The Coach on the Couch
Is being addicted to Football Manager a medical condition?
Sometimes, I worry about the effect that Football Manager has had on my life. I've had girlfriends I haven't loved as much as my Uefa Cup winning Southend United side (CM97-98) and friends that I haven't seen as much as I saw my Nottingham Forest reserves (CM01-02). Why is it that I've never stayed up until 3am to write a book, but I did it on numerous occasions to guide Welling out of the Conference South (FM07)?
I decided that it was time to go and see a man who could give me some answers: Dr Simon Moore, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at London Metropolitan University and an expert in the effects of gaming on the human condition. If anyone can tell me whether or not I've got a serious, serious problem, it's him.
Me: Hello, Doctor. Thank you for seeing me at such short notice.
Dr: No problem at all, Iain.
Me: You see… Actually, should I be lying down for this?
Dr: If it makes you feel better.
Me: You know, I really think it will. [Lies down] Oh yes, that's lovely.
Dr: Now, what seems to be the problem?
Me: Well, Doctor, it's like this. I've been playing the Football Manager games for 20 years. Since the very first one, the one with the picture of an angry man on the box, came out I've spent hours and hours and hours of my life tinkering with make-believe football teams, playing with tactics, scouting and recruiting new players. When I think about what I could have achieved in my life, the languages I could have learned, the places I could have seen, it really does break my heart. At some point, I'm going to be on my death bed, surrounded by family members, gently ebbing away into the next plane of existence and all I'm going to be able to think about is the fact that I must have spent a cumulative total of six unbroken months playing a computer game. But you know the worst thing?
Dr: Go on…
Me: I'm actually a football journalist. I have a press pass and everything. Within reason, and dependent on travel budgets, I can watch any football match in the country and get paid to do so. I'm basically spending all of my free time doing something which is pretty much an extension of my day job. Am I weird?
Me: Oh dear, that's not a good start.
Dr: You're not playing the same one are you? The same one with a picture of an angry man on the box?
Me: Oh God, no. No, I've bought every new one when it's been released. I'm not locked in 1992.
Dr: But you like the concept, you like the micro-management?
Me: I do, I really do. I love taking over a team and assessing the squad. I like to assemble a backroom staff, prepare a coaching routine, get the youngsters mentored by senior pros, practise set-pieces, deploy scouts, everything. And then I never just play with the first team. I'll always control the reserves and the youth teams, just to make sure that there's progression in the club. And that's the strangest thing. I'm not a precise man in any other walk of life. My tax records are all over the place, my diary is written on my arm in biro, I'm forever losing notepads. But when I get on Football Manager, suddenly I become the most meticulous man in the world. Everything is planned and prepped, the future is mapped out.
Dr: When you play the game, how do you feel?
Me: I feel like a god.
Me: I feel like a god, sat astride a mountain, staring down at the mortals as they scurry like ants, desperate to do my bidding, fearful of my wrath. Is that weird? That is weird, isn't it?
Me: I don't like the way you draw out your 'erms'.
Dr: Sorry. It's not weird that you don't do these things in real life. Control freaks don't control every part of their lives. If you think about work, for example, some people are not control freaks at work because they are unable to manipulate people in that sense. But they might be in their own home, with cleanliness, or where the remote control is kept. But if you change the environment, you can change the behaviour. You must feel you have more control in this Football Manager environment.
Me: But I'm a football journalist and I have been for six years. You'd think I'd have no need to immerse myself in this pretend world of football because I'm in the real one.
Dr: Yes, but only to a certain extent. You're not in it, you're alongside it. You're on the outside looking in. Your influence is limited.
Me: Ah, you've seen my contacts book. Well, I say book. It's more of a pamphlet.
Dr: You don't really control the day-to-day mechanics of real football, or the way the real teams perform. But you do in the game.
Me: Do you think that's why my need to play has intensified in recent years?
Dr: Maybe…. Maybe that's a function of what you do. Perhaps influence is what you feel you lack and this game gives it to you in great quantity.
Me: OK. What is it about always wanting one more game, always wanting one more match? Why am I sometimes sat downstairs on my sofa at 1am, my living room illuminated only by the glow of my laptop as I push deep into the night in pursuit of a pretend trophy?
Dr: Well, that's the same with lots of gamers and indeed lots of addictions. Think about horse racing fans always wanting one more race, gamblers unable to walk away from a fruit machine.
Me: God, is it that bad? Is it that closely linked with other addictions?
