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Aug 11, 2005



trend among teenagers: They're spending less time watching professional sports and more time simulating those sports on Xbox or PlayStation...

What sometimes seems missing from "simulation" and "gaming" experience (though marginally less so for persistent worlds) is a sense of inertia and perspective in the world within which the sim is framed.

If the SIM-Red Sox aren't doing so hot - you can reconfigure your world around the 'what-if.' Whereas 'what-ifing' the RW Red Sox requires a different mindset, a different measure of reflection and measurement.

Apples and oranges.


Ah, a post about something other than friggin rmt.

Brian Sutton-Smith has an interesting section in his book [Ambiguity of Play] about the transformation/resistance of indigenous sports and games within alternative cultures.

Sports and games, though, are a category separate from play, and the Zirin article finds the value of sports, it seems, in individual and vicarious thrills...

"To see Michael Vick zigzag his way through an entire defense to the end zone, or Mia Hamm crush a soccer ball past a goalie's outstretched hands, or LeBron James use the eyes in the back of his head to spot a teammate cutting to the basket can be a glorious sight at the end of a tough day."

However, I don't think computer games are most essentially spectator sports. I remember Gee at the last DiGRA conference explaining the benefits of computer game play as the result of a collaboration between him AND his character -- "Character and I" did this, "Character and I" did that, etc. -- which sounded schizo whacko to me and is frame of reference more often associated with the reflection than the immediacy of play.

How many computer game players explain -- or are likely to explain -- their joy in terms of "Computer game player X will always be my Miles Davis"?

Zirin might have a few more insightful moments if he were to examine the effect of political transformations on sports participants rather than on sports fans.

North Dallas Forty had a couple of good locker room rants about this stuff, by the way.


Nate -- perhaps most of the inertia in professional sports stems from the fact that the rule set is shared?

Dave> Zirin might have a few more insightful moments if he were to examine the effect of political transformations on sports participants rather than on sports fans.

True. And I'll have to rent North Dallas 40 -- never seen it.

It's funny -- while I'm interested in understanding professional sports (because they seem related to play), I'm at least two standard deviations off the curves in terms of how interested I am in watching a game or reading the sports page of a newspaper.


Well, to add another, "there is nothing new under the sun" point. I'm currently reading Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen, a history of chess and the power of political queenship in Europe between the 11th and 15th centuries. She cites a number of moralistic concerns about chess including:

* Broad reports of chess-inspired violence.
* Moral views of chess as an idle persuit distracting from pious worship.
* Gambling and chess professionalism.
* The gender ambiguity of pawn promotion.
* Chess as a stage for erotic expression.

Just to point out that these are issues that have been kicked around for many many generations. Now I must admit that I cringe when I read something like Zirin's claim:

If, in 1900, a forward thinking person had predicted that sports would some day stand as one of the great pillars of American industry, that person would have been proclaimed mad and then subjected to some combination of leeching and lobotomy. The Victorian idea that sports undermined character and promoted a slothful work ethic dominated most people's perceptions of organized play.

Well, if there is anything to be said about the Victorian age, it's an extremely complex historic period loaded with contradictions. The entire reason that we have (or used to have) physical education classes stems from the influence of the German gymnastics movement during this period. There certainly was quite a few more sports going on in 1900 than just boxing and cockfighting. The Victorian era saw consolidation of many sports under unified rules, and the development of sporting leagues. 1900 was the date of the second modern Olympics in Paris. So Zirin does not get off to a good start with me. But the rest of the essay is pretty good.

Johnson I think misses it with:

Another key question: Of all the games that kids play, which ones require the most mental exertion? Parents can play this at home: Try a few rounds of Monopoly or Go Fish with your kids, and see who wins. I suspect most families will find that it's a relatively even match. Then sit down and try to play "Halo 2" with the kids. You'll be lucky if you survive 10 minutes....

That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives. (emphasis added)

One of the things that leads me to dispair about the conversations we have about game play is the notion that everything is now different. Perhaps it's because I cut my teeth on a deck of cards while playing bridge and canasta, but Johnson seems to be highly dismissive of the level of skill involved in playing Monopoly or even something like Go Fish well. To bring this back around to chess, even games with minimal rulesets can require highly complex tactical and strategic thinking.

The same is true of sports. As a reluctant fan, Bobby Knight's success as a basketball coach has not been because he attracts the most athletic players, but because he trains brilliant tactical teams.

