Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Fantasy Sport Industry

I recently reviewed The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games within Games (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society) by Andrew C. Billings and Brody J. Ruihley for the Nordic Sport Science Forum.

The central idea of Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley’s book, The Fantasy Sport Industry¸ is that fantasy is a game-changer. It is a game-changer in the way sport is covered by and represented in the media. It is a game-changer for the fans and how they consume sport. Indeed, it is potentially a game-changer for the very sports on which these games are based.

Fantasy Sports have been around for several decades. They started small, the domain of, so the stereotype goes, geeky guys in their basements. But these games have expanded exponentially in the last twenty years. Something like thirty five million North Americans play fantasy sport in some manner: that’s more than the numbers of people who play golf, watch the American Idol finale, or own iPhones (Berry, 2; Billings and Ruihley, 5). Fantasy is now a regular and frequent feature of the broadcasts and news reports of sporting events. Networks such as ESPN have dedicated programs for fantasy. There is even a TV sit-com centered on the members of fantasy football league called, appropriately enough, The League (of which this reviewer confesses he is a big fan). Much of all this revolves around Fantasy Football, but there are fantasy leagues for all the major professional sports (indeed there are fantasy leagues for non-sporting activities as well: Fantasy Congress and Celebrity Fantasy to name two).

Given all this interest, it is no surprise that fantasy has become big business with billions of dollars in revenue. Billings and Ruihley set out to provide a much needed look at this growing industry. The first chapter provides the overall context. The authors discuss the philosophical question of just what makes something a fantasy sport and breaks down the basics of how fantasy games are played. They demonstrate the popularity and growth of fantasy and through this ask the main question of the book. Why do people play fantasy? This raises the important follow-up question: what effect does fantasy have on all the ways we normally consume and understand sport?

You can read the rest of the review:

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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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The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits (review and announcement)

Broadview Press has released a 3rd Edition of the Bernard Suits classic: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. The new edition contains the illustrations from the original publication. Also, there is a new appendix on the meaning of play.

With this exciting news, I thought I’d repost a brief review I wrote of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

“The Grasshopper” is unique philosophy monograph. It is part narrative, part dialogue, part treatise. It is also humorous and easy to read. It, quite self-consciously, plays off elements from Socratic dialogues, the New Testament, and Aesop’s fables. Though I don’t agree with many of its philosophic conclusions, the work, overall, is successful at pulling all these elements off. That is, I enjoyed reading it and found it enlightening.

The main focus of the book is an extended discussion of the definition of the concept of “Game.” While in some ways, it is a meant as an answer to Wittgenstein’s famous claim that one can’t define “game,” it is more philosophically rich than that. Suits’ discussion is really more an analysis of the meaning of life. The Grasshopper’s main philosophical claim seems to be that in Utopia, all meaning in life would come from some kind of game-playing. By Utopia, he means a state of life where all activity is purely and totally voluntary and no instrumental activity is necessary. Suits argues that the only activities in such a utopia would games (or other forms of play).

I think Suits is wrong here, for several reasons. Without going into detail (I hope to write a long blog fleshing this out), his use of Utopia is irrelevant. The life he imagines here is impossible, and even if it were, such beings living that life would be nothing at all like human beings. So, whatever we might learn about such a utopian life is meaningless for the life human beings live. His accounting of play as “all of those activities which are intrinsically valuable to those who engage in them” is far too broad (This sweeps in things like one’s career) (146). His distinction between instrumentally and intrinsically valuable activities is too constrained and too sharp (it leaves no room for mixed activities or constitutively valuable activities). So while I agree that game-playing and more generally play itself are important, even central, aspects of human life, I disagree that is the only intrinsically valuable (whatever that means) human activity.

My main quibble (and it might be more than a quibble) with Suits’ definition of games is the idea that “the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means” (54). It is a quibble if by less efficient he really means obstacle-making. I do think all games involve rules that place certain kinds of obstacles for the players to overcome, surmount, or play around. These obstacles often mean that only less efficient means for achieving the goals/ends of the games are available. So my concern is that the focus on efficiencies is non-essential. The essence is obstacle-making, not efficiency reduction–even if these end up being co-extensive. I am not sure they are co-extensive; hence, my concern that this is more than a mere quibble.


