a blogumn by Ryan Dixon


Madden NFL 10

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.” – Poetics by Aristotle

Anyone who’s taken a freshman year theatre class knows that in his seminal work, Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle deconstructed Greek Tragedy (and thus all drama that has followed) into six distinct elements: plot, character, thought or theme, diction, melody or song, and spectacle. As a superlative example of the tragic form, Aristotle presented Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, the plot of which is basically this:

Parents try to kill son. Son kills father. Son f**ks mother. Gods f**k son.

maddencoverWhen Aristotle wrote the Poetics in 4th century B.C. he probably wasn’t thinking about the tackling ability of Troy Polamalu or the yards after catch average of Larry Fitzgerald. However, if he were around today, the chances are fairly high that he’d be a gamer and thus recognize the Madden NFL video game franchise— the 2010 version arrives in stores today– as an ideal example of his Poetics in (inter) action.

Yes, I know what you’re saying, “But Madden has no plot!” That’s why it’s a perfect showcase for interactive drama. Unlike other non-sports games that have more formal narratives taken (directly or not) from movies, Madden’s multi-year “Franchise Mode” option allows you, the user, to craft a narrative within the seemingly plot-less action of playing the games. You’re given the ability to create your own team (or use an already existing team), build the stadium, launch marketing campaigns to fill the seats, draft and trade players and try to fix their contracts under the salary cap.

In terms of creating an ideal character to fit within the tragic plot, Aristotle states that there are four things to aim at: goodness, appropriateness, likeness, and consistency. And while one of Madden’s biggest selling points has always been the ultra-realistic depictions of existing players,  the “Franchise Mode” also offers a “Create-A-Player” option where the gamer can build their own football players based on four basic characteristics: physicality, college, position, and uniform design. (Gamers also have the option to create their own coach.)

In “Franchise Mode” each individual football player will grow or decline in talent throughout each season and over the years, culminating in retirement. These shoulder pad-wearing avatars will also compete for awards such as MVP and Rookie of the Year. Although “Create-A Character” is a detailed tool, it still only focuses on physical attributes and skill. Thus in the truest interactive tradition, it is left to the imagination of the creator/gamer/ dramatist at home to craft the back-story of each created character.

And while the entire multi-generational narrative of Madden’s “Franchise Mode” bears a stronger structural resemblance to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ultimate goal of the characters in both Wagner’s opera and Madden is, of course, to obtain the Ring), the actual plot of each individual game replicates the perfect formal unity of Aristotelian tragedy and all too often provides a catharsis straight out of Sophocles…

It was March 30, 2004 in my real life, but in Madden world it was January 10, 2016. I’m in my twelfth season owning, operating and playing the games of the Los Angeles Aviators. In the previous season we had come within one missed field goal from winning the AFC Championship game and thus earning a trip to the Super Bowl. Now, here we were again, back in the playoffs.

The regular season was an unprecedented march of dominance. Our defense allowed a jaw-droppingly miniscule and record-setting 6.9 points a game while the offense averaged a scorching and also record-setting 43.2 points. We played sixteen regular season games and emerged with sixteen regular season victories.

After enjoying a first round bye, the Pittsburgh Steelers (a team we had demolished 42-0 in the regular season) came to Pleasant Valley Stadium in the heart of Studio City, CA for the Divisional Round of NFL Playoffs. Our capacity crowd of 72,245 roared with anticipation. The atmosphere was electric. This was not going to be a game, but the opening ceremonies for a coronation that would conclude with a Super Bowl victory three weeks hence.

The Steelers won the coin toss and chose to receive. And receive they did, all the way into our end zone. With less than twenty ticks off the clock and, much to the horror of our suddenly shocked and silent fans, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Yet I wasn’t worried, for Dixon Ryanstein took the field. Our third year quarterback from Carnegie Mellon had already enjoyed a magical, MVP regular season (75% completion percentage / 47 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions) and I had no doubt that the magic in his rocket arm would soon wreak havoc on the Steelers’ defense. After a few plays, I told myself, it would be 7-7 and then the Aviators would be the only team scoring for the rest of the day.

Yet, on our second offensive play, the Steelers showed a mighty blitz. Ryanstein tried to toss the ball to our big Native American tight end, Wes Anpaytoo, but it was instead intercepted and returned for another Steelers touchdown. 14-0.

I remained calm. All we needed to do was get the ball back and stroll down the field for an easy touchdown. It’d be 14-7 and then we’d quickly take the lead. Right?

