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The Xavi Experience

Pixellated Xavi

Let me be frank. I loved Xavi’s interview in The Guardian earlier this month, in spite of the fact that I don’t remember a word of what he said except the following. Answering an early question of Sid Lowe’s—how do you respond when the opposition forces you to play on the back foot?—Xavi responded:

Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation.

I find this electrifying. First, Xavi begins to respond to a question asking him to explain the solution to a difficult problem—-a problem so difficult that he realises, as he is explaining it, that his attempts to verbalise a solution are manifestly useless. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. People who haven’t played—played what? Football? Possession football? Football with Barcelona? Football against Barcelona?

But how many people who have done even all these things can understand quite perfectly what it is to play like Xavi?

I don’t speak as a supremacist. I understand that it would be difficult for most top-level athletes—not only Xavi, but also Peter Crouch—to explain how they do what they do. To explain something is a step towards institutionalising it as somehow replicable. Is that probable in sport? Is that even desirable? No, the joy of Xavi’s response to me is not that it is particularly helpful—it is that he made it at all. Imagine him sitting there, gesticulating in a sort of footballer’s kathakali, trying to convey a world of meaning by swinging his head. He relies on the repetition of a single word to convey the starkest of all abstractions: space, space, space.

Then, casting around for a more concrete expression of what he tries to do, he deploys the words, It’s like being on the PlayStation.

I am trying to find ways to describe what this simile does. A few days ago, I read an irritating op-ed by Alain de Botton, which explained that books do not prepare us for real love. What, I thought. Was de Botton really trying to tell us that literature is not akin to and, indeed, sometimes fundamentally opposed to the tangible world? What next, Malcom Gladwell explaining that revolutions do not happen on the Internet?

Yet in one way, Xavi saying that he plays football like being on the PlayStation evokes that very juxtaposition. Imagine someone telling you that she fell in love, and saying, It’s like being in a movie. It employs the same absurd language we use again and again, when we describe something in the real world by saying that it is “as pretty as a picture,” or by unscrambling the frequency of good news as “music to our ears.”

When Xavi trying to describe the mental process he undertakes in a World Cup semi-final, says it’s like being on the PlayStation, it is yet another way in which a metaphor becomes reflexive—another instance of a word becoming its meaning. Xavi tells us that being Xavi is like being in a video game. Of Xavi. If this were an exact simile, it would mean that even as those of you who play video game football do so in order to pretend to be Xavi, Xavi is playing football—in the Camp Nou, in front of 90,000 screaming fans and a century of footballing history—pretending to be video-game Xavi.

But there’s a further complication. To me, video games occupy the same space as traditional sport does; not quite life, not quite art, but a framework where both intersect. They are too much like each other for the boundaries of a traditional analogy—love like a Shakespeare play, a landscape like a Gainsborough—to sustain themselves. A football video game starts out with the most fundamental purpose of an artificial object: it is the simulacrum of physical football. It has to be like real football.

Can such a game really have developed to a stage where it becomes the basis for comparison, rather than its object? The ability to do something that is considered humanly improbable invites comparison to the inhuman: we have read players being praised as ‘Playstation footballers’ before. But rationality demands that we recognise the superiority of the physical experience by defining what it is not: we might say that the traditional or the original is better because it is not predictable, not mechanical, not prescribed by algorithm, not dictated by the whims of some code monkey who never graduated Harvard.

It may be a little 1970s to fantasise about a future in which this superiority erodes or becomes irrelevant, when games are so sophisticated that they might match or improve the experience of real football. How do our standards of evaluation change then? Will there be a point when we can begin to entertain that ultimate 1970s fantasy: that an imagined essence of humanity—its biological and cognitive integrity—will fail, to be replaced by simulacra that fulfil its goals much better?

But even as Xavi’s throwaway line encourages me to reimagine him in a Terminator suit, looming out of a fog that engulfs the Camp Nou, speaking in a strange Austro-Californian accent, I’m reminded of Garry Kasparov’s superb essay from early last year, The Chess Master and the Computer:

There is little doubt that different people are blessed with different amounts of cognitive gifts such as long-term memory and the visuospatial skills chess players are said to employ. One of the reasons chess is an “unparalleled laboratory” and a “unique nexus” is that it demands high performance from so many of the brain’s functions. Where so many of these investigations fail on a practical level is by not recognizing the importance of the process of learning and playing chess. The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent. Programming yourself by analyzing your decision-making outcomes and processes can improve results much the way that a smarter chess algorithm will play better than another running on the same computer. We might not be able to change our hardware, but we can definitely upgrade our software.

I’m no gamer; Super Mario describes the limits of my experience there. But I’m interested in knowing how video games are already informing our experience of football, the vocabulary we use to describe it, how we evaluate the games we are watching, and perhaps how it shapes the way we, and the footballers of the future who are currently sixteen years old, or six, may come to play the game. Like science fiction, does PlayStation hold the key to the future? Or like all true prophecy, is it actually imagining for us what football cannot or will not ever be?

I’ll end with a simile of my own. Last month, Dinosaur Comics published this comic on the statistical likelihood of humanity actually producing a Batman. We start with the number of children born to billionaire parents each year!, begins T-Rex brightly, going on to control the chances of such an individual also being an Olympic athlete, and then also being an orphan who witnesses their parents’ murder, and so on and on. Conclusion? We are likely to produce one Batman every 25 million years.

I hate to say it, T-Rex says, but reality SUCKS sometimes.

But if such a human did come along, how would they ever describe themselves to us? How would Batman describe the condition of Batman-ness to other people? (I know, I know: he wouldn’t.) What is the closest thing to being Batman? The only accurate comparison, perhaps, would be to say that being a superhero is like being in a comic book.

Perhaps that’s what Xavi meant.

Supriya Nair is a journalist from Bombay. She writes about things other than football at President Blink-Blink, and is on Twitter here.

Cf., far more troublingly, soldiers visualising battles as videogames about soldiers in battle.

I say 1970s, but the anxiety, of course, continually morphs to remain alive and flourishing.


The Xavi Experience

by Supriya Nair · February 18, 2011

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