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Brief Review: The Sports Gene

I recently finished David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. It is excellent and well-worth the read. Below is a brief review I wrote for my Goodreads page.


Is elite athletic performance the result of nature (our genes) or nurture (environment and training)? Yes, according to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. This engaging and illuminating work is a pleasure to read. The anecdotes are amazing and humanize the scientific questions and issues raised by the role of genes in sport. Epstein does a great job of reporting the science without getting too technical, but without dumbing it down or sensationalizing it. He clears away the misunderstandings and misuse of the effect of genes. We often, he shows, misascribe the influence of genes: over-attributing them in some cases while failing to see their role where there is a significant influence.

Part of the story here is that genes play significant and important roles in athletic performance, but Epstein is careful not to overplay this. First, the target of his work here is extraordinary and elite performances. These are athletes that are already well off the curve. What he finds here isn’t going to necessarily translate back to the rest of us who live in the heart of the bell curve. Second, Epstein doesn’t want to disrespect or downplay the importance of the effort and hard work of these elite athletes. Yes, they often have amazing genetic gifts, but without the effort and practice, these gifts won’t amount to anything. (At the same time, the book looks at the genetic contributions for effort-taking and practicing.)

Another important theme of the book is that a better understanding of the genetic roots of performance can help us improve performance. The differences in our genetic propensities (our genotype) require, in many cases, different kinds of training and practice. Our bodies react to training and practice differently and so, to understand better how to improve our skills and outcomes, we have to understand better how we respond to the environment and training. One person’s strenuous cardio workout might be overkill (tragically quite literally in rare cases) for another.

Epstein doesn’t tackle the issue of genetic manipulation (or gene-doping) head on, but it certainly lurks throughout the book. Over the last century, the scientific and technological influence on training for athletic performance has increased immensely. As our knowledge of the human genome and genetic technology increases, will we see this influence extend beyond training into the athlete’s genetic makeup? Epstein’s tentative response is that, given the state of the science, there is just too much unknown at this point to do this in any extensive or effective way.

But that knowledge is coming; it is more of a when than an if. I am fairly certain that as the knowledge increases, so will the use of this knowledge to improve performance. Epstein is agnostic, ultimately, on the wisdom or morality of doing this. That wasn’t the point of the book, so it is no fault. But his work suggests much about this possible future. Personally, I think that, as with most scientific and technological advances, this will generally be a boon for human civilization and for sport.  I am not utopian, though, and recognize that it will come with some harms and dangers. This is in part why it is important to get a better understanding of the science and learn more about how nature and nurture interact.

Another moral question not raised by Epstein, but suggested by his book, is how our understanding of the influence of our genes on performance affects our evaluation of doping. If some people have natural advantages conferred by their genotype, then is it really unfair for someone without those genetic advantages to use a drug to produce a similar effect? For example, Finnish athlete Eero Ma/ntyranta has a genetic variation that makes his red blood count as much as 65 percent higher than that of an average man (274). His body is able to move oxygen to muscles much better than most and this (all other things being equal) gives him an advantage in endurance sport. This is quite similar to the effect of taking EPO as a performance-enhancer. If one of the goals in athletic competitions is a level starting point for athletes, then maybe we ought not ban EPO. That is, maybe, allowing EPO would level the field for athletes that do not have the benefit of genetic advantages. Is there a moral difference (putting aside for the moment the wrongness of the rule-violation) between someone who has a performance advantage from their genotype and someone who has a performance advantage from taking a substance? In more fundamentally, it begins to challenge the traditional concepts and evaluations of doping and performance enhancing.

While Epstein doesn’t deal with these issues, the book is good place to learn (in a non-technical way) about the scientific foundation for answering these kinds of moral and philosophical questions. For that reason alone it worth a read. But it is also quite interesting on its own terms.


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Hockey Fights and Violent Retaliation

The talk about fighting in hockey has heated up in the media. Even ESPN, which normally gives the silent treatment to hockey, has covered the issue a little. I’ve written on this blog about my views regarding possible ethical justifications for fighting in hockey. But with some recent events, I wanted to revisit this issue by discussing Nick Dixon’s paper on violent retaliation in sport.

