That is a photo from my actual family room, where for some reason my wife has permitted me to display my collection of video games. These are my physical copies of Electronic Arts’s Madden NFL series of games. I stopped buying physical copies in 2015, when I started downloading them directly to my gaming consoles with each year’s release. I didn’t buy Madden 13 because I was transitioning jobs and moving at the time. I won’t buy Madden 21, which will be formally released this Friday, because the trial version has been released, and it is terrible. It will be the first such game that I could play that I won’t since I graduated from college.
We could build an entire Epsilon Theory grifters series around the monopoly-fueled shenanigans at Electronic Arts alone. You’ll note the last game in my picture that doesn’t have the “EA Sports” logo is pretty far to the left – that’s ESPN 2K5. Since then, EA has had an exclusive license to develop video games based on a property (i.e. the NFL) that has been given special anti-trust and anti-collusion dispensations from US regulators and special funding from taxpayers, hotel guests and rental car customers. With that license, EA has functionally transformed the extraordinary American football simulation that existed when there was competition in the market into a game that is built around a gambling engine.
Like many other sports games – especially EA-developed games like the FIFA series – the Madden revenue model has transitioned rapidly away from game sales to the sale of “packs” of player cards and boosters that can be used to build custom teams to use in online games in the “Madden Ultimate Team” mode. These packs may reward the player with a lousy bunch of roster-filling players…or if you’re lucky (read: if you’ve bought enough packs), Hall of Fame-caliber superstars. It is all ephemeral, all electronic, and all about giving players the ability to win by spending the most money.
If it sounds like a terrible way to structure something like a video game that should be inherently competitive, well, yeah. But even before Ultimate Team and Ultra Booster Packs were a gleam in the eye of an accountant whose first response to the word “nickelback” would be to remember that amazing concert he went to with his buddies in college, Madden had a rich tradition of competitive distortions. Things that made the game-in-practice deviate wildly from the game-as-we-imagine-it. So rich is this tradition that there is a word for it:
The idea behind cheesing is to take advantage of the inability of something like a coded American football simulation to handle extreme use cases. As you might imagine, the mechanics of such games are designed and tested to look and feel realistic when they are played in the expected way. That means that mechanics which make complete sense when players run a normal mix of plays with a normal range of strategies and a normal set of behaviors can often produce bizarre and anti-competitive outcomes when players adopt bizarre and anti-competitive strategies.
The most classic and well-known example of cheesing from Madden’s history is the extreme use of Michael Vick, the once disgraced and later rehabilitated former star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. In Madden 04, developers wanted to make using Vick in a game feel different in the way that watching real-life Vick showed you that his style was different from that of other NFL quarterbacks at the time. And so his in-game character was given remarkable speed and agility that permitted him to produce gains in normal plays that were more or less consistent with Vick’s sometimes remarkable on-the-field rushing achievements. The problem, however, was that players figured out that these same traits, when applied to unrealistic strategies, like running slower defenders ragged for extended periods behind the line of scrimmage, constantly rolling out into QB draws, etc. were nearly indefensible.
Not quite Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, but not that far off, either.
If you weren’t cheesing with the Vick-led Falcons in a head-to-head game of Madden 04, you probably lost.
Even when Vick faded from Madden, cheesing didn’t. In future editions it might not have meant playing with a dominant player, but instead repeatedly and unrealistically calling two or three plays and formations to which that year’s AI was especially vulnerable. In some years, that might mean constant QB draws and rollouts. In some years, that might mean some trick play like a play-action end-around, which was nearly unstoppable with the right personnel. In some years, that might mean seam routes or lobbed streaks when the game introduced different throw trajectory types. In some years, that might mean a ridiculously short punt that confused the AI into muffing it nearly every time. To a greater or lesser extent there may have been unpredictable (and equally unrealistic) defensive counters to those repetitive and disproportionately effective plays, but competitive and online play has often been typified by play-styles that executed extreme strategies to exploit the weaknesses of the simulation engine.
There have also always been extreme gameplay behaviors that sat just outside the periphery of cheesing, too. These are behaviors in which the exploitation took some measure of skill, but still represented a winning in-game strategy with no real-life corollary. For example, certain animations for players (especially linemen) made them perfectly, predictably vulnerable to a particular pass rush move or positioning of a defensive player. If you were skillful enough to put your player in the right positioning vis-a-vis that animation and execute a particular pass rush move, you would always win. Micro adjustments to the positioning of defensive players to best match up with the way the AI processes contact between them and blockers is an almost indispensable skill for competitive players of the game. Most players don’t consider it cheesing – because you’ve got to be able to execute it – but these tactics still represent extremes at odds with the real-life game and the intent for randomness on the part of the game’s developers.
