Screenshot of a Google Maps zoom of the NRG Stadium

The Future is Play

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My general understanding of American football is as an example of capitalism run amok. The NFL is a laughably “non-profit” entity that builds stadiums on the taxpayer’s back, with negative local return on the investment, and encourages severe brain damage while basically abandoning all aged-out players to their brutally short and mind-addled fate. Football carries such a thick layer of sludge that it’s impossible for me to appreciate it simply as a game.

And yet, as a member of American society, I’m occasionally forced to engage. This past Super Bowl was probably the most I’ve ever plugged into a game. A cute lady I was keen on wanted to chat on the phone while we watched, separate but together, but as I had a live signal on my TV, I was a few seconds ahead of her. Thus it was decreed that if anything important happened, I should give her a heads up, because she didn’t do well with suspense. If you’re familiar with that game, you’ll recall a pretty stunning turnaround that even I got swept up in, a fourth quarter that reversed what was an assumed loss. The Patriots can suck shit through a straw for all I care, but for fifteen excruciating minutes at least, I felt like I got it—just one of a billion armchair coaches spouting off about strategies I could never really comprehend, ready to break it all down in the office kitchen the next day.

Talking about football is an exercise in absurdity. It’s the sport of a thousand radioactive takes, generating more spittle-strewn soliloquies than all videogames combined, a form of American discourse so ubiquitous that even the most divested find themselves entangled with eventually. But there’s a pervasive sense of communion, an instinctual need to create tension and ambition through play, which is explored throughout Football 17776, a kind of meta/hypertext novella by SB Nation’s Jon Bois and a crew of gif-makers, editors, and layout personnel. To even get into the particulars of character and plot would spoil some interesting reveals, so maybe it’s sufficient and cryptic enough to say that this is a futuristic tale told mostly through dialogue and contextual ephemera like newspaper articles, rules printouts, and Google Earth images.

The entire bit is a romp, but there’s a genuine curiosity about the future and the place of football within that future. It’s main trio of characters rip from the colloquial lexicon of Achewood’s loveable scamps, shooting the shit in a universe where all threat of death and harm have been removed from humanity’s list of concerns, but the physical limitations of space travel have rendered us eternally alone. Bucket lists are suddenly made redundant, all natural problems have been solved (though not immediately, as some environmental havoc was irreversible), immortality has been mysteriously granted to approximately 8 billion people. So what’s left?

Football. Countless variants, mutations making entire states endzones, or a field the length and width of a line of latitude, or a stadium plucked from the crayon ramblings of a hive-mind of virtual toddlers. Plays that pull from natural disasters, defenders snuggled into forgotten caves, and a version of 500 that involves a mountaintop cannon. When you have nothing to fear you must manufacture a motive to exist, and football evolves to consume any possible variation of what it means to play. In fact, some characters are forced to confront “the idea that play is the point of existence now.”

Jon Bois, through satire and near-future sci-fi and sports writing, tackles (sorry) football in a way akin to every card game that was spun off into a thousand regional forks, how modders remake Skyrim to fit their twisted desires, hackers bend ROMs of Super Mario Bros. to their whims, writers weave their own spectacular narrative tapestries out of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, or speedrunners glitch through the classics in a way that transforms the original experience into something barely recognizable. The only thing better than playing by the rules is twisting them up, and in 15,000 years, people will become exceptionally creative in this endeavor.

By the end of Football 17776’s twenty-five chapters, you’ll have experienced many .gifs, videos, stats, flippant quips and earnest pleas. It’s the kind of work that can only be adequately experienced online (for now at least) and thrives for that. Though it’s futuristic in many senses it’s also a decidedly low-fi story and experience, one that ruminates on utopia and purpose and lands at this poignant end zone: “football’s different things to different people.” In most ways I feel like this game can really go to hell, but Bois makes a case for the spirit of the sport, a perpetual presence that we can check in and out of whenever we need to reconnect to the rest of humanity.

Casting Deep Meteo, Games