Last year, as the coach of Napoli, I took them to the top of the Italian league. We also won the Italian cup. And the UEFA Champions League. Then we did it again. And again. By the mid 2030s, the team had become an unstoppable force. Jude Bellingham (now still 19) was wrapping up his career with us. So was Kai Havertz (now 23). Lionel Messi was already a veteran staffer, running Youth Development.
Don’t worry if you’re confused. It’s a snap shot of my fictional life in Football Manager, the game I played obsessively until sometime last August, when my avatar, Pedro Gălușcă (“donut” in Romanian), quit Napoli after 10 glorious years at the helm.
While I was doing great in my fantasy live, my real life as a manager was far from it. 2021 had been a rough year, and our 2022 numbers were low on all fronts – from our dwindling bank account, to our readership, to our newsletter subscribers, to our team. Our drive and enthusiasm were low as well, and we couldn’t find a way out.
Eventually, we did, and we made the decision to close DoR, which provided a tremendous boost of energy, and the last three months of the year were astonishing: both the output, but also the energy and quality. But that’s another story.
This one is about the hours I tried to occupy my mind with a football management game, because real life had become overwhelming. I don’t run from obstacles, and I embrace uncertainty, but facing adversity doesn’t mean avoiding pain is an option. Knowing there is no right answer, or magic bullet, knowing that cycles are inevitable, and that every rise comes with its own flavor of a fall doesn’t mean it won’t hurt or scar.
And when it gets painful in real life, I need to spend time in a fictional world to get my bearings.
After a few tough years in the beginning, my fictional coach leading Napoli to glory seemed to do everything right. The transfers clicked, the club was no longer in the red, the players were usually “very happy”, the fans bought merchandise like crazy, and the board said “yes” to just about everything. Stadium expansion? Sure. Better facilities? Here you go. Better pay for club doctors? Of course.
As the real world seemed completely chaotic, with a war on Romania’s border layered on top of the pandemic aftermath and an inflation bonanza, my inner locus of control – which I’ve always been proud of – had become shaky. My self-talk failed. My mantras didn’t do the trick. So as Cristian Lupșa faltered, Pedro Gălușcă thrived.
This wasn’t new to me.
When I was a kid, I played with toy soldiers and action figures for hours, giving them elaborate storylines in which they eventually defeated an imaginary enemy. I played a table soccer game by myself, simulating entire championships with teams whose names I would pick out of Gazeta Sporturilor, which my grandmother would buy for me. She would later do the same with ProSport, when I started playing fantasy football.
Video games were even more interesting. I loved quests, character-based narratives where your hero has to complete a mission: Leisure Suit Larry, the Monkey Island series, Sam & Max, Indiana Jones, Full Throttle. I loved the Civilization series because of its world building aspect – your empire progressed through the centuries, you made allies, then you fought them, and you either conquered them all or reached unprecedented technological development to win.
My teenage self was a mess of anxieties and fears. Video games were the best escape. It’s where, through skill or perseverance, I could accomplish things. Moreso, if I failed, I could do it again. I went to school, was called upon to speak, I stuttered, and the apocalypse ensued: the teacher would mock me, class mates would laugh, I’d get a bad grade.
But if I couldn’t beat a level, I could do it again. And again. And again. Until I got it. Failure was not scary. On the contrary; it was motivation to continue.
About 10 years ago I wrote an essay about playing in times of crisis. It was about e-wrestling, which is still tough for me to describe. It was pro wrestling meets roleplaying meets creative writing meets pen pals with fake names. You applied to join a federation. You sketched out a character. Some ran on a wrestling simulator where you input a character’s traits (weight, height, preferred fighting style), their signature moves, and an algorithm would take over. Some ran on match decisions made by the owners, and the best storyline usually won.
Best writer wins wrestling? Yes. You had to mail in promos, like the ones in modern pro wrestling, where you trash talked your opponent, but also spit out your menacing catch phrases. “Just when you think you know all the answers, I change the questions” kind of sayings. But you had to write them like an elaborate script: “[Camera opens on a road at the edge of town. It’s dark. You can see the lights of the city in the distance. There are no cars on the road. Person walks into the frame]”. Then, the owners would write matches though the voices of a commentary crew. (There were a lot of “OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE HE DID THAT!”s).
When I was started e-wrestling I was in high school, my parents were getting divorced, my brother and I had no clue what would happen, and the future was scary. I also had a girlfriend that was two years older, whom I worked hard to impress. (I cried when we saw Titanic in the theater, and she threatened to break up with me. She eventually did; it was after I cried during A Bug’s Life.)
Wrestling is fake (in a way), but e-wrestling was even more scripted. Still, I needed it to process my own struggles. I wrote in my girlfriend as my character’s manager, then she got kidnapped by my foes, then I rescued her. Then we were even or something.
Playing a different version of my life healed some of the real pain. Storytelling, psychologist Jerome Bruner said, is “agency training”. We read, watch or play through the stories of others because we’re looking for ways out of our own troubles.