Ryanstein completed two quick passes to Anpaytoo and we were in Pittsburgh territory at their 47-yard line. Whenever arriving upon this area of the field during the regular season, I’d often toss a long touchdown pass to Toshiro Takashi, the team’s taciturn 6’5″ Japanese receiver who had been a standout at Stanford. Unlike many of the flashier, egotist receivers in the league who talked a much bigger game than they actually played on the field, Takashi– a descendant of Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese warrior who is considered the greatest swordsman of all time– caught all of his many passes with a silent nobility that brought honor to both his familial legacy and the game of football.

I selected the play from the onscreen menu, hiked the ball, and hit “A” to pass. The ball sailed toward the end zone, perfectly aimed for Takashi. But instead, it fell into a pair of black and gold hands. Interception number two. Thirty seconds later, a third Steelers touchdown. 21-0.

To make matters worse, Embeko Sombaya, our star cornerback, broke his leg during a play in that ill-gotten series. As a teen Sombaya had escaped the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide (his entire  family was hacked to death by a gang of machete-wielding Interahamwe) and arrived to the U.S. a scrawny teenager who could barely speak English. Adopted by a Christian foster family in Boca Raton, Florida, a decade later he was the defensive MVP and heart of a team three games away from being the world champions. Yet, as he was being carted off the field, the tears streaming down his face cruelly revealed the truth: his dream was dead for the year. Sombaya was out for the game and the playoffs. The defense would have to find a way to play on without him.

By the end of the half, the score was Pittsburgh 28, Los Angeles 0.

Yet, even when everything looked darkest, I did not give up hope, and the Gods seemed to award my optimism. In the second half, the L.A. Aviators returned to their dominant ways and Ryanstein erupted with a series of touchdown passes while the defense, seemingly using Sombaya’s horrific injury as a rallying cry, clamped down. With five seconds left in the fourth period, we kicked a field goal and tied the game at 31 a piece. We were going to overtime.

4:30 left in overtime. We were at the Steelers 37 yard line, five yards away from a an easy field goal and thus, at last, victory. But instead of trusting my bruising rusher Zach Gatewood to gain those five yards, I wanted to make a play for the ages, a great play to match this immortal game. A play that would make me smile during times of trouble in my real life. A fatal dagger of a play that would serve as a signature moment for a team that, with this victory and then two more, would take its place alone atop the mountain; the greatest Madden team of all time.

It was to be another pass to Takeshi in the end zone.

From the moment I launched the ball into the air I knew that Anagnorisis and Peripeteia were about to take the field. The confidence that had given me the strength to complete an undefeated regular season and allowed me to make a miracle comeback in this game had finally turned to hubris. The Madden Gods were not amused and, for the third time that day, the pass once again landed into the clutches of the Steelers.

My once proud defense, now worn and weary and missing their soul, could do no more and finally collapsed. The Steelers marched down the field and kicked the winning field goal. Final score: Pittsburgh 34, Los Angeles 31.

I turned off my X-Box, unable to even look at the post-game stats that I’d usually spend at least a half hour pondering. A miracle, immortal season was ripped from my grasp. A Super Bowl victory even further away than it had been a virtual season ago. I left my room and, like blind and broken Oedipus at the end of Sophocles’  tragedy, roamed the dark streets for hours. I was exiled from my X-Box and didn’t think I would ever be able to return…

While time has never healed the wounds from all those years ago, I have grown to accept my burden. And now, with the release of Madden NFL 10, perhaps I can be like that other Oedipus, the one at the end of his life who arrives at Colonus ready to finally make peace with the Gods. Today I will go to Best Buy and complete my own apotheosis.




My roommate Joe Rusin was recently laid off. I work from home and, as you might imagine, Joe’s renewed presence in the apartment throughout the day is proving to be a bit of a hindrance to getting anything accomplished since it’s very hard to concentrate  while your roommate watches a three hour block of Jerry Springer, Maury and Steve Wilkos five feet away from you every morning.

Here is his resume. If anyone reading this blogumn is hiring or knows of a job opening, please feel free to contact him. You won’t regret it. Click on the resume to enlarge.





Paper Heart

For Dante, the ninth circle of Hell featured a very angry Satan chewing on a not-so-happy Judas. My own personal Hell would consist of being stuck in this movie, forced to be an all-too-amused and precious greasy-haired hipster wearing nothing but sweater vests, loosened ties, and flannel, trying and failing, ad infinitum, to slide those far too-tight leggings they call “jeans” up my legs and thighs.

Welcome to Hipster Hell. Abandon all hope all ye who enter here…

Paper Heart is now in theaters