Video games could make you a better surfer. A better athlete. I know that sounds ridiculous, but right now, in one of the most competitive professional athletic leagues in the world, the evidence exists to prove it.
In the February 2010 issue of WIRED magazine, writer Chris Suellentrop explains how Madden NFL, the video game franchise produced by Electronic Arts, is not only influencing the decisions pro football players make in real time on the field, but also how it's being used to groom the athletes of the future.
"Today's football players have an edge that no athletes before them have possessed," Suellentrop writes. "They've played more football than any cohort in history. Even with the rise of year-round training, full-contact practice time on the field hasn't increased — in fact, it has actually gone down, as coaches have tried to limit the physical punishment that the game exacts. But video games, especially the ubiquitous Madden NFL, now allow athletes of all ages to extend their training beyond their bodies."
Suellentrop goes on to argue that the game (because it so closely simulates its source material) helps players' minds process real-world stimuli and situations. He outlines how several successful college and high school programs have used it as a training tool, whereby coaches upload their playbooks and then encourage players to go home and run them on their PS3s. And he cites examples of how Madden has already affected some NFL-level players' reactions on the field—and the outcome of games.
One such case: Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who employed a clock-killing tactic he learned from playing Madden to help his team win their 2009 season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. After catching a tipped pass, Stokley ran parallel to the goal line before crossing it in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. He allowed six seconds to tick off the clock, leaving the Bengals' offense little time to work with when they received the ball. In WIRED, Sullentrop reports that Stokley had "performed that maneuver 'hundreds of times' in a video game before doing it in a real NFL game."
So, what's that have to do with surfing? Kelly Slater Pro Surfer comes to mind.
A few years ago, I saw a clip of Dane Reynolds playing KSPS in a movie called Riding Waves. I also remember reading a profile a few years after that, which mentioned that Dane played KSPS as part of his afternoon routine. Either way, Riding Waves made it clear that Reynolds—during his teenaged development as a surfer—had at least spent some time with an electronic device that simulated the act of surfing. It was setup in his living room. He had it in his house. And while the brevity of the clip made it tough to figure out whether or not Reynolds was actually any good at it, watching him surf can be a compelling argument that the game's mere existence influenced his approach.
Backside-tuberide-to-backside-hack-to-backside-air-to-backside-board-variel. That could either be a description of the latest video clip on Dane's blog or a few thousand KSPS points. I know that sounds a little thin, but if you think about the combos today's surfers are capable of assembling, and then compare them to what was possible in the video games they grew up on, it seems plausible to suggest that yesterday's simulation might have revolutionized today's reality. Especially considering the evidence—with the NFL as a test case—presented in WIRED.
We only get a few seconds in the water to read a face, paddle, stand up, and decide how to react. But what if we spent hours visualizing and testing hundreds of different scenarios?
By the time surfers like Dane reached their physical peak, it's possible that they could have spent hundreds of extra hours training their brains to link face-to-air-to-tube combos in their living rooms. They essentially had access to a mind-surf simulator. And yeah, evolution from generation to generation can explain progression. But that doesn't negate the argument that we're living in an era in which surfing's state of the art—in the water—unprecedentedly mirrors what was once only possible on a digital wave.
During the 1960s and 70s, Rick Griffin imagined absurd maneuver combinations, and depicted them in his artwork. Video game developers during the 80s and 90s and early 2000s did the same. But today, the best surfers in the world are actually beginning to catch up.
I'm not trying to say that Dane surfs the way he does only because he sat in front of a screen with a controller in his hand. The guy had to actually paddle out, a lot, to become the best free surfer in the world. (He was also blessed with natural talent.) But I am suggesting it helped nudge him along. It's entirely possible that video games can train surfers' minds to re-visualize what's possible on a wave in the same way they're beginning to remold the actions of NFL players on the field.
It wouldn't be the first time technology recast common surf paradigms. Think about what the introduction of Jet Skis and Wave Runners did to how we perceived big waves.
My point is this: We only get a few seconds in the water to read a face, paddle, standup, and decide how to react. But what if we spent hours visualizing and testing hundreds of different scenarios? "What happens when I do a frontside stalefish straight off the drop and then pull in? Or vice-versa?" The WIRED article suggests video games can help surfers translate those thoughts into real world reactions.
The only problem? The training tools currently available are woefully inadequate. Madden is fine-tuned and rereleased every year; its technology has constantly evolved since its first appearance in 1989. KSPS, however, was published by Activision in 2002, the last "realistic" surf-simulation attempted by a major video game manufacturer. In the hyper-progressive world of technology-development, the game is, to put it bluntly, ancient.
I think it's time for an update.
And I'll admit—I'm a game geek. I want this for selfish reasons. It would be fun to play. Snowboarders get Shaun White Snowboarding, and skaters get Tony Hawk Ride, as well as the more-realistic franchise simply known as Skate. So I'm also a little jealous. But in the end, this argument is less about developing my already over-developed thumbs and more about the future of the sport.
An updated surf simulator would help incite progression. It would allow the best surfers in the world re-conceive, and test—over and over and over again—what's possible on a wave. In turn, this would translate to positive gains for surfing as a whole.
But until manufacturers get to work on a new surf-game installment (which doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon) we're stuck with two options: eight-year-old equipment; or actually walking down to the beach to mind-surf a few liquid-form, non-digital waves. For now, I'll take the latter. But I think we deserve better than both.