Ever since the seriousness of concussions became apparent on a national scale, the primary message for young football players — if you get a concussion, get off the field for the rest of the day — has been one of the most difficult for youngsters to accept and execute. That reality will soon be aided by fantasy.
Madden NFL 12, the coming version of the eerily true-to-life N.F.L. video game played by millions of gamers, will be realistic enough not only to show players receiving concussions, but also to show any player who sustains one being sidelined for the rest of the game — no exceptions. Beyond that, in the background, the game’s announcers will explain that the player was removed because of the seriousness of head injuries.
Player animations, now sophisticated enough to depict Peyton Manning’s throwing motion and Randy Moss’s gait, will not display helmet-to-helmet tackles, hits to the heads of defenseless players or dangerous headfirst tackling, said Phil Frazier, the executive producer of Madden 12.
John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach for whom the game is named and who is involved in its development, said that the impetus for the changes was twofold: to further hone the game’s realism, and to teach youngsters to play football more safely.
“Concussions are such a big thing, it has to be a big thing in the video game,” Madden said in a telephone interview. “It starts young kids — they start in video games. I think the osmosis is if you get a concussion, that’s a serious thing and you shouldn’t play. Or leading with the head that you want to eliminate. We want that message to be strong.”
Frazier described the game, which will be released in August regardless of any N.F.L. work stoppage, as “a teaching tool.”
“I wouldn’t say this is a full public-service announcement, but it’s a means to educate,” he said.
The Madden changes regarding concussions and tackling will drastically affect how youngsters view head injuries, experts said. Football concussions have been covered heavily in national newspapers and television news programs, and augmented plots on shows like “Law & Order” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but not in anything with the reach of the Madden franchise among video game players. According to industry data, more than 90 million copies of the video game have been sold in its 22 years, including five million of last year’s version.
“It’s a great approach to teach kids in a way that no one else can reach,” said Chris Nowinski, the co-director of the Sports Legacy Institute and a former Harvard football player, who speaks at schools and summer camps about the seriousness of concussions.
Nowinski added: “Considering how hard it is to reach young kids and expose them early, this is brilliant. You’re training kids from the cradle to play sports more safely. If you get a concussion, come out of the game. You can’t unteach that.”
In November, after a Toyota television advertisement showed a mother worrying about her son playing football and depicted teenage players crashing helmet-to-helmet into each other, the N.F.L. complained to Toyota executives and threatened to revoke the carmaker’s game sponsorship unless the ad was reworked. Toyota capitulated.
The N.F.L. fully supported the changes to Electronic Arts’ Madden video game, the league spokesman Greg Aiello said, calling it “a much different circumstance” from Toyota.
“This is an N.F.L.-licensed video game about N.F.L. football, as opposed to a TV commercial selling cars,” Aiello wrote in an e-mail. “We are in the process of working with EA on the precise handling of a concussion injury in the game. We will strive for authenticity and an accurate, responsible depiction.”
Previous versions of the Madden series showed players receiving concussions and being allowed to stay on the field. When those players are removed now, commentary from the announcers Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth will underscore why.
Coincidentally, NBC’s Collinsworth has been the primary television analyst in educating audiences about the seriousness of head injuries and dangerous tackling, saying, “This is a league that we’ve always celebrated the biggest hits and the bone-jarring blows, but you can’t hide from the evidence anymore.”
Of Collinsworth’s concussion commentary on the new Madden game, Frazier said: “We’ve got our writers working on lines that we’ll record in April. When the injury happens, they’ll say they don’t really know what it is, which is the way most injuries are. But a few plays later, when they learn from the sideline that the player got a concussion, they’ll say something like, ‘Because of the seriousness of concussions, you know, that player will not be returning to the game.’ ”
Forbidding players to play through concussions reflects new N.F.L. protocols regarding head injuries, which in real life bring considerable short- and long-term health risks, and among teenagers occasionally death. It also mirrors many laws that have passed or are being considered by state legislatures to protect young athletes.
On gaming sites’ message boards, praise for the changes was drowned out by fans bemoaning the introduction of real-life safety issues to their private football universes. On CBSSports.com, boomer12 wrote, “its a GAME!”
EA has not always been so sensitive toward head injuries. In the 1992 version of its N.H.L. game, players who were checked hard or hit their heads on the ice could be shown unconscious in growing pools of blood. (The feature was quickly removed.) In the Madden game, ambulances used to drive onto the field and run over players.
Madden said that he preferred some safety matters to be depicted as they occurred on the field — like grabbing of the face mask, which results in a 15-yard penalty — but that he no longer wanted helmet-to-helmet hits or head shots on defenseless receivers, which the N.F.L. considers more dangerous and subject players to suspension and substantial fines. Madden did not say whether James Harrison, the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Steeler who complained about the league’s safety measures last season, would have similar gripes in Madden 12.
“Kids used to learn football in the playground, but now they learn the game more by the video game,” Madden said. “Strategy is probably a bigger part. But also as graphics get better, we can be better about showing proper tackling techniques. And to show that concussions are really serious: if we show players playing through them, then kids won’t understand.
“We want it handed off to the next generation. There was a time when someone would get a concussion and you’d say he just got dinged, take some smelling salts and get back in the game. Those days are over.