The Sliders Point Toward Madness
He grew up big, and he grew up tough. He saw himself scoring for the Wings or Canucks... but he wasn't that good with a puck. - Warren Zevon, "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)"
The Penguins are on the attack, four men arrayed on the east side of the ice around the Bruins' goal, with a wing hovering off to the goalie's right. They're up two goals against the Bruins and look ready to tack more points onto their lead. The offense keeps flicking the puck from the faceoff circle and back to the blue line, but they can't get any closer to the goal thanks to an aggressive and apparently tireless Bruins' defense. The tension is reaching a fever pitch in TD Garden, a few miles away from where I sit watching on TV, but I find I'm becoming obsessed with the passing game and disengaging with the rest of the match. I'm seeing a ton of successful passes that look nothing like the hockey I see in NHL 11, and now I want to turn off the Bruins game and go fix the setting sliders.
I probably don't need to do this to myself. The sports world is full of people who will test games and run statistics comparisons between virtual sports and their real-life analogues, tweaking settings until the video game closely resembles reality. But I'm hesitant to use their work. As I get more comfortable with NHL 11's controls, the responsibilities of my position, and learn more about hockey, what I want from the game changes. I'm smart enough to realize that what I want isn't reality, but a simulation of how I perceive reality.
I know this is wanting to have my cake and eat it. On the one hand, I want sports sims to be a window on the sports that have increasingly colonized my spare time. While I have fond memories of games like Tecmo Bowl, I harbor no desire to go back to the days when some fast fingers on the D-pad could turn every kick returner into Devin Hester. My enjoyment and appreciation of sports is enhanced by good sims, and vice versa. For me to be invested in a sports game, it has to feel authentic.
Emphasis on feel. I don't necessarily want a simulation that produces the most realistic outcomes, but one that convinces me of its realism while I am playing it, which means one that flatters my own distorted view of the sport. For instance, I tend to watch the Blackhawks, the Penguins, and the Bruins. The kind of hockey I want to play is the kind I'm seeing right now between the Penguins and Bruins, with fast play, good passes, and tough battles around the blue line. To me, that's hockey, and that's what I'm not seeing enough of in NHL 11.
But here's the rub: my NHL 11 avatar isn't playing with any of these teams. He's playing with the Florida Panthers, a team that in real life is enjoying a profoundly undistinguished season. So I'm left wondering whether the simulation is flawed, because my fictional Panthers don't play like the Penguins do on TV, or if the game is accurately illustrating the difference between a good team and a middling one. On TV, the Penguins and Bruins are executing plays and slapping passes across the ice. My Panthers flail a lot, and seem genuinely bewildered by the movement of the puck.
Then there is my own imperfect contribution to the game's drama. NHL 11 is the first hockey game I've played since the Super Nintendo, and I'm semi-competent at best. Rob Zacny, left wing for the Florida Panthers, is one of the league leaders in penalty minutes and turnovers. He has a tendency to get frustrated and has twice injured his shoulder delivering vicious body checks to the glass. He's officially designated a playmaker, but he doesn't make plays so much as he shells opposing goal tenders with pucks. When his coach implores him to "make better passes out there," he often hears, "Go and kick somebody's ass." His play has steadily improved throughout his rookie season, but he still poses a problem for me as I consider my game settings. Do I want realism, even if it makes my avatar an unrealistically inept player? Or do I want a forgiving, slightly too-easy sim where I can get the hang of my position?
For now, I enjoy the slider minigame, because it lets me adjust NHL 11 to reflect how I understand hockey. As I adjust to that new level of simulation, I start to see other areas where it's deficient, and I have new things to watch for during games. As the fictional and real-world hockey seasons continue in near-tandem, my involvement and appreciation for the sport increase. But I can already spot the trouble on the horizon. Even now, there are some little annoyances that sliders can't fix. A penalty that's called just a little too often, or a tendency on the part of the AI to repeat itself on offense. Small things, easy to overlook at first, but eventually they start taking me out of the experience.
And then I'm going to start looking toward NHL 12 and NHL 13 to fix the issues. More sliders, more granular settings. At first I will simply hope, and then I will demand. Because while I'm not a hockey professional, I play one on TV.