Even in modes in which players manage franchises over full seasons, there have always been ways to exploit the game’s sensitivity to extreme and unexpected behaviors. For example, because the logic which made AI-controlled teams evaluate trades has never been consistent with the logic concerning free agency signings and roster cuts, it has nearly always been possible to sign a quality older player from the street and immediately turn him around to an AI-controlled team for draft picks. Likewise, because EA’s focus on developing the casino-for-teenagers it calls Madden Ultimate Team has meant the abandonment of any development on the traditional franchise mode, it has been possible to force AI teams to do things like cut the best player on their team by trading them mediocre players at the same position for several editions now.
If there is a lesson here, it is this:
There is a certain class of games for which winning the game largely becomes a function of how good you are at exploiting the inability of the game’s mechanics to properly model edge cases and extreme behaviors, and how quickly you realize that other players are executing this strategy.
Sound familiar? It should.
In the 2020 edition of our political, financial and social games, it is not the most expertly executed strategies which are richly rewarded. It is strategies which most brazenly identify how to exploit the newly vulnerable mechanics of the Widening Gyre. Have you said or heard any of these things in the past three years? This isn’t how capitalism is supposed to work! This isn’t how elections are supposed to work! This isn’t how politics is supposed to work! This isn’t how free speech is supposed to work! This isn’t how the Fed is supposed to work (they’re out of bullets)!
Good! You’re familiar with the idea.
And yes, it is political markets which provide the most obvious examples of these more extreme strategies designed to fit a particular set of mechanics.
As Twitter itself recognized through one of its classic discourse-suppressive overreaches, this is not normal. Similarly, one of our readers made a very reasonable observation to this tweet in the comment section of one of our recently published briefs.
Am I the only one who sees the desperation in a tweet like the one this morning “They are not Covid sanitized?” I’ve said often lately, that this election has some scary outcomes, but it also feels like DT is getting more and more desperate, which can’t be good for “ratings”. Not sure what the October surprise will be, but if we have a president who believes he needs a “Hail Mary” to keep his title…User Comment to The Fujiwhara Effect
And yes, in a normal environment I would have agreed wholeheartedly. But a strategy which lobs various terrifying theories of dubious provenance is one for which a polarized political environment has very little answer. In the rules we thought we understood, it doesn’t work. In the way we understand the world, it doesn’t work. But we live in an age of cheesing. This isn’t a sign of desperation. It’s much worse than that.
It is the new dominant strategy. It is a sign of the new normal.
Yet even if political markets provide the most obvious examples, our other social markets are just as prone to the advantage of seeking out edge strategies for the absurd current environment against expertly executed strategies designed for the way those markets are supposed to work.
Cheesing of those edge strategies is how Kodak happens.
Cheesing of those edge strategies is also how Tesla creates a hundred billion dollars in paper gains (and, presumably, many more in shareholder value-extractive non-paper gains for executives paid on incentives), not through execution of a true value additive strategy but through a tautologically value-neutral stock split. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.
Don’t Be Fooled By Stock-Split Mania LOOK FOR EARNINGS, NOT HYPE [Fortune, February 1999]
The challenge, as always, is considering how the investor-citizen or executive-citizen who is not a sociopath responds to a game in which everyone else is cheesing and winning. Here’s what I think.
If you’re running a company and you’re not thinking about the low hanging fruit edge strategies in which you do non-value-additive things that add value to the stock price, you are nuts.
If you’re running an investment strategy and you’re pretending that the world is NOT one in which management cheesing by paying homage to administration officials or announcing a stock split to “allow young investors to participate” is rewarded with return, you are nuts.
If you’re running an election campaign and you think that you can win on being nothing more than a straight-shooter without recognizing the way in which meme and narrative interact with the mechanics of the Widening Gyre, you are nuts.
Just because you recognize the world as it is does not mean that you must extract value from the edge cases for your own benefit. If bailout money is being thrown at you, you don’t have to turn it down. But you also don’t have to accept it to benefit your share grants, RSUs and options before you write some saccharine letter describing dumping tens of thousands of middle- and lower-income employees as a shared sacrifice. If you’re building narratives to argue for your election, make them Holy Theatre. Don’t justify lies on the basis of the Widening Gyre’s permanent fixture of manufactured existential threats, and don’t justify deadly theater built on a basis of deception just because you think its heart is in the right place.
Alternatively: Neither left guy nor right guy be.
In world awash with cheesing, being lawful good doesn’t mean being lawful stupid.
But for God’s sake, don’t lose your soul in the process.