In regards to the "bread and circuses" debate. My opinion is that just about everything can and will be appropriated at some point. One of the ways Yalom tracks the popularity of chess and the transformation of the Muslim "Vizer" into the Christian "Queen" is by looking at how chess was used as a metaphor in other works. Yalom documents that the pieces of the chessboard quite early became a metaphor for the caste-based social structure of middle ages. Professional sports in America has long been structured as a rather idealized meritocracy, and the political subtext of many games to me appears to support the dominant ideology.


Chess-incited violence? I've got to get a copy of that.

Honestly, Zirin's account and Johnson's open letter, while I think they both have the noble ambition of trying to say something good about games against a popular dismissal, leave me wondering if flinging this kind of rhetorical "pro-games" spaghetti (or reading it) is worth the effort. Jacoby's critique of Johnson's book, btw, made the point that doing ten things at once makes you just as shallow as it makes you smart.

Maybe people like Sutton-Smith and Yalom are too smart to translate into politics or popularity...


Greg> Chess-incited violence? I've got to get a copy of that.

I remember reading a history of chess that had this wonderful timeline of when chess was "introduced" to various parts of Europe. Of course, "introduced" was shorthand for "the invadering armies play chess" but this aspect was never explicity mentioned. Instead, it was full of lines like "In the 8th Century the Moors introduced chess in Spain."


Chomsky and the retorts to him are just rehashing the tensions within the leftist culural critique. Same as it ever was. One group says the audience is passive and is programmed to become drones and the other groups sees reinterpretation and resistance at every turn. (Frankfurt School vs. say, John Fiske).

But since neither extreme ever offers much in the way of systematic evidence, I'm starting to think that where one falls in that debate has more to do with disposition than fact.

My own two cents are that games and sports both offer the magic circle boundary from daily life. Within that circle we play and get to create rule sets that afford us the opportunity to either rehearse for real life or act in ways not allowed to us in real life. It's a complicated proposition and I don't see perfect conformity or resistance taking place.

As to Johnson's letter, I agree. If he's saying that football is no different, it's an argument against both football and video games. I think he was trying to be cheeky, but the logic backfires if you are persuaded by his statements about football and violence.


Zirin: "It disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance."

Bottom line: Zirin's attempt at separating passivity and passion is pointless. Passion is just as easily exploited for means of emphasizing passivity as it is for sprurring resistance. Analyzing the potential of sports to breed revolution is about as useful as waiting for Limo to give you a ride because it has wheels.

Longer attempt at explaining the ridiculous of Zirin's claim:
Having re-read a three-page secion pertaining to sports in Chomsky's "Understanding Power," I feel that Zirin's argument is poorly grounded.
Zirin states: "It disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance." I would be very interested to know who exactly the "We" in this statement is referring to because if he's referring to the average American, a significantly fewer number of adults participate in intramural sports than watch them, and this is the point of Chomsky's argument. He states (p. 100):

"And they're gladiators fighting for your cause, so you've got to cheer them on, and you've got to be happy when the opposing quarterback gets carted off the field a total wreck and so on. All of this stuff builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology. I mean, they're there; there's no doubt that they're there. But they're emphasized, and exaggerated, and brought out by spectator sports: irrational compeition, irrational loyalty to power systems, passive acquiescence to quite awful values, really. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes."

Chomsky seems to hold a similar opinion with Johnson in this respect. Chomsky is not suggesting that sports lack passion but that they do; only that instead of creating a passion for individualism, they create a passion for the unattainable. How passion for people who run faster and bench press more than you is supposed to "transform escape" to "resistance" is beyond me.


If you discount the occasional Black Sox type scandal, professional sports are probably the one mainstream television offering which isn't scripted to the point of total predictability.

One point I think is being missed by Chomsky's criticism is the complaint implicit in his statement about "irrational loyalty to power systems" or "gladiators fighting for your cause". How many people who watch sports are fans or followers of one franchise? Mike Tyson was astoundingly popular, but the people who followed his career didn't exactly cheer for him in the same sense as Yankees' fans root for their team, for instance.


Thanks for all these comments, everyone. They're all very helpful.

Dmitri> It's a complicated proposition and I don't see perfect conformity or resistance taking place.

That's pretty much my take too -- I think the risk here is oversimplification of a complex issue. Personally, I'd be interested in a Weberian investigation of games as an alternative to social rules-based ordering. Of course, if you read Sutton-Smith, the interesting (and very frustrating thing) about scholarship on play is that it seems to consist of a tangle of discourses from various disciplines that speak past each other.

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