Category Archives: games

Examined Sport: The Ethos of Games

In this episode of Examined Sport, I discuss Fred D’Agostino’s “The Ethos of Games.” In this 1981 paper, D’Agostino critiques Formalist view of games and defends an alternative theory we call conventionalism.

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Examined Sport: Bernard Suits’ “The Elements of Sport”

In this episode of Examined Sport, I examine Bernard Suits’ “The Elements of Sport.” This 1973 essay applies Suits’ definition of game-playing (see the “What is a Game?” episode) to sport.

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Examined Sport: Bernard Suits, “What is a Game?”

In this episode of Examined Sport, I examine Bernard Suits’ “What is a Game?” Suits presents his influential definition of game-playing in this discipline-defining article first published in 1967.

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Crash Course: Games

There’s a sweet spot at the end of the day between not being quite focused and energized enough for reading but still not quite ready to shut down for some mindless TV. I fill this some days by watching things like TedEd on YouTube. Recently, I came across John Green’s Crash Course channel: a wide-ranging short format educational video series. (Side note on Green: he writes bestselling books especially beloved by teenage girls, he is the leader of Nerdfighters, and is a huge Liverpool fan. A man of many talents and interests.)

I started watching Crash Course’s series on Games hosted by Andre Meadows.  Its primary focus is on video games, but the introductory course starts with the question of “what is a game?” As a philosopher, I was really curious how they would approach this.

Meadows starts where many would start: the dictionary. I don’t like starting there. Dictionaries are great for capturing usage, but that’s not the same as defining the concept (see my introduction of Defining Sport for more of my thoughts on that). Nevertheless, the goal in this video is not necessarily the conceptual or philosophical definition, so I’ll grant Meadows some slack there.

The dictionary definition he quotes is: “a game is a construct that organizes play through a series of rules, for the purpose of achieving a set of goals, overcoming an obstacle, and/or obtaining an objective.”

As Meadows says, that’s a decent definition. Indeed, it looks a lot like Bernard Suits’ well-known definition: “To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]” (The Grasshopper).

Suits’ definition is a standard in philosophy of sport (though it has some issues) and personally the philosophy nerd in me would have liked to see the Crash Course video engage more in some of the questions and issues raised both by Suits’ definition and Suits’ discussion of games. But that’s probably more than the course needed or wanted.

Meadows’ dictionary definition is missing a few key elements. Meadows notes this with his discussion of entertainment and its role in defining games. Now, depending on what he is getting at with entertainment, that might be captured by the placing of games in the genus of organized play. We can see that, I think, in his discussion of noted game developer Chris Crawford’s analysis of games as a kind of interaction with a ‘play thing.’ Crawford, as Meadows tells us, starts with the play thing: the object with which one interacts and entertains one’s self. Add goals, challenges, and a kind of conflict and you get a game. The core idea starts with the goal of entertaining one’s self through a kind of play. So, by making ‘game’ a species of organized play, the entertaining aspect seems already to be there.

I like that Meadows makes a point of explaining that play has to be voluntary. You have to want to play or it’s not play. However, he makes what I consider to be, an all too common, error when he says, “Voluntary participation is essential. Otherwise, it’s work.” Voluntary participation is essential to play and games, but it’s also essential to work: otherwise we are talking slavery. The Work/Play relationship and distinction is a fascinating one. I think it is often also a confused one. While it is true that work comes with obligations and restrictions we might not otherwise choose in isolation, we still are choosing them as part of the package of choosing to work (and what work and how we approach our work, etc.).

One key element that the video misses—though I think Meadows’ discussion implicitly is trying to get at—is the notion of the lusory attitude. The lusory attitude, as first set out by Suits, is our attitude of accepting the rules, challenges, goals, restrictions of the game. Namely, we accept these for the sake of the game itself – as opposed to accepting them for some other purpose external to the game. Here’s an example that comes up frequently in my classes. War has many features that might make it look like a game: there are goals, there are rules, there are challenges. I always have a few students who want to make the case that war is a kind of game. One of the reasons why this fails though is that participants are not accepting the goals or the rules of war in order for there to be a war. The war exists for the goals; while in games the goals exist for the game. In particular, the rules of war are accepted by the participants for the sake of something else such as morality or law. They are not accepted in order to make war possible: that would be really disturbing. In games, though, we accept the rules, the constraints on behavior, just in order to make the game happen. This is the lusory attitude. (This is why, in part, Katniss is not in a game in the Hunger Games, she is just trying to survivor a cruel and sadistic regime.)

Because we are talking about an attitude, this does make identification of games a little tricky. If you have the right attitude, war (or the Hunger Games) can be seen as and treated as a game. I see this as an advantage for the definition, however, since I think it better captures the reality of games. There are those who treat and engage in war or other activities as if they are games—and so, their actions and behaviors can be explained and understood in similar ways to those who are engage in more standard games. And when someone treats standard games as life and death, or as externally imposed, then it is harder to compare those participants’ actions and behaviors to normal game players. So it makes sense to put these under different conceptual headings at least in part because of the different attitudes.

The video ends with a discussion of value of games and game play. There is a lot good stuff here (maybe I’ll blog about that later), and the rest of the series is an informative and entertaining history of video games. I highly recommend it.

