It’s a Funny Old Game. Of course: games are weird by definition

Posted on August 1, 2010


Legendary English striker Jimmy Greaves found opportunities every week to shake his head, smile, and note what a “funny old game” football (soccer) was. We might call that a catchphrase now. But, at least in his early years as a television pundit in the 1980s, it always seemed to come out as his most genuine, spontaneous, and even profound response to the unpredictable events he was seeing from the football pitch.

In the previous post I suggested that one of the reasons soccer is a funny old game is that it rules out (for most players) the use of a vast range of human physical abilities — namely, those involving the arms, hands, and hand-eye coordination. For those who believe soccer is the world’s greatest sport, this is potentially paradoxical. Shouldn’t the ideal human sport make use of as many human physical capacities as possible?

I think the answer is No. This is not a paradox. And we see why by looking more clearly at the very concept of a sport, and of a game. It is not soccer that is funny, or peculiar, but the very idea of a game.

What exactly is a game, anyway? [Click on the button below to read more…] One of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought the concept of a game was so nebulous it defied definition. If we think of all of the different kinds of games — “board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on,” he wrote — we cannot find anything, or any essence, they all have in common. At best, he concluded, “games form a family” and share a number of “family resemblances.” (Philosophical Investigations, s. 66.)

Plenty of philosophers have found Wittgenstein’s analysis of games (and of other blurry concepts like this) to be quite persuasive. In his recent book on sport, the renowned British philosopher, Colin McGinn, explicitly accepts Wittgenstein’s argument and conclusion for fuzziness of the concepts of games and sports. (Sport, p. 15) Sport, it seems, is like art or pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Not all philosophers agree. The American-born, Canadian philosopher Bernard Suits thinks that Wittgenstein didn’t look hard enough for a definition of “games” before he gave up. In a remarkable little book devoted entirely to this question, called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, he defends the following definition of a game.
To play a game is to

(a) engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs,

(b) using only means permitted by rules, where

(c) the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where

(d) the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity (p. 48-9)

That’s obviously quite a mouthful. The short version is that “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

The key element for the us here is Part (c). What makes a game a game, and what distinguishes games from many other important pursuits in life, is the deliberate use of rules that make it harder to achieve our desired goal. (Governments and bosses of all types often do this accidentally, but that’s another matter.) Golf is a game, for example, because the golfers accept a rule that prohibits the most efficient way to put the ball in the cup — namely, by picking it up, hopping in a motorized golf cart, and dropping it into the hole. [UPDATE: For a brilliant (and profanity-laced) satire of this essence of games, and of golf in particular, check out the clip of Robin Williams that is linked in the first comment to this post, below.]

And what could be more inefficient for a group of humans trying to place a ball in a net deep in “enemy” territory than prohibiting them from picking it up, clutching it, throwing it to teammates, and fighting with — not to mention shooting or knifing — opponents who are trying to take it from them? (OK, that sounds like rugby, apart from the knifing and shooting; but they include instead a prohibition of the forward pass as one of their deliberately inefficient rules.)

Having to do everything with your legs and feet is so spectacularly inefficient, that we might well conclude that the rules of soccer embrace the fundamental essence of a game more completely than any of the other major team sport. Football (soccer) is not a funny old game. It’s the concept of a game that’s so funny. Football is just a surrealistically appropriate response to that funny concept — to that funny way humans have learned to amuse and challenge themselves and each other.

(More upshots of this concept of games for sports, soccer, and sportsmanship soon…)