A video game famed for its realism and attention to detail misses the mark in its attempt to represent gay footballers
Recently I was talking with a friend who’s currently in the beginning stages of coming out as gay. She’s wrestling with all the questions that everyone who’s had to do this faced: How do I tell my parents? SHOULD I tell my parents? How will things go at work if I come out there? What legal protections would I have if they fired me or if the work environment became toxic? Can I afford to be out everywhere, or will I have to stay closeted in certain parts of my life?
But she asked another question that I hadn’t even considered:
Why do I even need to come out at all?
By which she meant: who am I really serving by putting myself through all this? Is it really for my benefit? Or is this just a ritual performance I’m putting on for my straight friends? A party I’m throwing them so I can make a disclosure I’m unofficially required to me, and so they can feel good about themselves for having at least one gay friend?
It’s a question I never really considered when I came out. (I’ve had to do it twice, once at 14 when I came out as bi and then last year when I came out as trans.) I wonder now if maybe I should’ve, and given it some real thought. I focused so much on logistics and timing that I never really stopped to fully consider who I was doing all this for.
I mention all this because the popular video game Football Manager 2018 now lets you have gay soccer players on your team. Depending on which parts of the internet you spend the most time, this is either being hailed as a necessary step on the path to social progress and toward the ultimate goal of Sexual Orientation Not Mattering To Anyone; or derided as another example of identity politics seeping into places where it simply has no business, and yet more virtue signalling on the part of content creators in order to make money and/or shove an agenda down their audience’s throat. And all the while I can’t help but think: who is all this for, anyway?
(For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be referring primarily to men’s soccer throughout. The culture of the women’s game is such that several top tier players, including a number of members of the US squad that won the 2015 World Cup, can feel safe and supported enough to be out publicly. Homophobia and transphobia are present in women’s soccer, to be sure, but it’s on a much more modest scale compared to the men’s game.)
One obvious possible answer to the question of who this is all for: tabloids. In October, the Daily Star ran a front page headline alleging that there are two gay footballers currently playing in the Premier League who are out to their teammates. The headline and attached story was heavily sensationalized, with a breathless tone more fitting rumors of members of the royal family cheating on their spouses. The implications were obvious: if this is true—and they never back up their reporting and usually admit somewhere in the text that it’s just speculation—then this is a bona fide scandal, and readers should be shocked and appalled.
People who care about this sort of thing condemned the paper.
A lot of people wrote it off as scummy tabloid fodder.
The veracity and respectability of British tabloids aside, you don’t need to venture very far to see why a gay footballer might not want to come out of the closet. For all the talk among some in football fandom about how sexual orientation doesn’t matter, the fact that tabloids can still sell papers and ad space by framing these kind of stories as scandals clearly illustrates that it matters a lot.
The developers of Football Manager try to simulate the global football ecosystem as faithfully as possible. The game even accounts for the effects of Brexit now. But no simulation can ever be a perfect reflection of reality. Designers have to make choices as to what variables to account for and which to leave out. When we’re talking about a simulation as complex as Football Manager, there aren’t many variables that are overlooked through negligence or poor planning.
So when the new feature to have a player—and it only applies to computer-generated characters, so nobody that exists in the real world—in your squad come out as gay results in a short news story and a merchandise bump for the player and club, we have to be clear on this point: that’s not an accident. The designers made a choice to depict this kind of event this way. That the game doesn’t account for a scandal in the tabloids when this happens can mean only one of two things; either the sheer ubiquity of British tabloids wasn’t enough to clue the developers in that this might happen, or they purposefully decided to not include it in their simulation.
Neither is particularly encouraging. Nor does it suggest that they really thought through this feature when they started designing and implementing it. The tabloid scandal is just the most obvious consequence of what would happen if a Premier League player came out as gay. There’s no accounting for the mood in the dressing room. Or how the fans would react. If the player is a capped international, there doesn’t seem to be any consideration for how it would affect their chances of playing in the World Cup. (Surely this would vary from country to country.)
The developers wouldn’t have had to go very far to uncover relevant material for their research in the design process for this feature. There’s the tabloids, as mentioned. There’s also forums for fans of the game itself. Like this Reddit thread, where players accused the developers of “virtue signalling” and “trying to push an acceptance of homosexuality” on their players. Last year the BBC polled football fans to see how an out gay player would be received in English football; 18% would have a problem with it, and 8% of fans would stop watching/following their team one of their players came out. Even fairly innocuous awareness efforts like the Rainbow Laces campaign tends to solicit a backlash that can be pretty sobering. In designing this feature, the developers made some core assumptions about the current state of football culture that isn’t even reflected in the attitudes of their own customers.