Dr: Yep. Some people are addicted to basic principles or linear relationships. You press 'a' and 'b' happens. You have a drink and you feel good. They like that simplicity. Then there are lot of people who like the complexities of other relationships. With this sort of game there are so many possibilities, so many permutations. You could literally play Football Manager a hundred times and have a different result every time. You are also obviously addicted to this kind of 'deity' analogy that you alluded to earlier. Your addiction is built around a 'what happens if I do this to them?' principle.
Me: So not only do I think I'm a god, but you also think I'm also a vengeful, wrathful god?
Dr: Well, not entirely. You want your team to perform well. That's your aim.
Me: But if I was the kind of person who dropped players repeatedly, fined them, transfer listed them, then I'd be a vengeful god?
Dr: Exactly. Your personality is going to come out somehow in the game itself. Are you impulsive in the transfer market?
Me: No. I'm quite impulsive in real-life markets, especially if cheese is involved, but not on Football Manager. I always make sure that my signings are the result of thorough scouting and extensive deliberation.
Dr: You see, you're very concerned about how you do in the game, that's your motivation. You can't talk about personality without talking about motivation. You want to perform well but it's also integral to the fact that you enjoy it so much. You don't want to spoil the enjoyment by failing to put in the investment. If you're not winning, you're not having fun.
Me: Is it not a little concerning that in real life I'm reckless and impulsive, but in Football Manager I'll micromanage and plan?
Dr: Well, it just goes to show that you're not stable in your personality, doesn't it?
Dr: Yes. Don't worry, that sounds a lot worse than it is. It's a good thing.
Me: It is?
Dr: Instability is good. Not reckless instability. You don't want to be murdering someone with an axe one day and then acting normal the next day.
Me: I'm not an axe murderer.
Dr: I didn't say that you were.
Me: I just want to clarify that.
Dr: Of course, of course. What I mean is that your personality is flexible. It's going to be linked to greater issues of survival. If you adopted the same persona, the same characteristics, you wouldn't be able to adapt to changing situations. If I wired you up for the day, I'd be able to show that you had spoken differently to different people, that you were acting differently, more or less confident, according to different scenarios. You're simply adapting your personality for survival in the game. In real life, you can behave as you do because the ramifications are not especially dramatic. You're untidy, but the world doesn't end because of it. You're impulsive, but I assume it hasn't caused your life to break down in any way? But you know that if you don't plan in Football Manager, you'll be less likely to win and winning is what gives you pleasure, which in turn is what drives the addiction.
Dr: It's a reinforcement, a positive reinforcement. Your work only pays your bills, Football Manager delivers hits of pleasure. So it's not a surprise that you'll act differently.
Me: This isn't going to look good to prospective employers, is it?
Dr: It's perfectly normal. You're going to get more motivated by things that make you feel good than things that you have to do.
Me: Do you think it's a little sad that micromanaging a pretend football team gets me off more than, say, a big fat line of cocaine?
Dr: Not at all. That's just how motivation works. It's like the way that money motivates some and not others, it's personal. Football Manager is what appeals to you. Not big fat lines of cocaine. Which is probably a good thing on balance, I'd say.
Me: OK. But is it a bad thing that I occasionally imagine conversations with my players?
Dr: No, because that's integral to the whole experience. It's the immersion that appeals to you, that's what draws you in. I've heard of people giving speeches in empty rooms, shaking hands with doorknobs and pretending it's a member of the Royal Family. You're just keeping the situation alive, doing what you need to do to keep the dream going. As long as you're not hurting anyone else, it's fine.
Me: What about doing press conferences in my head?
Dr: That's fine too. In fact, for you, it's even more normal because that's an environment that you know well, so you can easily imagine it.
Me: Well, this is all very encouraging. Have you ever encountered people who aren't normal? People who have taken these things too far?
Dr: Oh yes. You have people who have seen their health fade, whose personal relations have broken down, who haven't been able to break away long enough to do work. But these are extremes. There are always going to be some people who struggle with addiction, but that's the same with any kind of stimulus.
Me: Isn't it worrying that there are so many similarities between Football Manager addiction and, say, alcohol addiction?
Dr: Addiction is addiction.
Me: So my 'addiction' to Football Manager is actually a genuine, 20-year addiction?
Me: Wow… I think that's actually longer than Eric Clapton did cocaine.
Dr: The health risks aren't as great with Football Manager.
Me: Someone should have mentioned that to Clapton.
Dr: It's possible that his music may have suffered.
