“Creatures of Play”: An Examination of Rules in Football and Life in Jon Bois’ 17776

This paper was presented with a slideshow at the Sports Literature Association’s 2018 conference in Lawrence, Kansas. All screenshots and media included come from Jon Bois’ 17776 unless otherwise noted.

Giorgio Agamben begins his 2004 book The Open by examining an illustration in a 13th century Hebrew Bible which shows the righteous and saved feasting on the flesh of the Behemoth and the Leviathan, massive mythical creatures of the land and sea. While Agamben uses this scene, and the theriomorphic, animal-headed revenants of the saved on earth to argue for a change in human-animal relations, I here am interested in the scene for a much more simple reason as it is one of many found in religions which depicts the end of history.

But what happens after the end of human history, when the Behemoth and the Leviathan are chewed down to naught but bone? What happens when the rules of life and existence change so drastically it becomes difficult to even define them as such? What becomes of humanity, and much more importantly, the United States, just beyond the end of time? Well, ladies and gentleman, Jon Bois is here to tell you that the end of time is filled with football.

In his fictional online multimedia project 17776: An American Football Story, Bois envisions a world roughly 15,000 years into the future after humanity suddenly stops aging, dying, and procreating. In this story composed of text, .gif files, smooth jazz interludes, Google Earth overlays, and Youtube-hosted videos (like the one you see here), Bois suspends life’s ultimate rule — death. In doing so, he marks significant shifts in human behavior as a result of this newfound immortality. This paper will examine how Bois amplifies largely uncontemplated and presumed rulesets to underscore how they integrally drive human behavior. He accomplishes this task in a story that takes readers through the evolution of both American football and American society in the future-flung, prospective, and eternal nation of his work.

First, I need to explain 17776’s three unlikely narrators who drive the story and provide both commentary and exposition, because if I don’t you’ll get lost. It’s very easy to get lost talking about this piece. Advanced machines and computers have taken on human traits in the 15,000 years since the beginning of human immortality, and three deep space probes make up the bulk of the central narrative.

The recently “awakened” Pioneer 9 (referred to as Nine), the mentor and “little sister” of Pioneer 9, Pioneer 10 (referred to as Ten), and the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (referred to as “Juice”). They all communicate with each other in much the same way humans would. Nine, Ten and Juice all watch football games, muse about the state of humanity in its immortal condition, bounce jokes off of one another and have existential crises — you know, fun things humans do. Ten explains that the abundance of radio waves of human culture and communication sent out into the universe has rubbed off on its far-flung exploration modules essentially making them people.

Second, this is what the narrative looks like.

It has chapters like these which have text color-coded for each character, pictures, .gif files, graphs, maps, and occasional fourth wall breaks. Other chapters, as you’ll see later, are video chapters which still contain many of these same elements.

Bois starts us off with these three probes and an unfamiliar form to foreshadow his suspension of the most overarching rule of life on Earth: the rule of mortality. The immortality he envisions begins on April 7, 2026. That’s just 2,846 days away, so mark your calendars. Ten also tells Nine humans have long since perfected a nanorobotic system made of trillions of tiny microscopic machines scattered across the globe that sense environmental dangers and prevent harm from coming to humans. This system means people can no longer die of fires, high falls, sharp objects, stuff like that. Juice, the more vulgar of the two already awakened spacecraft, laments that the “nanos” also prevent people from stepping on rakes and hitting themselves in the face with the handle. These two systems which prevent death from both environmental and natural causes do not just craft an immortal human race, but an eternal one. Take the elves from Lord of the Rings. They’re immortal, yes, but they can still die unnatural deaths from orc blades, poisons, and the like. On the other hand, the humans of 17776 not only possess eternal youth and life, they don’t even need to worry about violent and unnatural deaths because the nanos will always save them from any danger. Individual people endure the ravages of time better than stone.

Infinite time, immortality and the impossibility of sustained head injuries allows for a total reconception of the sport of American football. One of the first human football players mentioned in 17776, Nancy McGunnell, plays running back for Wyoming in a game against Iowa. However, this game does not take place between the University of Wyoming and the University of Iowa, but rather hundreds of players from each state, with the entire state of Nebraska serving as the playing field.

The end zones are Nebraska’s borders with Wyoming and Iowa. In the game, McGunnell is still well over 100,000 yards from the Iowa border to score a deciding touchdown in a 24-24 tie. So, she takes a calculated risk by riding an EF5 tornado in the hopes of getting ejected in the right direction — closer to the Iowa state line. The commentators following the game in the style of storm chasers note she has already used a creek as a kind of blocker and uses buildings in urban centers to hide as well.

This introductory example shows the game has evolved dramatically in terms of scale and strategy because the overarching rules imposed upon humanity have changed. McGunnell can run into a tornado because the nanos will protect her from debris, supply her with oxygen, and give her a soft landing back on solid ground. The field itself has also changed from a 100-yard field of regulation play to a 430-mile long field because space itself matters little now. Infinite time effectively shrinks vast spaces. The new possibilities from immortality have paved the way for a new kind of game, and thus a new optimization of how to play football. That new optimization of play values stealth, patience and lateral thinking as much as the contemporary game in 21st century America requires brute physical strength, speed and agility.