One of the main justifications offered by proponents of the status quo is that fighting is necessary in the NHL because it allows the players to police the sport through retaliation for egregious play by opponents. For example, in a December 7th match between the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bruins player Shawn Thornton attacked Penguins player Brooks Orpik. In this particularly brutal fight, Thornton knocked Orpik to the ground and continued to punch him. Orpik was taken off the ice in a stretcher and Thornton was ejected. He was subsequently suspended for 15 games. Though almost everyone agrees that Thornton went too far and should be suspended, many (especially my fellow Bruins fans) think the suspension was too hefty. Thornton, goes the argument on sports radio and local papers, was only protecting his teammates. The proximal cause seems to have been that Brad Marchand was kneed in the head while lying on the ice by Pittsburgh’s James Neal. Earlier in the game, Bruins Loui Eriksson left the game with a concussion after a hard hit by Orpik. The entire game to the Thornton-Orpik fight was chippy and in some ways getting out of control. Defenders of fighting in hockey claim that Thornton’s actions, though in the extreme, are part of the game and actually reduce overall violence in the game. The claim seems to be twofold. First, Thornton is justified (to a degree) in fighting Orpik here as a form of retaliation for the hits on Eriksson and Marchand. Second, allowing this kind of retaliation (within reason) reduces violence in the game by deterring illegal or cheap shots.

Though sympathetic to these claims, I don’t think they actually bear out. This is in large part due to Dixon’s argument in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport.”

Dixon starts out by distinguishing violence from aggressiveness or assertiveness. Violence involves “the intention to injure” (1). Aggressiveness, assertiveness, or hard physical play are different; these are part of how one achieves the goals of the game. The physical injury or harm to the opponent, though it might be a foreseeable consequence, is not the intent nor is it necessary for the achievement of the goals.

There are a lot of ways violence shows up in sport. Dixon leaves the violence of boxing, mma, and similar sports where the violence is (or seems to be) explicitly part of the rules of the game for a different discussion. In this paper, his concern is only with sports where violence is officially prohibited, but it is tacitly accepted in some cases of retaliation. His two prime examples are bean balls in baseball and fights in ice hockey.

To make his case, Dixon provides an outline of what would qualify as a justified retaliation. Then he applies this to the cases of baseball and hockey to see if they fit this theory. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t think they do.

Justified Violent Retaliation

The first condition for me to be justified in a violent retaliation is that a person has to act wrongly against me. This requires that the person be a responsible agent (that is, the person’s action is one for which the person can reasonable be held responsible) and that the action is one that is worthy of condemnation or sanction. It would be wrong to retaliate against a person’s striking you if, because of a neurological disorder, she has no control over her limbs. It would also be wrong to retaliate violently against a new competing coffee shop operating legally and morally near your own shop that draws away your customer base.

The second condition for justified violent retaliation is that there has to be an expectation of imminent death or harm from the attacker. In cases where the criminal justice system can be engaged to prevent, stop, and/or punish the wrongdoing, one would be wrong to retaliate. Dixon uses the example of rape. Certainly one is justified in using violence to prevent or stop a rape from occurring. But one is not justified in hunting down the rapist and killing him after any imminent threat is removed.

Although the first condition can often be met in a sporting context (Neal’s intentional knee to Marchand’s head fits the bill), the second condition, according to Dixon, is almost never met. The league has an analogue to the criminal justice system and that is the proper avenue for punishment of wrong doing: “The whole point of having referees, leagues, and disciplinary committees is to permit a dispassionate and fair assessment of what penalties are appropriate for wrongdoing on the playing field.” (3).

Surprisingly, this argument comes up in discussions of hockey fights, even in the Thornton case. Thornton supporters argue that in part he was justified in going after Orpik because the officials on the ice were not doing their job. The problem here is that Thornton is not in a position during the game to judge this adequately. He clearly took umbrage with Orpik’s hit on Eriksson though almost everyone agrees that hit was clean. The officials may (and by my lights often do) fail at their job of policing wrongdoing. But it is hard to know in the heat of a contest if this is in fact the case and what the appropriate response is. This is why it is best to leave it to a process that can objectively weigh the evidence. (But I will return to this point below.)

