Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are Videogames Changing the NFL?

In one of the most memorable scenes of Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, a toxic cloud--what DeLillo famously called an airborne toxic event--hovers over the small town in which the narrative's main protagonist, Jack Gladney, lives. Here is Gladney making small talk with a member of the emergency personnel called into action during the emergency:

"That's quite an armband you've got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important."
"Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they're still battling over funds for."
"But this evacuation isn't simulated. It's real."
"We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model."
"A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?"
"We took it right into the streets."
"How is it going?" I said.
"The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like. There's a probability excess. Plus which we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation. In other words we're forced to take our victims as we find them. We didn't get a jump on computer traffic. Suddenly it just spilled out, three-dimensionally, all over the landscape. You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real. There's a lot of polishing we still have to do. But that's what this exercise is all about."

I immediately thought of this passage when I began reading a recent Wired story, "Game Changers: How Videogames Trained a Generation of Athletes." It's a supremely good article, but here are some highlights:

For more than 30 years, sports videogames have been focused on simulating real-life athletics more and more perfectly. But over the past decade, games have moved beyond just imitating the action on the field. Now they’re changing it.


“These games nowadays are just so technically sound that they’re a learning tool,” says Tim Grunhard, an All-Pro center for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s who now coaches high school football in the Kansas City area, where he encourages his players to use Madden to improve their knowledge of football strategy and tactics. “Back when I was playing football, we didn’t realize what a near or a far formation was, we didn’t really understand what trips meant, we didn’t understand what cover 2, cover 3, and cover zero meant,” Grunhard says, charging through jargon that’s comprehensible only to Madden players and football obsessives.

And, in addition to teaching football strategy and terminology, Madden might make you a better athlete:

But this activity isn’t just an exercise in self-obsession. Whether they know it or not, these athletes may actually be strengthening their brains. Cognitive scientists have published a series of studies demonstrating that playing fast-paced action videogames — mostly first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo — can alter “some of the fundamental aspects of visual attention,” as a paper published in the July 2009 issue of Neuropsychologia put it. By training on these games, researchers found, nongamers can achieve faster reaction time, improved hand-eye coordination, and greatly increased ability to process multiple stimuli. Studies have demonstrated that military pilots and laparoscopic surgeons can improve their professional skills by playing videogames. It’s not much of a leap to think that athletes could, too.

DeLillo often seems prophetic, but this is becoming ridiculous.

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