This optimization of play, or “metagame,” serves as a kind of catch-all for game theory and game studies terms. However, this paper will specifically use the “greater metagame” term offered by Dr. Scott Donaldson in his essay “Toward a typology of metagames.” He defines greater metagames as “metagames based around finding the most efficient and effective play style without regard for the individual qualities of players” (Donaldson 1). Simplified, the greater metagame forms from a broad optimization of play or performance within the confines of a given ruleset. While Donaldson applies these terms to video games with a heavy footprint in esports like League of Legends and Counter-Strike, the terms can apply to competitive activities far beyond the virtual realm. For instance, there are almost 9,000 positions on a chessboard after both white and black take two plys each, but most chess opening theorists only consider about 200 of these as good for both sides. At the grandmaster and computer engine level, it’s exceptionally rare to see white play anything other than 1. E4 or 1. E5 for their first move. In this sense, the openings of chess have been optimized. There is a greater metagame that has formed in chess openings because certain openings are simply better than all others.

We can further investigate the concept of metagaming in one of the primary influences on Bois’ narrative. In his blog post “17776: Questions and answers,” Bois noted that Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had a profound impact on the text. Bois writes “[Calvin and Hobbes] was about the struggle to find happiness and hold on to it within a world that is often cold, and dominated by rules and expectations” (Bois Questions). First, it’s important to point out the titular characters of the strip take their names from two Renaissance thinkers obsessed with rules — John Calvin, the theologian famous for his espousal of God’s unflinching suzerainty over the mortal realm, and Thomas Hobbes, the father of social contract theory. Calvin (the boy not the Protestant) often rebels against rules imposed upon him by his parents and other grown-ups, like bath time, math class, and eating vegetables. But he also disrupts the rules of reality, which he bends and breaks with his own imagination – best evidenced in how he sees Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, as a living entity, a “homicidal psycho jungle cat” to be exact. But Calvin’s wanton disregard for rules comes through most of all in the sport he and Hobbes invent and play called Calvinball, which has no prescribed ruleset.

It has meaningless scores like zort to ort, it involves cricket wickets, flags, soccer balls, bases. It’s a sport of sport, an amalgamation of games without any end or finalized state. There’s no victor and no loser. It’s just a way to pass time. It’s play for play’s sake, which as you’ll see, is an important concept in 17776.

But before we get into the good stuff, let’s look to a major contributor to Aethlon for a bit more context. Robert J. Higgs emphasizes the importance of play in “The Agonic and the Edenic: Sport Literature and the Theory of Play.” In his piece, Higgs differentiates two styles of play: the agonic, which he describes as “a competitive or scorekeeping aspect that is analogous to the idea of contests… that lies at the heart of the sport literature tradition” and the edenic, described as “simple, free, nonegalitarian, and noncompetitive, which many bright minds endorse and which is applauded by all” (148).

Though Calvinball and the football games of 17776 technically have scorekeeping, both of these games fall under the edenic aspect of play because they emphasize artistry, creativity and experimentation. To quote Higgs, “In the [edenic] theory of play, the focus is upon systems of language and laws of nature or social orders that inhibit the freedom that unfettered play promises to all” (148). In other words, those who practice “play” in the edenic line of thought do not seek to conquer their opponents or prove their supremacy. They play to test the boundaries of both natural laws and man-made maxims to examine the capacity of their own existence and discern between the possible and the impossible.

Calvin and Hobbes invent the rules of Calvinball on the spot, exercising a core principle of an edenic mode of play. The rules they make are neither set, nor particularly regulatory. The point of Calvinball is to make and amend rules to create a game which constantly shifts and changes in the eternal childhood fight against boredom. The creation aspect of football in Bois’ narrative plays the exact same role. Football has become a foundation for more games, games which have taken on wildly different forms and styles than the football we know and occasionally even love today.

One such game has ultra-long and ultra narrow dimensions – Played between 22 players from the state of Washington and 22 players from the state of New Mexico, it has its end zones in Canada and Mexico a distance spanning well over 2 million yards. But it keeps the entire field the modern-day NFL regulation field width of 53 and ⅓ yards. With players unable to traverse sideways across the land without going out of bands, the game has stalled for 13,000 years in an Arizona canyon where neither team can make any progress up either cliff side wall while acting as the ball carrier.