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Teaching Economics of Sports: The Big Leagues

From time to time I invite colleagues to write a guest post for The Sports Ethicist. In this post, I asked my ASU colleauge, Brian Goegan, to write about a model he uses for teaching “Economics of Sports”. Brian is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the 
Department of Economics here at ASU and uses this fantasy-like game to teach the his students about the economics of sports. If you are an ASU student and interested in sports, you should look into taking this course (as well as my Sports Ethics course).

The Big Leagues

Sports provide an endless number of great examples that can be used in the economics classroom, and countless teachers have drawn on them for a wide range of courses and topics. But for a class on the Economics of Sports, I thought I’d try making the example the lesson. In fact, I have built a syllabus which revolves almost entirely around an elaborate simulation of the sporting world which I call The Big Leagues.

In my section of 68 students, we have organized into 30 teams, each owned by a group of two of three students. In their groups, students must manage their franchise, making decisions about where to locate, how big and how nice their stadium should to be, what strategy to take to win games, what prices to set, and what coach to hire. As a league, students must also grapple with a Players Association and vote on the rules which will govern their league. All the while, they need to manage their books, and make sure they end the game with enough profit to buy their grade for this portion of the class.

By acting as the owners, students end up experiencing the lessons they’d learn from a Sports Economics class first hand. Leagues collude to keep player salaries down, and are combated by the players’ union that threatens to strike. When the league is dominated by one or two teams, and matches are no longer competitive, fan interest (and TV revenue) declines. My game also allows owners to dope their players in secret, boosting their performance at the risk of being found out, and each semester I get to see an institution deal with the fan and media wrath after a huge swath of players get caught, voting to impose fines and punishments on each other. They also have to work through complicated formulas and gut instinct to figure out what the profit maximizing prices for their tickets and luxury boxes are, the bread and butter of any good economics class.

The list of complexities goes on and on. Stadiums degrade, players develop across seasons, owners choose actions which influence both of those things, players have ‘suits’ which have combination effects when put on a team with other players, teams can field substitute players, different general managers and different coaches enhance different strategies both for profits and for wins, and contracts with players can include different clauses that give the teams different options down the road. The rulebook for The Big Leagues is 21 pages long, but as one of my students put it recently, “the more you play the smaller the game gets.” In other words, it is a lot easier to understand that it sounds. To make sure they get all the lessons the game has to teach, I devote about 50% of my class time to it. The other 50% is devoted to linking up their choices and outcomes in the game to the real world.

Given its complexity and startup costs, I wouldn’t expect a lot of instructors to adopt the game. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the spreadsheet maintenance and troubleshooting needed to keep the game running from season to season. What I can report though is its effectiveness. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, little economic lessons are incrementally imparted with every decision the students make in the game, and they barely realize how much they’ve learned until I point it out to them. And given my discipline’s disinterest in finding alternatives to the lecture-based format, they also find it to be a refreshing change of pace.

If you would like to learn more about The Big Leagues, please feel free to contact me at brian.goegan@asu.edu.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Blown Calls and Technology

Seth Bordner of The University of Alabama talks with Shawn E. Klein on The Sports Ethics Show about the problem of officiating mistakes in sport and how technology can and should be used to prevent and correct these mistakes.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Pushing the Line: How far is too far?

New Sports Ethics Show Episode

How far is too far in the pursuit of victory? Great athletes push on the norms, rules, and boundaries of their games. This is part of what allows them to achieve excellence, but it also sometimes leads to crossing the line. Jack Bowen, blogger at the Santa Clara University Institute for Sports Law and Ethics blog, and Shawn Klein discuss several cases at the boundaries of the rules of sport: icing-the-kicker, non-traditional formations in the NFL, and “Deflation-gate.”

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The Sports Ethics Show: Are Video Games Sport?

In this episode of The Sports Ethics Show, Joey Gawrysiack (Shenandoah University) and I discuss whether video games can be sport. Can video games be considered Sport? A controversial question because it raises questions about the nature of sport and the nature of video games as well as the value of each. Dr. Joey Gawrysiak of Shenandoah University joins the show to discuss the ways in which we can understand video games as sport.

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Guest Post: Fantasy Football, Metaphysics, and Value

The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.

In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.

Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.

Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!

Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”

I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.

As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.

I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.

I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.

However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.

After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.

I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.

Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.

Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.

But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.

Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.

But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”

Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…

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Brief Review: “Reality is Broken”

This book is not about sport, but some of what she says about games is applicable to sport. She does discuss, briefly, Suits’ definition of games, so that’s a plus.

Here’s my brief review (Cross-posted at my Philosophyblog and Goodreads).

The most surprisingly thing about this book is that it is many ways a self-help book. It discusses games in the context of how game-playing (and understanding games) can help make one’s life better. In the closing paragraphs, McGonigal says:  “Games don’t distract us from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths” (354). Much of the book is explaining and defending these claims.

The first half of the book was much more interesting and engaging for me. McGonigal discusses how games affect individuals: their work, their happiness, their relationships. The games she brings in here seemed appealing. It made me want to go and play some of them. Typically the games where not in any way designed with these positive effects in mind; they were just games that had these results.

McGonigal also sees games as a way of changing the world and solving various kinds of large scale problems. This last part of the book was less convincing and less engaging. Maybe it’s because the games here seemed too contrived or the results too unrealistic, I am not sure. But in any case, something was missing in her discussion here that made me skeptical of the ways games (qua games) could be used to solve real global crises.

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