Retaliation as Deterrent

So if retaliation is not justified as retribution, maybe it is justified on the grounds that it will deter future acts of violence. Dixon argues that this fails on the grounds of lacking objectivity as well. First, just as in retribution, the officials are better positioned to determine objectively if there was a wrongdoing and how to penalize it to reduce future occurrences. Second, violent retaliation against the wrong doers by the league or athletic organization is not justified. The league will punish them with fines, suspensions, or bans. Dixon argues that this is analogous to the punishment of rapist, we take away the convicted rapist’s liberty, but don’t condone violent assaults by the victim (or the victim’s champion) or the state.

I think Dixon is on the right track here, however, I am not entirely convinced. My tentativeness here rests on two claims. First, the effectiveness of deterrence is something that is controversial. It is not clear that punishments of any kind are effective deterrents. While incentives matter, people have to expect that they will get caught, be found responsible, and be suitably punished. Potential wrongdoers might have very good reasons (and bad ones too) not to expect this conjunction to play out and so deterrence would be ineffective. So, it might be more effective for the end of deterrence that players fight (or have the threat of fighting) since they might have more reasonable expectations of getting punished by opposing players than the league. Then again, it might not work like this. We’d have to compare ice hockey with and without toleration of fighting to see which has less overall violence. Luckily, there are ice hockey leagues that are not tolerant of fighting: Olympic, NCAA,  and European hockey are much less tolerant of fighting. And the comparisons seem to point much more in the direction of not tolerating fighting as more effective in reducing overall violence while maintaining high-quality hockey.

Second, I am not convinced that the officials are always in the best position to know about a wrongdoing and how to punish it. In the case of the Thornton fight, I think they are. But there are lots of other inappropriate actions in a game, or over the course of a season or career, that the league office or referees are going to miss. For example, cheap shots that are on the borderline of legal and go uncalled or other chippy play that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a major penalty or league punishment. These go, by definition, unpunished (or under-punished). Proponents of hockey fight argue that only player policing can deter these. Using something similar to Dixon’s rape analogy, domestic violence is a hard problem in our society. Police cannot be in everyone’s home to prevent it. It is notoriously difficult to prosecute. Restraining orders and the like are by most accounts ineffective. Increasing criminal penalties for abusers who don’t think, with good reason, that they will ever get caught or prosecuted isn’t going to deter future abuse. The danger in any one instance might not be severe enough to allow for the justifiability of violent retribution as Dixon has defined it. In such cases, it might be that some measure of vigilantism is justified. If this is appropriately analogous to the cheap shots that go unnoticed and unpunished through a game, season, or career, then maybe some measure of athletic vigilantism would be justified to deter such activity.

Dixon also addresses the objection to his account that institutions might consistently fail to punish wrongdoers appropriately and so vigilantism could be justified in those cases. He argues that much like with the criminal justice system, one ought to operate within the system to reform the system or replace the officials. In the worst cases, civil disobedience or emigration might be the appropriate response. (And I would add that violent revolution against a regime might be justified in the very worst cases). Returning to athletic organizations, if the league was consistently failing to do its job, either players ought to work to reform the organization or they should leave it. Moreover, one would have to establish, borrowing from Jefferson and Locke, a long train of abuse, for such a concern to even kick in. But this is not what is usually the case in any given hockey fight (or bean ball in baseball). Players are usually responding to a particular perceived failure of a game official, not an established pattern of official abdication of punishment.  

Team Unity

The last substantial part of Dixon’s paper treats the argument that violent retaliation in sport helps to promote team unity and other values in the sport. In the Thornton case, I have heard some defend his actions on the basis of his sticking up for Marchand and Eriksson thereby building team unity. Moreover, we have seen examples were a team comes together after a fight. Some mark the A-Rod/Varitek fight in 2004 as a turning point in the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry that provided the Red Sox with a unity and attitude that helped them defeat the Yankees in the ALCS.

Dixon rejects this argument whole-heartedly. The mere fact of building team unity is not sufficient for justification. It begs the question of the justification of the act itself. Team unity is a worthy goal. But the means to the goal have to be justified on their own terms, not merely that they can be a part of achieving a worthy goal. Dixon suggests the counter example of a batter hitting the catcher in the leg with his bat as retaliation (7). This would seem to serve the same end that a bean ball does, but is not regarded as acceptable. Nor would any retaliation that takes place out of the bounds of the game be justified, even though such an attack might also serve all the same ends. These actions lack their own justification (or stronger: are unjustified), so the fact that they serve a worthy goal doesn’t do the work of justification.