When I got to college I stopped e-wrestling for a while, but picked it up after my first year, whilst going through another break-up, and trying to figure out who I was away from my family, in a new and crazier city (where my apartment had also been broken into).
I wrote a story for my character – whose nickname was “Thunder” by the way (I know) – that involved him seeking out former champions to get a piece of wisdom from each as he tried to win an important tournament, and be crowned King of the Ring. He found them all. Learned the lessons. He won. Well, we won. By the end of the summer of 2001, the real anguish had subsided, and just before I was about to enter my third and best year of college, I also won the World Title. Thunder was on top of the world (in this tiny e-wrestling federation).
The real me, less so, but I was at least ready to face the world with more confidence.
Thinking about the games I played, and when, I can easily map out my obsessive gaming moments to difficult times (the e-wrestling and Football Manager periods do stand out). When my mother died in 2007, I played a lot of Heroes of Might and Magic V. Long days stretched into nights of campaigns, of building vast armies, learning spells, and recruiting archers and knights and dragons to defeat the skeletons and wraiths of the necromancers.
One can’t beat death. One can’t go again. Except when you play. When you play, you always get another life.
In the early days of DoR, a short bio I would send to events and conferences said I played a lot of Angry Birds. And I did. Obsessively returning to each level to get all three stars was a way to master a fictional environment, while in my real one I was confused: how do you distribute a printed magazine? How do you build a budget? How do you create a pitch deck? How do you stage a conference, and can you bring Pulitzer Prize winners to Romania? What’s the three-star (rather than the one-star) answer to these questions?
The birds didn’t know. But me focusing on getting them all the needed points (which I often did) stopped the rumination. It put my brain on hold, re-directed my energies to a different quest, so that when it returned to problem solving in real life, it did better. (This is why procrastination is often worth cherishing, and why walking often helps solve dilemmas).
One of the best books I’ve read recently is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, “a love story, but not a romance” as the back cover says. It’s about Sam and Sadie, who meet as kids in a hospital and end up as a powerful creative duo making some of the most innovative video games out there.
The book follows them through their teens, and student years, and into their late 30s, as they both play and later game design their way out of trouble: out of pain, out of solitude, out of jealousy, out of grief. The name of the book is from a Shakespeare quote, which their friend Marx, who alters both Sam and Sadie’s lives in the most beautiful and profound ways, also pitches as their game studio’s name:
“What is a game? Marx said. “It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
I did play a little Football Manager again over winter break. It was fun taking over CSC Dumbrăvița in the Romanian second League, and promoting them to the first tier in their second season. But, by then, my life had found a kind of balance again. A balance in an uncertain period, yes, but a balance nonetheless. So I was playing without the pressure or the need to figure something out, and I slowly let it go.
For now, there’s no championship I need in an alternate universe to make up for the pain or loss in my real life. But when I’ll need the championships, those points, that win, I know where to go.
This essay was inspired by Nicoleta. Over a beer this week we talked a lot about soccer, games, stories, and her obsession with The Last of Us, both the games and the recent HBO Max show (watch it!). That’s also the subject of her first newsletter (🇷🇴); read it and subscribe.
Another take on the idea of storytelling as agency training, from the Coen’s brothers movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: “We love hearing about ourselves, as long as the people in the stories are us… but not us. Not us in the end, especially”.
You are supposed to “win games”, which is why many creators, especially indie designers, work to subvert the convention. One of the most heartbreaking and “unwinnable” games I’ve played is That Dragon, Cancer. This is the story of how it came about.
Jane McGonigal has been one of the coolest thinkers on games. Watch this TED Talk of hers from a while back about how fictional world they can make our real one better. If you want to get really geeky, check out this conversation between Ezra Klein and philosopher C. Thi Nguyen about how games, and their point-systems have infiltrated our lives, for good and bad.
The dynamic creative duo of Ioana Șopov and Rareș Cinteză also released a game last year. I still haven’t played it (because I don’t have the right equipment), but it’s done really well. How could it not? It features a bear named Hank who owns a bed and breakfast.
Not a game, but a song that’s game like in how it plays light against dark, and hope against temptation: Ren, Hi Ren.
One game I would never forget is Zuma Deluxe where you control a frog that spits marbles. My father was obsessed with this game right during the great financial crisis and even if he was never able to discuss how difficult it was for our family, he spent hours and hours obsessing over this puzzle game.
We had one computer in the house that all three of us shared and after one hour of playtime for me, he would walk in the room and ask for his turn, booting up Zuma, sitting there, watching the marbles connect and explode, while the sound was filling the room.
My aunt played Luxor, another game similar to Zuma, right through the financial crisis as well, finishing her chores in the garden and rushing to the computer to not be disturbed for hours. She even claimed that at a point she dreamed of those marbles and that the sound of their breaking was stuck forever in her mind.
Keep up the great work, Cristi, I enjoy reading it :)