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How a video game is getting its players to rethink Brexit

A screenshot from Football Manager 19. (Courtesy Sports Interactive)

As the British Parliament continues its political standoff over its long-debated exit from the European Union, one unlikely educator has emerged and even managed to shift a handful of opinions on the issue. It’s even been used to inform Parliament about Brexit’s potential impact on the British Premier League.

Football Manager, a popular video soccer simulation game, incorporated various Brexit-related issues into its 2019 version. The game’s development team at Sports Interactive collaborated with an external group of academics, journalists, politicians and people working in soccer to compile a list of potential Brexit scenarios.

Each scenario — ranging from hard line policies regarding work visas and international player usage to more relaxed regulations in those areas — was assigned a probability of transpiring during the 2019 season. That dynamic was incorporated into the simulations for the followings seasons, and players of the game could witness and appreciate how those policies could play out in the real world.

“I’d written a blog post about how Brexit could affect us a few weeks before the referendum,” Miles Jacobson, studio director for Sports Interactive (SI), said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I ended up publishing it on LinkedIn, and the day after the vote had a couple of messages about my thoughts on how football would be affected.”

In the event of a soft Brexit with no changes, European soccer players maintain freedom of movement within the E.U. A slightly harder deal could result in a system resembling that of the Italian Serie A, in which teams can have anywhere between two and 17 non-homegrown players on the squad at any given time.

Another potential situation imposes a rule that requires foreign players to earn minimum salaries in exchange for work permits. Then there’s the more extreme possibility of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar leaving the United Kingdom. There’s also the small possibility of Britain remaining in the E.U.

The game has sold over 2 million copies, and the SI team has received a plethora of messages from fans in response.

“There have been lots of reactions on social media, ranging from, ‘If I’d known about this before the vote I’d have voted a different way,’ through to a mini campaign from people wanting to be able to turn it off in-game," Jacobson said. "We refused the latter because [Brexit is] something that will affect the real world, so it’s something that should be in a simulation of said real world.”

For some people, these issues are strictly related to the future of the Premier League. “After being on the fence, the awful squad registration and work permit rules made me fear for the future of the Premier League,” one player wrote on Reddit. “However this is really a small detail when the whole situation is considered.”

For another player, Jake Callaghan, Football Manager’s iterations of Brexit were “another justification that life will be more difficult outside the European Union.” Several players recall posts from other players upset about Brexit being implemented into Football Manager, mentioning people who encountered a hard Brexit in the game that said, "I voted to leave, but didn’t vote for that.”

Post Reports: “As someone who has been through war, I feel like if I can make a game about peace I can change the mindset of people.”

“It did actually shine a light for me on what has been almost neglected in Brexit talks,” Callaghan continued. “Much is made of the Irish border, but I haven’t heard much about the Gibraltar/Spain border. As I have managed [a team] in Gibraltar, I got the messages about Brexit [in the game], and was surprised to learn that one possible scenario was for Gibraltar to remain in the E.U. in-game, which led to me thinking about those who cross that border to get to work [in reality]. It is only because of Football Manager that I had considered it.”

While it isn’t officially part of the U.K., Gibraltar is classified as a British Overseas Territory and may be forced to leave the E.U. should Brexit come to pass. However, Gibraltar participated in the 2016 referendum that triggered Brexit and voted strongly to remain.

These real-world reactions haven’t come from fans alone though. Jacobson was asked by members of Parliament to provide findings based off the feedback SI received from players, as well as how the sport and the British Premier League could be affected by various Brexit scenarios.

“The most interesting to me was presenting the data to civil servants and ministers for the two main political parties in the U.K. [and] how they embraced the findings and my suggestions for the best way forward for football post-Brexit,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson elaborated on these findings, believing that if Brexit proceeds as newly minted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prefers, the result will not be positive for the British national soccer team or the quality of the Premier League. “It’s a battle I continue to fight with data,” he adds.

Although Jacobson is grappling with real-world politics, he stresses he’s not attempting to convey any sort of bias or preference for a particular outcome. “Our own politics [at SI] are impossible to define given that we have more than 100 people full time at the studio, all from different backgrounds — let alone our research team of over 1,000 people around the world. I don’t see those as political statements. I see them as obvious predictions of things that are going to happen in the future.”

SI is no stranger to addressing real-world issues in their games. “We’ve had ‘kick racism out of football’ logos in our games for 20 years, rainbow flags [in stadiums], worked with the NGO War Child and other charities — including players growing mustaches for [the men’s health campaign] Movember,” Jacobson said.

“A couple of versions back, we added players coming out [as gay] in the game,” he continues. “But we had to be careful with that to ensure that in countries where it’s illegal, players didn’t come out. Football Manager 19 [also] introduced some staff members from the women’s game getting jobs in the men’s game.”