Dixon closes with an admonishment not to treat the sporting world as an exceptional place where morality is suspended. We ought, he argues, to expect athletes to behave with the same moral character and according to the same moral principles that one would outside of the sporting sphere. “To expect the best of athletes, instead of immunizing them from moral criticism, is actually the highest form of respect” (9).

I think Dixon’s arguments in this article are sufficient to show that actions like Thornton’s (and Neal’s) are not justifiable. Fighting might erupt at times in hockey from aggressive and assertive play. And, as I argue elsewhere, that doesn’t seem problematic. But where the fighting is treated as retaliation for actions by the opponents, it is not justified.

Dixon, Nicholas, “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37:1, 1-10, (2010).

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Brief Review: Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals

Daniel Dombrowski’s book, Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals, is very interesting and covers a lot of good material in the philosophy of sport. He is clearly well-versed in Ancient Greek philosophy and the philosophy of sport. So there is a lot to be gained by reading this book.

Truth be told, however, I was a bit disappointed. I think, based on the title and the book descriptions, I expected to find much more in the way of Ancient Greek philosophy. There is a lot, so this might be an unfair criticism, but the focus is really on contemporary philosophers of sport and their theories. The Ancient Greeks are called forth to cast insight, background, and further elaboration, but they are not the focus. Nevertheless, I did learn a lot about the relevancy of the Ancient Greek ideas, particularly of Plato, to some of the issues that arise in the philosophy of sport.

Dombrowski’s discussion of Weiss, Huizinga, and Feezell is helpful and thorough. These are not mere recapitulations. He provides clear insight in to the theories of these thinkers and their impact on the philosophy of sport. He criticizes where he disagrees, though I would have preferred even more critical analysis (that said, this would have lengthened the book beyond the easily digestible size it is). The last chapter on process philosophy was less interesting to me and seemed somewhat misplaced in the context of the other chapters.

Overall, I definitely recommend this. It is not long, is clearly written, and it provides a good discussion of some of the major issues in the philosophy of sport.

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Brief Review: _Fantasy Life_ by Matthew Berry

Matthew Berry’s new book, Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It is aptly titled. The stories are outrageous; some are downright insane. They are uplifting, both in the sense of being funny but also in the sense of being sweet and heartwarming. There are more than a few heartbreaking stories included as well. I admit I was moved to tears a few times (but any story involving dads&kids will do that to me!). And lastly, Berry structures the book with his own unlikely and funny biography of how he got into the business of fantasy sports.

Fantasy sports are certainly not for everyone (what recreation is?) but for those who have played casually or obsessively, Berry’s book lets you know that you are not alone in enjoying it–and that more than likely there is some one way more crazed and obsessed than you! And if you are friend, family member, or spouse of a fantasy player, this book can give you a bit of insight into why he or she plays fantasy.

The single biggest focus of Berry’s book, and this is something Mike and I brought up in The Sports Ethicist Podcast and Dr. Andy Koehl brought up in his symposium talk, is that fantasy sports is something that brings people together. Old friends, college buddies, families, co-workers all come together to play fantasy sports of various kinds. As Berry says:

…the truth is it’s all about the people. It’s not the draft, it’s not the trash talk or the punishments, it’s not even the winning (okay, maybe it’s a little bit the winning). It’s the people. It’s the people who make the draft and the trash talk and the punishments and the winning what it is.

This is a big part of why so many people play fantasy (over 30 million in US and Canada). It is fun and it is a community. Much of Berry’s book are just the stories of people having fun and partaking in this fun within a community of folks who share the fun (and the winning!).

Now, you don’t have to be a hard core fantasy player to appreciate this book, but, be careful, you might want to be when you are done.

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Brief Article Review: “‘And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play” by Drew Hyland

Drew A. Hyland, “’And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play”
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 36-49, (1977).

Drew Hyland sets out to present a rather unique conception of ‘play’. His notion is that play is a kind of “stance” or attitude of “responsive openness” (38). So play is not, on this view, a particular kind of activity. Almost any activity can be play or non-play; what marks the activity as play is the presence of this stance on the part of the participant(s). So a basketball game can be play or not, depending on one’s attitude. Going fishing, doing the dishes, or doing philosophy can all be play or not (on the latter point Hyland has an interesting discussion of Socratic philosophy as a kind of play).