In another game — Game 27 held at Mile High Stadium in Denver — convoluted, ancient, multiplicitous and contradictory NFL rules led to a game that started in the late 21st century becoming a mad grab for territory on the field. Why? Early in the game’s inception around the 2090s, one player managed to interpret the rulebook in such a way that it allowed them to actually own parts of the field as property. The “game” field now includes two extra end zones in arbitrary locations on the field…

…several housing units…

…a Bojangles restaurant…

… and, as all football games must, a statue of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Juice in particular loves this game, because the rules went so sideways, they essentially became meaningless. Juice states, “You can only have so many rules until some of those rules begin to contradict each other, or stack on each other in different ways” and those rules allowed for a new optimal strategy — ownership of parts of the field — not only for the game’s original players from the 2090s but for franchises, business ventures, and apparently at least one enthusiast of the Elizabethan gentry. They all wanted a prime piece of real estate in an ongoing football game (Bois 10) and technically those new entities have become players and teams themselves. That said, no one has spotted the actual football in this game for thousands of years.

But perhaps the starkest example of behavioral shift in a discovery of rules comes courtesy of Eddie Krieger. Eddie Krieger spends his days in a cave in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. He has played handheld LCD games like Double Dribble from the 1990s for the past 9,313 years because his team, Louisville, found an obscure rule in their game against Charlotte. It states if an individual player keeps possession of the ball in his or her own end zone for 10,000 years without being tackled, that player’s team wins the game.

Down 84-14 after 20 years, Krieger makes an interception, retreats to his hometown of Louisville and hides in a cave he remembered from his childhood that few people know about. He has sustained himself on the granola bars manufactured by nanos for over 9,000 years and abandoned any semblance of a rational, normal life to best optimize his play within the game. Down a massive deficit, his team found a strategy that allowed them to win, and Krieger made the choice to devote 10,000 years of his existence to explore a new and thus far successful metagame.

Even as Nine grapples with the entirely new concept of emotions, it quickly finds itself deeply disturbed by the state of humanity upon witnessing this new brand of football. It especially finds itself “appalled” and “disgusted” by the “hideous” nature of the game in the canyon, at people who have “wasted… 13,000 years playing a game they know nobody can win. The people I remember would have quit in a week” (Bois 7). Ten, however, takes issue with this liberal use of the term “wasted,” replying “‘’Wasting’ implies the consumption of something that you can’t get back. So if they have an infinite supply of time, can they ever really waste any of it?” (Bois 7). Ten continues this line of thinking by blatantly stating that humanity has not only changed the way it plays the game of football because of this new eternal nature but also the way it plays life.

In 17776, people play inane, unending games because games have become a new way of not surviving, but enduring. Utopia descended quickly upon humanity and humankind has had to adapt to this brave new world that doesn’t prioritize survival because that’s a foregone conclusion. Football itself has become the metagame, the optimal strategy, of an unending, relentless, eternal existence. With all of their needs serviced and goals achieved, people have converted to a way of life that combats their sole existential threat: boredom. Humans fight boredom with entertainment – specifically sport, sport that can last beyond forever, that can evolve and change forever even if humanity never alters beyond its ultimate form.

That commentary comes from the 2013 SEC Network’s play call of Auburn cornerback Chris Davis’ touchdown return on a field goal against Alabama to win that year’s Iron Bowl. Bois sees the beauty of this play, the outstanding confluence of chance, skill, ability and struggle, as an apotheosis of sport. He juxtaposes it with this new, albeit dark, zenith of humanity, a species now both condemned and blessed with immortality, whose sole purpose has become play. But in both victories the game is over. Davis, in a moment of divinity in sport won the game for Auburn in one of the most unlikely ways imaginable. In the same way, humans have “won” the game of life in 17776 by conquering death, but the miracle of immortality has yielded the abyss of infinity. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived anyway, though they do not carry death, famine, pestilence and war. Instead, they have brought eternal life, youth, bounty and play. These new facts of life mold a new human psyche, one which must learn to exist after the most significant paradigm shift imaginable makes survival and progress obsolete and unnecessary. In 17776, Americans no longer find sustenance for themselves and their species in food, sleep and sex, they find it in football and every mutation of football imaginable. After humankind’s victory over death, the people had to change their strategy for coping with existence. So they turned to football, because as Juice states early in the narrative, football is “funner than shit.” And fun is the only thing they have, or will ever have again, for the rest of eternity.

Bois makes such a significant change to humanity to note that consciously and unconsciously, we all adhere to stated and unstated rules. However, the immortal humanity he writes about doesn’t condemn our slavery to the laws we make and the ones we don’t. Instead, Bois sees human agency, creativity and play as the methods of our salvation no matter the size or scale of the obstacle we must overcome. He highlights that even an end state isn’t really the end, that new problems always arise, that our predilection for a truly perfect society will never be fulfilled, but regardless, he notes that human ingenuity will beat out perfection. Whatever contracts, taboos, laws, maxims or rules bind us, people will play, they’ll experiment, and they’ll create to define, understand and attempt to expand those limitations. Football is the only thing the characters of his narrative have, but they make it everything they have, infusing the sport with meaning, importance, beauty and most importantly, possibility – in a universe which now has little. 17776 gives us a chance to reconceptualize victory, particularly in how we achieve it, and occasionally, whether or not we should even hope to do so.