I make it an effort to learn all the time and to try new experiences. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go base-jumping, but it does mean that I try foods I think I hate regularly, I read a new book every few days and I play video games that I am bad at until I become not-bad. Small, incremental victories keep my brain as nimble as possible and stave ennui away. Madden is the latest attempt.

Realizing quickly that passing is much more complicated than running, I focus on understanding the run game. During endless practices, I feed the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw, learning the differences between the draw play and “Power O,” between reverses, ISOs and posts. I learn how to find running lanes and how to protect the ball with the press of the joystick. When I break free for a good run, it feels good.

After 20 practices, something clicks. My first victory, I yell so loudly that my cat, who’d been relaxing on my lap, runs away in terror, hides in the cellar for an hour.

While running the ball help me win practices, I still can’t pass. Eli Manning occasionally makes throws that land, but he’s constantly getting sacked and intercepted. I keep on trying, but my ineptitude forces me to run the ball even more.

After my tenth victory over the lackluster practice squad, I start the game again, going straight for the preseason. I expect to fail miserably and am delighted by not-losing. Preseason is meaningless, but my running game is kind of tight. Bradshaw and the backups do all right. They make some nice runs and get touchdowns. Nothing to worry about. The passing? The final game, my quarterbacks combine for 3 interceptions, no touchdowns and less than 50 yards.

When the season arrives, I focus on running, to the point that Bradshaw breaks the single-game rushing record of 296 yards in the season opener game by 50 yards. To put that in perspective, a solid rushing game in real life is 100 yards. Nevertheless, I am quite pleased. The next game, Bradshaw breaks the record again.

Video games are weird. Winning is fun.

The third game is where things change, because Bradshaw gets injured halfway through and backups are usually backups for a reason. I am forced to rely on Eli Manning’s arm to keep my lead alive. And maybe I’m getting used to the interface or maybe I’m learning, but I don’t embarrass myself. Eli only throws one interception and gets his first passing touchdown. Oh frabjous day!

I come crashing back to earth the following game and throw no less than 4 interceptions. I don’t know shit. I win anyway because the 2013 Eagles are evidently terrible. (In real life, Leigh is an Eagles fan. It makes for tense football seasons. She is also a Red Sox fan and I am an Orioles fan. Good marriage, bad sports relationship.) But it’s okay, because the next game I promptly throw for 3 more touchdowns. I am learning. Slowly.

When I play the 49ers, I swear that I feel my brain blossoming, because everything I try fails. Running is pathetic. Throws go awry. But I keep on trying new things until I make a slant pass. And then another. And then a screen and another slant and by the end of it I am exhilarated. Because I’ve changed my patterns and succeeded. Before, I spammed running plays and cycled through buttons that I’d discovered meant victory. Simple pattern-learning can be taught to rats (see: every psychology experiment ever, but notably P.F. Skinner), but that isn’t real knowledge. Real knowledge is applied.

In week 8, in a losing effort to the Cowboys where I fell behind quickly, I use every trick I knew and can’t quite catch up. It feels like a real game. And I’m not embarrassed. Sometimes you do well and just lose. It’s fine because I pick up a handful of tricks that I use in the next few games. I’ve never minded losing, only losing like a chump.

Against the Saints, I achieve a passer rating of 133.8, which is close to perfect (football ratings are weird). When I lose to the Ravens in Week 15, I feel proud. I do everything well: running, passing, defending, even punting. I am far from a master of Madden, but I know what I’m doing and a week later, make the playoffs.

The postseason flies by and I win. Hooray. Triumphing at a pretend Superbowl is great, but it’s not the point. I still shank two field goals and throw too many picks. I also rely too much on the running game. But hey, Arson Battlecat’s first time out and he wins the big one. Not bad.

For the moment, I’m done with Madden, but surprisingly enough, I’m not getting rid of it. I want to actually play online against real people, showing off the skills I’ve learned. I exorcised Mike-at-7 playing futile games against my older brother and Bo Jackson. I exorcised Mike-in-college throwing down a controller in disgust. And I channeled Mike-from-five-months-ago, not wanting to play a game out of fear.

It doesn’t matter if I win or lose because I won’t be embarrassed. I’m turning 35 in a few months and this is a small victory. I’ve learned a small, unimportant skill that I can apply in very particular circumstances and maybe that’s not a big deal, but it feels like one anyway. I don’t need to worry about failure anymore.

Besides all the personal growth, there’s a simple piece of information that I’m happy about. Arson Battlecat will return.


Madden 2013 Record:

Preseason: 3–1
Jaguars: Win (W)
Jets: W
Patriots: W
Bears: Loss (L) of the ass-whupping variety

Regular season: 13–3
Cowboys, W14–33 (Bradshaw breaks rushing record, Eli throws for 50 yards and 1 INT)
Buccaneers, W 28–41 (Bradshaw breaks rushing record. Eli throws for 10 yards and INT)
@Panthers, W 35–26 (Eli 7–10 for 74 yards, TD and INT. Bradshaw out with elbow dislocation)
@Eagles, W 17–9 (Eli throws 5 INT for 2.2 passer rating)
Browns, W 16–48 (3 Passing TDs, 2 INT; 4 Defensive TDs)
49ers, L 49–7 (Eli throws 3 INT. 70 yards rush. #Iamshitatvideogames)
Washington, W 7–31 (100+ yards passing, 1 TD, 2 INT! Bradshaw back, runs for 260 yards)
@Cowboys, L 21–38 (My finest day)
Steelers, W 15–51 (4 Steelers injured out of game including quarterback)
@Bengals, W 16–14 (Field goal in last 5 seconds to win. 145 yards passing with 0 INT. #Pride.)
Packers, W 18–39 (Bradshaw breaks season rushing record. Eli throws <100 yards. #SadEli)
@Washington, W 38–23 (Eli throws 2 TDs and 185 yards against 3 INT)
Saints, W 21–31 (Passer Rating of 133.8! 232 yards passing! #passingmaster)
@Falcons, W 52–14 (WRs injured: Nicks, Cruz, Hixon. Wilson 312 yards and 2 TDs)
@Ravens, W 20–23 (Eli throws for 304 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT. Giants shut out until 4th)
Eagles, W 13–26 (257 yards rushing. Eli throws 4 picks)

Playoffs: 3 – 0
Divisional Round: W: Eagles, 15–33 (Eli throws 3 INT and 1 TD. Longest reception: 63 yards for TD. Bradshaw runs 331 yards on 54 attempts)
Championship Round:
W: Bears, 7–31 (Eli throws for 175 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. RBs run for all the yards.)
Superbowl: W: Texans 31–8 (167 yards passing, 2 TD: 1 INT; 270 yards rushing


Works Cited

Simpson, A. (2015). Youth Development Project. Retrieved from http://
Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant Behavior. American Psychologist, Vol 18(8), Aug 1963, 503-515.
Smith, B. (2010). Madden NFL 2010. In T. M. (Editor), 1001 Video Games to Play Before You Die (888). Location: Universe.