What is this responsive openness? The openness is the heightened awareness of the environment/situation one is in. In playing chess, one is open by being acutely aware of the location of all the pieces on the board, their potential moves, and the time one has to move. The responsiveness is the willingness on the part of the participant to respond, appropriately, to what one is aware of in the environment/situation. One is responsive by responding to the opponent’s move of her bishop into a check of your king by moving the rook to block check. One fails to be open if they aren’t paying enough attention to be aware that his opponent is positioned to check your king and one fails to be responsive if he doesn’t appropriately move his pieces to prevent check.

Hyland argues that play and non-play exist across a continuum depending on the amount of responsive openness in the activity (39). All human activities have some measure of responsive openness: walking down a crowded street would be quite difficult if wasn’t aware of his situation and respond to the objects in it. But as this responsive openness is turned up, we move out of non-play and into play.

Obviously Hyland is not intending to draw any sharp distinctions between kinds of activities or between non-play and play. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how such a project will be successful. As Hyland notes, responsive openness on its own cannot mark out all and only play. There are other dimensions that need to be elucidated to identify more clearly what play is and what non-play is (even if it is along a continuum: even continuums can have demarcation points).

Much of the rest of the paper focuses on two issues. (1) He wants to incorporate the idea of a stance of play with a Platonic notion of striving for completion of self. (2) He contrasts the stance of play with what he calls the stances of mastery and submission. These are interesting, but I am not going to say much about them here.

One noteworthy aspect of his paper (especially for my research interest) is that Hyland doesn’t seem to see play as incompatible with productivity or compensation. He discusses, approvingly, a claim from Plato’s Laws that “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war” (44). Work it would seem, with the appropriate attitude or stance, is not incompatible with play. He doesn’t develop that here, but it is a difference between Hyland and other play-theorists such as Suits and Huizinga.

I do think there is something to this stance conception. One can bring an attitude of play to nearly any activity (e.g. cleaning your desk becomes a race against an arbitrary and artificial deadline). Nevertheless, as presented in this paper, it is far too sweeping to be satisfying for me.

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Brief Article Review: “Words on Play” by Bernard Suits

Bernard Suits, “Words on Play”
Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 117-131 (1977)

In this classic article, Suits sets out to provide a “tentative definition of play” (117). After taking some humorous snipes at Wittgensteinians and Huizinga, Suits sets out to differentiate ‘play’ from other autotelic activities. Autotelic activities refer to those activities which are ends in themselves; that is, they are engaged in for no external reason or justification. The activity is its own justification/meaning/purpose. (It’s Greek, literally meaning self-end)

Suits assumes that play itself is a kind of autotelic activity and sets out to find the appropriate differentia that won’t include other activities that are thought to be autotelic: contemplation of the God and a cat chasing his tail (his examples).

His first task is to argue that ‘play’ and ‘autotelic’ are logically independent. This seems pretty straightforward. He then goes on to assert that “all instances of play are instances of autotelic activity” (119). I don’t think this is as straightforward or obvious. It may be true (though I am not so sure), but I think it needs an argument. This is more than a quibble because getting the genus correct here is essential. If there is play that is not (exclusively?) autotelic, then his differentia isn’t going to work properly to differentiate between the kinds of activities with which he (and other play scholars) are concerned. It will also generate problems when trying to apply the concept.

He also seems to be begging the question by separating out from his discussion some uses of “play”: such as uses of ‘play’ that appear to mean more like ‘perform’ or ‘participate’. Ultimately, I think he is probably correct in doing this, but I don’t think he can just do it without more of an argument.

Suits takes his main cue from Schopenhauer who said “the play of animals consists in the discharge of superfluous energy” (119). Suits modifies this, first, by analyzing superfluous and then energy. Superfluous isn’t quite right, argues Suits. Play, in humans, sometimes isn’t based on superfluous energy, but on using energy that ought to have been used for some other purpose. So, Suits sees this insight of Schopenhauer to be more about the use of energy that was committed (or ought to have been) to some other activity (something not autotelic).

The notion of ‘energy’ isn’t quite right either for Suits. Claiming that it is too narrow, he proposes ‘resource’. This subsumes energy, but also includes other resources besides energy that are relevant to human life (in particular, time).

