Women: Bringing Game To Sport

One evening last summer I sat atop a grassy slope in a Perth park, Percy Doyle Reserve in leafy Duncraig, and watched a free game of football. It was a pretty good moment to be in – There was a breeze off of the ocean that carried away the residual heat from a typically warm November’s day in Western Australia, and there was a handy tree that dappled the glare from the setting sun. I felt pretty lucky.

True, that same tree did block the view for a portion of the pitch, but even that inconvenience became agreeable, adding a quirky subplot to the on-field drama, an element of mystery.

Not that the narrative needed any extra devices – This was quality football, as evidenced by the presence of a number of players who have played in their respective national teams. In spite of all of this, the easy setting, the non-existent cost and the quality of the football, there was not that big a crowd in residence. I figured that there was no more than 300 fans, barely enough to sparsely dot the slopes or populate the club-rooms opposite.

This low turn-out was most likely because the game was an Australian W-League fixture. Women’s football.

People don’t watch women’s sport in as great numbers as they do the men’s equivalent. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons as to why this disparity exists, and I’m just as convinced that all of those reasons are a load of bollocks. In spite of that surety, my advice to sports fans is this:

Don’t set out to go and watch women’s sport.

Let me explain why:

Back in 1994 I sat up each night to watch the FIFA World Cup being played in the US. It was a decent tournament, with some cracking early group games, and then some edgy knock-out contests. It was a challenge for me to watch though – Because of the time zone difference and my love of sport, I needed to survive through many nights of no sleep. This was tough – Not even the eye-watering self-designed kit of Mexican stopper Jorge Campos or the possibility of that brilliant keeper remembering he was once a striker could completely beat out the yawns. So to keep myself awake I spent the time in between early morning fixtures playing on our new computer.

That computer was a boxy desktop 486SX-33. It was less than a year old and it had a then-luxurious 8MB of RAM. By contrast, the sleek i7 laptop machine I’m currently typing on, some 20 years later, has 8GB of RAM, a lazy 1000 times as much working memory. In spite of that disparity, I can still comfortably say that the comparatively ancient 486 had software loaded on it that exceeded my wildest teenage geekdom dreams far more than my current beastie. Mostly this was down to the games, with the 3D shoot-em-up Doom and the top-down isometric real-time strategy thriller Syndicate being the stand-outs.

Syndicate was my favourite. It’s construction was relatively simple but it was smart – Buildings and landscapes were expertly and crisply rendered but only as an enhancement to the gameplay, rather than a fixture of it. There was no technical eye-candy on screen – The playable part of the game for instance utilised just 16 colours.

I hardly noticed more than a handful of those colours.

Instead, I was focussed on the control of a team of up to 4 agents – Biomechanically enhanced humans – who were tasked with gaining and then maintaining the supremacy of a fictional corporation, the titular syndicate.

In spite of this capitalistic theme, the game was surprisingly egalitarian in outlook – You could select male or female agents to be a part of your unit, with neither gender having an edge in performance. In play you couldn’t even determine who was who, as each agent was a small sprite clad in nondescript robes and armed with a utilitarian flamethrower.

Yeah, a flamethrower. For incinerating things. The game was violent and never more so than with the flamethrower. It was not a game to be played by young kids and maybe not even old kids either. It still isn’t really – Time has not softened the harsher elements of Syndicate.

I’m making that quantification current because you can still buy Syndicate and you can still play it now, albeit via a DOS-emulator. I don’t need a DOS-emulator, because I still have the 486SX-33 and it still works. I’ve kept it so that on occasion I can play Syndicate the way it was intended.

And also so that I don’t lose my status as a Rear-Admiral in the naval flight simulator Fleet Defender. That took a lot of flying hours. I sacrificed some social stuff for those hours.

Unlike me back then, Fleet Defender has now dated a lot though. Syndicate hasn’t – It’s 16 colours, inert buildings and gender agnostic assassins are still disturbingly thrilling in 2014. Because narrative – The skein that runs through the game, that transcends things like flashy moves, fast processors and super-hyper-realistic-bazillion-colour visuals.

Narrative is everything in games. If your narrative is weak then all of the embellishments in the tech universe will not save games like Syndicate Wars, the eagerly awaited 1996 sequel to Syndicate.

Because Syndicate Wars sucked.

It had more complex graphics with user-controlled viewing angles (Syndicate had had just the 1 viewing angle), interactive buildings (Oh so destructible) and more weapons (You needed them to level the buildings).

But it sucked. Then and now, and not just because the idea of blowing up buildings seems kind of wrong right now. Because Gaza, Syria, Iraq and countless other wars.

Morals aside (And there was a cartoonish quality to Syndicate that gave it some distance from an ethical reality), there was no focus on a cohesive narrative in Syndicate Wars, the whole was a scatter of ideas, of a jumble of skills in play. Those skills read good on paper – faster and flashier – but they didn’t hold together in a compelling package.

This is where we get back to women’s sport. If you’re setting out to watch it because of the ‘women’ bit then I reckon you run the risk of seeing a Syndicate Wars. What you should be doing is looking for sport and a compelling narrative to underpin it.

That is the essence of sport for me. The skills on display aren’t valuable unless there is a narrative to bind them into something I want to immerse myself in. And just like for those lethal agents in Syndicate, gender plays no part in determining the viability of a sporting narrative for me. Yes, it is the case that elite women in sport don’t generally run as fast, kick as hard or hit as powerfully as their male equivalents. The narrative though is independent of all of that jazz.

I don’t love sport for the jazz* and so gender simply shouldn’t matter to me.

It used to, that’s true. I once frowned upon women’s sport because of those perceived physical shortcomings. To be honest, I never even gave women’s sport a chance, because I was so sure that the metrics were what sport was about. I saw women’s sport as sport by women and for women, and since I’m a bloke, figured that it wasn’t for me. When I did occasionally approach it then, I had the wrong attitude.

Because I can be a numpty and because I focussed on the ‘women’ bit instead of the ‘sport’ part. Which was easy because I’m a heterosexual guy and did I mention that I can be a numpty?

This then is why I’m suggesting that we should eschew the idea of setting out to watch women’s sport. Because the narratives that make women’s sport great are the same narratives that make men’s sport great. They’re the narratives that make all sport great. It’s about the sport.

So instead of setting out to watch women’s sport we should head out there to watch great sport and sometimes, often even, it will have women in it.

Like the 2015 FIFA World Cup.

At that tournament, just like for that evening last summer in Perth and for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, there will be some quality football on offer. For me, I’m hoping that it will be on free-to-air TV so that I can enjoy a narrative that will enthral. There is just the one catch though…

The 2015 FIFA World Cup is being hosted by Canada. Which is in North America, and with time zones that are almost exactly as disparate for me in Western Australia as they were in 1994…

It might be time to fire up the old 486 again…

*I do love jazz for the jazz. Doesn’t matter who’s playing it, long as they’re finding the key to my soul.


Leftist sports writer, recreational astronomer, husband and dad. Believes in level playing fields and that people with a mental illness are stronger. Can be found in Perth, Western Australia and/or in a stupor.

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