Papa Madden

When I am one day forced to admit my most horrific crimes to St. Peter, one of them will be that I enjoy playing Madden games. I don’t really care which. I play the 2011 one, but if you’re going to try to convince me that it is different than, say,  the previous ten or the subsequent one then you care more than I have the energy for. It is important for you to understand that I am not the type of person who would easily admit  to a love of football video games. I certainly don’t follow the sport in real time and I certainly do have the body of a stick insect with weak knees. I have little to relate to football and especially the culture around the game. All that aside, have you heard of this thing called a “Hail Mary”? If not, have you ever wondered what it feels like to be in that last scene of Remember the Titans? Well, just successfully throw a Hail Mary in a game of Madden NFL and the next thing you know you’ll be holding up the game ball with Coach Boone saying things like, “You’re hall of fame in my books!”

My unexpected love of football video games did come with an equally unexpected hatred of virtual John Madden and my team coach+.This hatred grew in reaction to their constant yammering on about every god-damned decision I made in the game.  I understand that these messages are pre-recorded in such a way that they can apply to a variety of situations with any team you care to play for. I can forgive the game for having commentaries which give the gameplay a feeling similar to watching a live game on TV. What I can not forgive the game for is the smug cockitude with which its universally applicable voice-overs are delivered. Every god-damned play I make is reacted to without surprise and with one of maybe ten statements about the obvious nature of my decision to throw a ball one way or the other. Not once did this Madden guy say, “Well, it didn’t work out, but it was worth a shot,” or, “Look at how wrong I was when I said it wouldn’t work. I’m sorry, John, for doubting you.” Nothing even close to this. It’s all shoulda-known-betters and I-would’ve-done-the-sames, depending on my level of success++. As the anger grew inside me and the voices kept knowing it all, all I wanted to scream out at Mr. Madden was, “GET OUT OF MY TV, DAD!” I chose instead to turn the commentary off and re-examine my relationship with my parents.

It is worth noting that the kind of attitude a football commentator has is strikingly similar to that of an older generation speaking to a younger one. More often than not this comes from the self-important advice of our parents. What they are guilty of is using creeping determinism: the sense that develops in us after an event has taken place that the outcome was going to happen all along. It’s similar to hindsight, but with the addition of narcissism that suggests our understanding of the events in the world is so vast that we could predict a seemingly unpredictable outcome. It is the psychological trick someone plays in their own head right before saying, “I could have told you that,” when they couldn’t have. There is self-satisfaction in this mental trick which puts the speaker apart from his or her audience as the more intelligent one who, if only we had come to them first, could have told us exactly what needed to be done. There is authority unrightfully gained through creeping determinism, and it is authority parents (amongst others) feel the need to have.

The need for and love of this sense of absolute expertise on events in the world comes from having a position of authority. The authority figure senses a responsibility to know more than others. Creeping determinism allows people to convince others and themselves that they have an expertise, whatever their position might demand. They are responsible for their children; they are responsible for guiding their child along the right path. Or, maybe they are responsible for telling people about football, and they should know exactly where that pointy ball is going to go and the best way to get it there.

Where the frustration comes from, I think, is that the listeners are also humans who try to predict what may happen in the future, and we get it so wrong so often. Therefore, who the fuck are you, Mr. Madden? We know you’re not superhuman (though photos suggest you may be an alien creature). You are claiming a level of expertise which surpasses human capability, and you are doing it with such arrogance. It’s not unlike the playground tactics of saying, “I know the answer, but I’m not going to tell you.”

Of course, I’m not saying that my parents and football commentators are the only people who claim to know more than they do. Your parents do too. It’s a trait which has enraged children for centuries, and it is one that Papa Madden has made his trademark in these games. I think the whole tactic admits of a certain lack of confidence in the speaker: that they should always need to be right. Who wants to always be right about everything? I just want to wrap a blanket around John Madden and tell him it’s okay to not be able to predict the future. You’re good value, John. You know a whole bucket load about football. Now take your pre-recorded voice and teach it some god-damned humility.


+ Apparently by this time John Madden couldn’t actually be bothered to be the voice of the game and preferred to remain simply its title. Also, my team coach will remain nameless for as long as I don’t care enough to learn the names of coaches of NFL teams.

++ It was “Madden”-ing (pun fucking intended).


John Law is a musician, writer and crier from Toronto. He spends his days removing lint from his belly button and trying to understand why things happen the way they do. When he fails to do so he writes about it here, at his blog, or — when he really doesn’t understand something — on Twitter under the name @JohnBobLaw.