He arrives then at his definition: “X is playing if and only if x has made a temporary reallocation to autotelic activities of resources primarily committed to instrumental purpose” (124).

This definition (and his whole project) rests on the dichotomy between autotelic and instrumental. It is built into his choice of the genus. The differentia of superfluous/redirected resources seems to rest on there being a sharp and clear difference between engaging in something autotelic and something instrumental.

There are a few main problems here. (This is not exhaustive, but my main issues)

(1) Is there a clear difference? Do all activities admit of being wholly autotelic or clearly instrumental? Most of activities seem mixed (is blogging on a subject matter one finds interesting autotelic? Or is the fact that one is trying communicate with others make it instrumental?)

(2) Are there really any autotelic activities beyond life itself? Suits examples (the Roman solider contemplating God or the tennis players) don’t help at all. In fact, they point me in the direction of thinking how meaningless the idea of autotelicity (outside of life) is.

(3) The analysis misses completely the idea of constitutive activities: one’s that are not merely instrumental and are treated as or are a part of one’s ultimate end(s). They are not wholly or purely autotelic because they are engaged in for purposes beyond the activity itself, but yet they are also pursued as ends in themselves. Consider helping a friend out of a jam of some kind. One does this as an end in itself: the helping of a friend doesn’t require any further justification than the friendship. At the same time, one does this activity for reasons beyond the activity itself: maybe to increase the closeness of the friendship, to be a better friend, to do the kind of things that one wants done to them, or because such help is seen as a part of one’s virtue or duty (or a way to increase one’s virtue or fulfill duty). Moreover, friendship itself does need a justification beyond itself. Without addressing this third (and I’d argue largest) category of activities, Suits arguments rests on a false dichotomy.


Filed under play, Reviews

Review of Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois

Building off of Johan Huizinga’s account (read my review), Roger Caillois, in Man, Play and Games, introduces an expanded and more exhaustive account of play. Huizinga put forward the thesis of showing how culture and play interact, support and emerge out of each other. Caillois’ goal is different; he wants to provide an exhaustive, descriptive account of play in all its variations and forms.

He starts by recapitulating Huizinga’s account and discussing what he regards as its short comings. According to Huizinga, play is a voluntary activity with fixed rules that create a special order residing outside the ordinary pattern of life. It is absorbing, with its own sense of space and time. Lastly, it is not connected to the achieving of any interest (external to play).

Caillois regards Huizinga’s account of play as both “too broad and too narrow” (4). It is too broad because it incorporates into “play” what Caillois calls the “secret and mysterious” (4). This seems to be referring to ritual or religious practices that seem to fit Huizinga’s definition, but do not seem, rightly, to be called “play.” (Indeed, Huizinga does focus a lot on these ‘mysteries’.)

It is too narrow, argues Caillois, because Huizinga’s account excludes types of play that are not based on rules as well as games of chance. Caillois distinguishes between rule-based games and make-believe. In the latter, rules do not govern or establish the play: instead the players play roles. The governing element is more an attitude or stance that players take to act as if they are someone other than what they are. These are clearly examples of play so ought not to be excluded from the concept.

Since Huizinga regards play as incompatible with profit or the gaining of material interests, there is no room in his account of play for games of chance. Caillois seeks to remedy this by arguing that while play has to be unproductive, it does not need to preclude the players from exchanging property or wealth. The goal of play is not to produce anything: “it creates no wealth or goods…[it] is an occasion of pure waste” (5). The players’ attitudes, if they are indeed playing, have to reflect this as well. This serves to exclude professional players, such as pro athletes: “it is clear that they are not players but workers” (6). In games of chance, Caillois argues, there is no production, only an exchange of goods. These are zero-sum games, there is no productive value at all: hence the idea of pure waste.

I think Caillois is right to point out Huizinga’s exclusion of games of chance; nevertheless, I am not convinced that play necessarily must be unproductive or that games of chance are necessarily zero-sum. Caillois does not argue for either of these claims (likely because many people regard them as truisms), but they require, I think, independent justification.

