Football Manager is a big deal. It has been a contributing factor in dozens of divorce cases. It has been the subject of two films and has had a best-selling book written about the lives it has destroyed. At the Edinburgh Fringe festival, an entire standup routine is dedicated to the game and its ability to ruin lives. It has even had an influence on real football. In 2008, Everton signed a deal with the game manufacturer Sports Interactive which allowed them to use the game’s database to scout players. In 2012, Azerbaijani student Vugar Huseynzade was promoted to the manager of FC Baku’s reserve team, a club in the top division of Azerbaijani football, based on his success in Football Manager. This game has changed lives. Of this, there is no doubt.
In the aftermath of the release of Football Manager 2016 we are asking: what about how it affects the rest of us, the average Football Manager player (of which there are literally millions) who doesn’t leave his wife or get headhunted by a lower league club?
When we start playing Football Manager there is something very social about it: young FM players share starts and discuss players at school, at work and online. The game sucks us in through competition with others, making the game quiet a sociable one. But darkness soon falls on this bright day, and players cease to play multiplayer or even mention their gaming to anyone, retreating to the isolation of their rooms and playing only against the computer for hours and hours on end. By 2014, with the advent of Football Manager Handheld, which does not have a multiplayer function, the user competes only with imaginary ‘others.’ Multiplayer FM has never taken off, and there are political reasons why.
One player uploads evidence of 7800 days of game time (that is real 24 hour days)
The replacement of the actual competitor with whom the player competes (say, a fellow FM gamer from high school) with an imaginary or virtual other (the computer AI) is something Sigmund Freud accidentally explains. In one of his most groundbreaking essays, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ Freud discusses the pleasure found in children’s games and writes:
If the doctor looks down a child’s throat or carries out some small operation on him, we may be quite sure that these frightening experiences will be the subject of the next game; but we must not in that connection overlook the fact that there is a yield of pleasure from another source. As the child passes over from the passivity of the experience to the activity of the game, he hands on the disagreeable experience to one of his playmates and in this way revenges himself on a substitute.
The statement makes something clearer about the relationship between Football Manager and the workplace. The child’s experience at the doctor’s must be seen as analogous to the employee’s feelings in the workplace, being passively ‘operated on’ whilst a figure of authority commands conformity. I interviewed many players of the game, and nearly all of them spoke of an ‘alternative career,’ or a career ‘success’ when explaining why they loved FM so much. Football Manager is for dissatisfied employees.
What we see in Football Manager is the replacement of the real playmate with a virtual one so that every gamer can take successful revenge on the computer. In the solitary world of Football Manager, no one has to lose. This active revenge is taken against the computer for a passive defeat suffered at work.
So, the game operates to prevent us facing our dissatisfaction and thinking about it (which could at least potentially lead to organized opposition and revolt). Yet, at the same time it operates on us in another way, instilling a sense of career ‘success’ which builds up our desire to strive towards this capitalist ideal. After we finish chastising ourselves for playing the game (and for taking time off from being productive in our jobs to do so), we return to work not only having managed to avoid confronting our dissatisfaction but with our sense of commitment to capitalist success very much renewed.