Me: [sings] Layla. You've got me on my knees, Layla. Distracted from friendlies, Layla. I'm begging, darling, for you to do my coaching routiiiiiiines!
Dr: Please don't EVER do that again.
Dr: [shudders] Anyway, anything like this, anything that you enjoy will get your endorphins flowing. That will amplify the positive feeling. It's all down to cognition; whatever you believe is a positive stimulus will have that effect. Your subconscious enjoys Football Manager, it enjoys winning, it enjoys the alternative reality that you create. This, for want of better phrase, is your drug.
Me: Gosh. So, is admitting that I have a problem the first step to recovery?
Dr: Is it a problem? Or is it just something you enjoy? Is it negatively impacting anything in your life?
Me: Well, sometimes my wife gets offended if she's watching a Jennifer Aniston movie and I play it on my laptop on the sofa next to her.
Dr: Well, you've got a problem.
Me: I have?
Dr: Yes, Jennifer Aniston movies are almost exclusively awful.
Me: It's not just me, is it?
Me: Every film is the same. She's a gorgeous singleton who, for inexplicable reasons, just cannot find a man and she has a friend who is also gorgeous, but in a less obvious way, and she is mostly there to make sardonic jokes. Then she meets someone who is absolutely unsuitable for her and they have arguments that become increasingly heated until something draws them together and they kiss, only swiftly to jeopardise the whole affair on a point of principle before a race against time brings them together forever.
Dr: I've actually got real work to do, you know.
Dr: So, Football Manager isn't causing you any real problems? You play it up until a certain point and then you stop playing it?
Me: Yes. But sometimes that certain point is 1am and I'm up again at 6am.
Dr: Well, you know what you can and can't do. I take it that you haven't failed to get up at 6am, that you haven't failed to do what you've had to do the next day?
Me: No. I've just been a bit tired.
Dr: Well, that's fine. The point is that you're still doing what you need to do. In fact, your brain might be thinking, "I had lots of fun last night playing Football Manager, now let's do some work."
Me: It usually tells me to make a cup of tea and bacon sandwich first, but yes, I see your point.
Dr: That's fine as well. If you cut the fat off.
Me: That's a good tip. So basically, if it's not a problem, it's not a problem?
Dr: Essentially, yes. I mean, if you're denying it to yourself and it is a problem, if you're not meeting people, if you're not eating properly, if you're not doing any work, then it's a different matter, but this isn't the case, is it?
Me: No! This is wonderful news. I feel like I've had a great weight lifted off my shoulders!
Dr: I'm happy to have helped. You know, games are often demonised, especially the violent ones, but that's not fair. We know what they're about, gamers know what they're about. You do what you must to progress in the game.
Me: What is it that sends some people to fighty games and some people to football games? Why do some people want to slay a dragon, while others just want to win a pretend trophy?
Dr: All games are about play. We don't stop playing at the age of 12. Play is integral to psychology. It lets you rehearse, it gives you enjoyment, it lets you do things you wouldn't ordinarily do. Video games are extensions of stories.
Me: But what is it that attracts some people to fighting a dragon and some people to a statistic-loaded football database that is essentially an exercise in human resources? Surely we'd all rather fight a dragon?
Dr: Would you?
Me: Well, yes.
Dr: I wouldn't, I'd rather coach a football team. It's safer.
Me: Not if it's Millwall. What I'm trying to say is, are there certain personality types that will be drawn to Football Manager?
Dr: No, I wouldn't say so. I've done some research on this and personality types don't necessarily pick specific games. There's more of a relationship with their personality and how they play the game. Do they use melee weapons or spells, are they reckless drivers or careful drivers? These traits can correlate with personality. How that relationship manifests itself is completely random. Some cautious people are reckless in games, some reckless people, like you, are cautious. It's possible that you're living up to an ideal that perhaps you can't achieve in real life.
Me: Woah. That's pretty deep.
Dr: That's what I do.
Me: So, to recap: I play Football Manager because I like it and my subconscious likes it. I'm cautious because that's what my subconscious believes is the best way to prosper and therefore how I'll like it more. I hold press conferences in my head because it adds to the enjoyment and the best bit, it's not a problem because it's not a problem. My life is still very much intact.
Me: Well, that's great. Now, can you do me a favour? Can you call my wife and tell her everything you've just told me?
Dr: Get out.
This is an extract from the book Football Manager Stole My Life, by Iain Macintosh, Kenny Millar and Neil White, published by BackPage Press