Caillois goes on to introduce his definition and influential typology of play. His definition is that play is an activity that is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules and make-believe (9-10). They are free because they cannot be obligatory without losing their play-quality. They are separate in the sense of creating a special space and time (distinct from the mundane/everyday existence). They are uncertain in that the results or outcomes of the play are not known in advance or predetermined. They are unproductive, as indicated above, because they produce no goods or wealth. They are governed by rules that define the goals and appropriate means for these goals. Lastly, they involve make-believe because of the attitude players have to have towards the play: an acceptance of the special, created world of play.

I’ve already noted my concern about the necessity of the unproductive. Certainly play is something that is a good in itself: it has internal goods that are the primary reason for participating and engaging in the play. But this does not exclude the possibility of external reasons as well. Many things can both be goods-in-themselves while at the same time still being constitutive of other goods. Another quibble is the manner which Caillois treats the issue of rule-governed play and make-believe. Moments before he introduces this list of essential attributes he claimed that play was either rule-governed or make-believe (9), but then he lists these elements as part of a conjunctive that makes up his differentia. Later, he clarifies these latter two parts by arguing that play is regulated and fictive (43). In this way, he avoids this problem. Regulation is not the same as rule-based: make-believe role-playing can be regulated by roles one takes on without explicit rules. Fictive gets at the important idea that playing requires one stepping into this special world; and this doesn’t necessarily imply an absence of rules. Though in this later presentation, he does tell the reader that these two aspects tend to exclude each other.

Caillois’ definition, though, is not that different from Huizinga. What really marks out Caillois’ contribution is his classification of games. He divides games into four broad types: Agon (competition); Alea (chance); Mimicry (simulation): and Ilinx (vertigo). Each of these can range along an axis from what Paidia to Ludens. This range moves from something close to pure frolic (Paidia; lacking almost any structure or rules; the players’ attitudes are more exuberant and spontaneous) to highly structured (Ludens; more calculated and controlled; requiring much more precise and developed skill).

So sports, being competitive, fall under agon. Casino games and dice playing are alea. The game of tag is a kind of mimicry (One pretends to be ‘it’). Lastly, ilinx are kinds of play, like whirling around or amusement park rides, where the goal is a momentary break from normal consciousness. Many games are a mix of these types. A game like poker involves both alea and agon: it is a competition requiring the developing of keen psychological skills but depends on the random distribution of cards.

Using this matrix, Caillois is able to organize all games and types of play. It also allows him to identify ways in which play or games interact with culture and how play can be corrupted. In other words, create what he calls a “Sociology derived from Games”

His definition and typology are also used to explain how play or games get corrupted. Essentially, play is corrupted as more of the rules, structures, and motivations of the non-play/mundane reality mix into play. Not surprisingly, the pursuit of profit is a major corrupting force. Professionals are a “contagion of reality” (45). It pushes aside, at least momentarily, the internal motivations and goals of play. Not just profit does this, but the bringing in reality in any of various ways can corrupt the play. Professionalism can also defeat the free element of play by making it obligatory to play on such-a-such an occasion. The inclusion of too much ‘reality’ can undermine the fictive element. Interestingly, Caillois also sees a parallel perversion that occurs when the blurring goes from play to reality. For example, he discusses superstition as the application of the rules of alea (games of chance) to reality.

As a philosopher of sport, I am much more interested in the definition and typology than the sociological accounts of games (or how games inform sociology). No doubt this can be fascinating in many ways and of possible great worth for a sociologist or anthropologist. Nevertheless, I am not such how far an understanding of the play-elements of tribes that use masks for their sacred rituals can give us about contemporary games and athletics. This is not a criticism of Caillois or others who would extend this account. It is just a statement of (1) my own interests and (2) how far I think an over-arching, all-encompassing conception of ‘play’ can go. As far as (2) goes, I think Huizinga and Caillois are reaching too far into other areas for the concept of play. They are identifying categories of things that are closely related to play or play-inchoate. There is likely a more general concept that covers all these things, but they err in extending ‘play’ to cover all of this. Thus, insofar as one is trying to understand ‘play’ proper, this over-arching conception does not add that much. Caillois seems to suspect this as well: “The facts studied in the name of play are so heterogeneous that one is led to speculate that the word “play” is perhaps merely a trap” (162).

Caillois’ book is an exhaustive, comprehensive, and structured account of play and its role in society and culture. It is an important work if one is interested in play, games, sport, or their interactions with society.


Filed under play, Reviews