They didn’t even bother to look into recent English football history. If they did, they could’ve read about Justin Fashanu, and what happened to him after he came out as gay in 1990 while still an active player. They could’ve read about the abuse and threats he received over the next few years, and how it affected his playing career. They could’ve read about how he ultimately buckled under the strain and killed himself eight years after his public disclosure.
And, sure, this isn’t the 1990s anymore. Things have changed. The culture has shifted. Maybe it’d be okay now.
But just because things are better, doesn’t mean they’re completely better. While the developers of Football Manager didn’t know the risks gay footballers might face in the current climate, and while some fans of a more liberal persuasion might want to believe they would be embraced and accepted, there are enough people who know better. Including, it must be said, queer footballers. Which is probably why gay men in English football are afraid to go public. Or why just coming out to their teammates is a Big Deal. Or why they won’t even disclose to the Football Association, after receiving an invitation to do so in a safe and confidential environment. (That FA chairman Greg Clarke seemed so mystified that no one took him up on the offer is also illustrative of the wider institutional blind spots surrounding the issues.) Make no mistake: there are gay men in the Premier League, and they’re not going public. Because they know what would happen.
Even with a generous reading, the developers of FM18 come across as painfully naive with the rollout of this feature. It’s not just that failing to account for some important variables makes for a poor simulation. Football Manager is an indelible part of the wider soccer culture. Clubs use it as a scouting tool. Implementing this feature in the game was going to make news. If Football Manager is a faithful simulation of the soccer world, then it’s also a faithful simulation of the culture surrounding this. By depicting a gay player going public as barely a blip on the radar, it constitutes a degree of oversight that is naive at best and dangerous at worst. It lets people hide in the fiction that bigotry is melting away from society, like an aging Polaroid camera. This is an assumption made largely by people who don’t have first-hand experience with that kind of bigotry, and who will never really face any consequences for their incorrect assumption. The backlash is for other people.
There is, of course, the possibility that the developers purposefully made the consequences of a player coming out so small and benign. Imagine what the game would look like with this feature if the potential impacts were fleshed out. What if dressing room morale tanked? What if it became impossible to sell the player because no one else wanted him on their team? What if he was sold to a club in Saudi Arabia? What if he retired early? What if the player committed suicide? These are the kinds of possibilities that would need to be considered if this feature were the reflect the degree of complexity that Football Manager is known for. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the developers simply chose not account for all this because of how it would be received by their customers, who cling to a perception of widespread social equality that does not match the lived reality of most LGBT people. Fans of the game love it precisely because of its complexity, but it may be the case that there are limits. Maybe they just don’t want to be confronted with the reality of being queer in a world— and in a profession— that is actively hostile to queer people. And so the only kind of coming out that works in the simulated world of Football Manager is a frictionless abstraction.
The new feature in FM18 and the discourse surrounding it is largely missing a crucial perspective: gay people. Not just players, but fans and media commentators and club employees and anyone else connected with the sport. For all the desire to live in the world of FM18, where players coming out of the closet is truly not a big deal at all, there’s never any discussion about the costs queer players bear when they do. If we, as a community of people who love football, can’t be bothered to stop and think about how a player who came out publicly would be affected, then we’re not as ready for it to happen as we’d like to think we are.
And if we just don’t care, then we need to reckon with that and admit to ourselves that our desire to have a player come out has nothing to do with them and everything to do with our overwhelming need to know. That we are primarily motivated by a desire for spectacle, in the same way that we crave the spectacle of North London Derbies and transfer rumors and Jose Mourinho press conferences. As someone who’s been outed to others against my wishes, trust me when I say that it’s a horrifying and difficult experience. The person who did that rationalized what they did by saying that the person they told had a right to know. You’d be surprised how common this sentiment is.
Football will be a much better place when queer players are able to live openly and when they are unequivocally supported by teammates, clubs, institutions, and fans. But is that the world we’re trying to build when we encourage players to come out? Or do we just want to gawk at someone else’s private life? Unless and until we can meaningfully, honestly grapple with that question, no player in their right mind will come out publicly. And stunts like the new feature in Football Manager will read less like an appeal to our better angels and more like a cruel joke.
Follow James on Twitter @thaumatropia.