Video games have always been a fruitful medium for science fiction, all the way back to the outer space dogfights of 1962’s Spacewar! So it’s no surprise that Electronic Arts is dipping its toe in the water, although handing the job off to their sports division might raise a few eyebrows. At EA’s pre-E3 press conference Saturday, the company unveiled three games exploring ways we might live and love in the distant future: FIFA 19, which is set in the year 2019; Madden NFL 19, a look at what America might become by 2019; and NBA Live 19, a terrifying speculative vision of the year 2019. Unhappy dystopias are each unhappy in their own way, but some common themes emerge in the trailers: openly fascist philosophies of eternal conflict and contempt for the weak, stadiums full of citizens hollering for blood, and an exaltation of the human form more intense than anything since Olympia. Here are EA’s three horrible prophecies:
From its opening shot, a dark hallway with a light at the end that evokes both the stygian Viennese sewers of The Third Man and the suspiciously-similar accounts of patients who survived near-death experiences, the trailer for FIFA 19 is suffused with corruption and death. The music picks up this motif: Hans Zimmer does his best Carl Orff imitation, a stark reminder of the futility of chasing the glories of generations past. And then there’s the voiceover, which cribs from Goodfellas while planting FIFA 19 firmly in the YA-dystopia tradition of The Hunger Games and Divergent:
When I was a boy, I always dreamed of becoming a Champion. It takes determination. And a will to win. Even through the toughest moments, you must keep believing. This is your chance to show the world. You are a Champion.
Judging from the capitalization in the subtitles, the Champions are some sort of elite death squad like Fahrenheit 451’s firemen. We get some clues to their nature from the signs and banners in FIFA 19’s gargantuan stadiums. “Hasta El Final, ¡Vamos Real!” reads one, which means, “Until the end, let’s go real.” The slogan’s embrace of “reality” clashes with the pageantry on display—it is literally obscuring the faces of the spectators carrying it, blocking their vision and ours—mirroring the way totalitarians lay rhetorical claim to “realism” while steering the world towards destruction—“el final,” if you will. Similarly, the Field of the Champions is lined with banners reading “#EQUALGAME,” a brutal send-up of both hashtag activism and the tendency of rigid hierarchical systems to pay lip service to equality while crushing dissent. In short, FIFA 19 looks like a trenchant and timely warning about the way decisions we make today could still be playing out, even in the year 2019.
NBA Live 19
In 1984, George Orwell famously wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” To which NBA Live 19 rejoins, “But what if you imagined that boot was the officially licensed athletic shoe of your choice?” To create NBA Live 19’s shocking portrait of the year 2019, the implied threat of FIFA 19’s voiceover becomes explicit aggression, powered by an Orwellian vision of individualism being subsumed in acts of collective violence:
Yeah, I’m The One. But I’m not the only one. We are the One. We can shut you down, and we can put you on an island. Crossover. Gather. Game. When we’re ballin’, be ready, ’cause we’re coming at you with the squad.
Businesses shut down, entrepreneurs gathered together and shipped to islands for “crossover” reeducation: These things might seem absurd now, but they could be commonplace by 2019. The concept of a “squad” coming to get people who are “ballin’ ” is too obvious a Handmaid’s Tale lift to animate an entire game, but the grids of perfectly-rendered shoes show that EA Sports has added a flashy satire of consumerism to Gilead’s understocked stores. While the trailer doesn’t spend too much time on the judicial system of 2019, the shots of “Oracle Arena,” “Toyota Center,” and “Wells Fargo Center” makes it clear that in the game’s vision of the future, corporations own the courts. NBA Live 19 also seems to have the sense of humor The Handmaid’s Tale lacks: The trailer includes simulated cell-phone camera footage—universal surveillance will presumably be a plot element—but it’s shot vertically, and in the background you can hear someone yell, “Don’t film it like that!” at the hapless cameraman. As in The Death of Stalin and other works about incompetent dystopias, the laughter curdles as soon as the “squad” shows up.
Madden NFL 19
Easily the most brutal of the possible futures EA Sports has envisioned, the 2019 of Madden NFL 19 draws more from The Running Man than from Orwell. Stephen King’s dystopian novella envisioned a world where desperate poverty spawned game shows like Treadmill to Bucks, in which people with heart conditions sprinted for money until they got rich or died onscreen. Madden NFL 19 envisions a future society in which thousands gather in person to watch unlucky contestants risk chronic traumatic encephalopathy for money. Once again, the voiceover is key:
You’ve worked your whole life to get to moments like these. To the very top of the mountain. You battled through the pain and failure, all just to get to this place where you’ve been told legends are born. You fall so you can rise. And you rise so that you can truly see. See that it was really never about reaching the end of the road at all, but about all the moments that got you there. So if you were in their position, would you let the moment define you, or will you define the moment?
The text is at war with itself—is the “you” at the beginning playing the CTE game, or is it played by the “they” who ominously appear in the last sentence?—and in this way, it formally mirrors the societal disintegration we see on screen. Similarly, the trailer’s Sisyphean description of life in the future is helped along by a smart bit of casting. Michael K. Williams—Omar from The Wire—delivers the voiceover, and the metatextual link hammers home Madden NFL 19’s bleak description of a different game no one can win. Power constantly tells the powerless that end results don’t matter; it was really about “the moments that got you there.” That’s a convenient philosophy when the end result is brain damage, which is why it’s traditionally dressed up with Will to Power stuff like “defining the moment.” Judging from the trailer, Madden NFL 19 has a shrewd grasp of the language of totalitarianism, making its harrowing version of 2019 the most plausible of all.
While we may not live to see any of EA’s grim prophecies come to pass, it’s thrilling to see video games—so long maligned as a lesser form of art—finally producing these kinds of fully-realized, bone-chilling warnings about things to come. Let’s hope we can change course before the 2019 seen in these trailers becomes a reality.