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Sportsmanship — The Art of the Game, by Louise Rusch

Sportsmanship — The Art of the Game

by Louise Rusch
Visiting student from Simon Fraser University Arts & Culture Studies

Aristotle defined a worthy life as embodying “intellectual and moral excellence” (Feezell 136). The art of sport is about a performance that can only be achieved through a highly disciplined and focused process. A quick search can list the achievement history of any sport, but there are some sport stories that are mythologized in academic research and popular media. These stories are treasured because they reflect the person as more than a species of physical distinction. They reflect a desire to judge the worthiness of sports as not only the pursuit of physical superiority, but also on the other side of the Aristotelian equation: moral excellence.

Justin Wadsworth giving Anton Gafarov a ski, 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Image from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca.

During the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Cathal Kelly,sports columnist for the Toronto Star, wrote a story about Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth, who gave a ski to Russian Anton Gafarov so that he could cross the finish line with some dignity after he broke one of his skis. Wadsworth is married to Canadian skier Beckie Scott. This is relevant as it relates to a similar story from the 2006 Olympics in Torino, in which Norwegian official Bjornar Hakensmoen gave Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner a pole while she and Scott were racing in the team sprint. That action helped the Canadian pair place second, pushing the Norwegians into fourth. Hakensmoen explains, “This competition, and all competitions, it should be a fight. It should not be decided by skis” (Kelly).

The story about Wadsworth and Hakensmoen resonates because it sets them apart from their peers. The performance honoured the sport because it combined an elite calibre of technical skill and a demonstration of integrity. The focus of the results shifted away from a best time and towards two opponents who were able to achieve a level of excellence. Yet not all of the coaches watching Gafarov ran to him with a ski. Why did Wadsworth and Hakensmoen consider fair play to be of such importance while others did not? Would some of the coaches have argued that Hakensmoen broke the rules and interfered in the competition, giving the Canadians an unfair advantage? Is there etiquette unique to cross country skiing that implicitly required Wadsworth and Hakensmoen to behave as they did? Or, placing the interest of the sport above his own, did Hakensmoen merely acknowledge his esteem for the sport? (Simon 46-52)

Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell in Sport and Character argue that sportsmanship doesn’t develop naturally; it needs to be taught alongside the rules. This report argues that sportsmanship honours the nature of sport because it mediates between the playfulness of the game and the seriousness of competition (13-5/34).

Bernard Suits defines a game as a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 55). The player wins by using their whole body to find a solution to an illogical situation. Clifford and Feezell define the difference between a game and a sport as the intensity added through competition. Winning, they explain, becomes meaningful when contests are governed by rules and traditions that impose a sense of fairness. Sport becomes the mediator between playfulness and seriousness. A competition is described as an expression of human greatness because opponents are able to pit their abilities, experiences and skills against each other, thus achieving a greater level of development, self-awareness and expertise. The implication is that the agreement to participate is as important as the contest (Clifford & Feezell 13-6). Bernard DeKoven adds that giving a game any less than your all violates its conventions. He explains his vision of sport as a conversation between play and game. Play is defined as being creative and magical, while a game is understood as focused and mindful. A game is well played when these two opposing concepts are bridged (DeKoven 520-3).

Diana Abad, citing James W. Keating, notes that sport is more than a physical performance. It is also about an attitude, and therefore sportsmanship is defined as a moral code that requires specific behaviours from the players. Abad defines these behaviours as “fairness, equity, good form or honour, and a will to win” (32). Though the qualities of sportsmanship can been observed in play and games, the seriousness of sport, specifically the desire to compete, creates a field in which moral distinction becomes a true part of the process (Abad 28). Clifford and Feezell define the spirit of competition as a tension between the cooperative need for an equitable opponent and the respect required for this level of self-awareness, pitted against the intense desire to win at all costs. Respect, they note, is offered when a person is able to see beyond their own needs and interests. Sportsmanship then becomes the mediator between the rules, the understanding of the sport, and the finite strengths each individual holds to be competitive. The socially constructed tension sportsmanship carries means that it is not innate; rather, its nuances need to be taught as they occur outside of the strict adherence to the rules while honouring the essence and the excellence of the sport (15/18-9/21/34).

In opposition to sportsmanship, gamesmanship is behaviour in which a player seeks an advantage that might not be restricted but is seen as inappropriate. (Clifford & Freezell 39) Robert Simon notes that the nature of competition creates inequality: one player will win and the other will lose. Using an academic example, he notes that inequality is not always a negative thing; grades for example, are considered fair inequality (36-7). Feezell, in his book Sport, Play and Ethical Reflection, defines a cheater as a player who gains an unfair advantage by violating the essence of the sport. Examples include choosing to: disregard a rule (usually a moral one), injure an opponent, refuse to respect a defeat (84-5). Simon clarifies this position further when he argues that cheaters violate the moral norms because they “fail to respect their opponents as persons, as agents with purposes of their own” (55). The ethos of sport then becomes more than playing by the rules as it moves into an arena which also includes the pursuit of an outstanding character (Clifford & Feezell 17) (Simon 49).

Yet, though not considered fair play, breaking or bending the rules makes space to create an evolution within a sport. As part of play, sports are a dynamic and potentially magical experience, and rules are an element that allow for this fluid nature (Huizinga 57). Suits argues that the rules are not the only component of the sport; they are only the accepted method of framing the barriers of the game’s challenge (Simon 43). The rules are created for the play and our own pleasure within a specific game; therefore changing the rules can also restore the balance between playing and gaming (DeKoven 523).

We follow rules even when we are not playing games; hence there will always be rules that are morally valid and supersede a game rule. Though all sports contain basic rules of operation, the exact rules are rarely precise and are often connected to dynamic social and cultural traditions. Logically, sports will change over time because the players and organizers do (Suits177/181). Yet many people would argue that rules changes render some games unrecognizable.

How do players ethically change rules? Simon argues for an adjudication process in which criteria based in ethics research are used to interpret the rules and examine each individual rule-bending situation. He argues for a criterion to probe the elements of sport in which impartial respect of the sport’s core ideals are examined. Through the process commonly used within the field of ethics, rule changes would always be examined using a reasonable, reflective and critical response to the situation in question (Simon 14). John. S. Russell argues that moral justification for playing with sport rules is best when changes within the actual contest are vetted through a principled examination of the goals and intentions of the sport, to ensure these are maintained and nurtured (Simon 51-2). These changes are accepted when they are transparent and necessary to restore the balance within the sport (DeKoven 523).

By referencing the earlier 2006 Olympic example, the Canadian cross-country team would not have won without the gift of the pole. If the Canadian coach had replaced the pole, it could be argued that he had given his team an unfair advantage. Within this international amateur competition, the intention of the sport and the abilities of the skiers became the overriding factor in the ethical interpretation of the actions of the opponents coach (Feezell 88/100-4) (Simon 52-5). It is important to remember that games are socially constructed; it isn’t “the game that is sacred, it’s the people who are playing” (DeKoven 523) (Suits 179-80). In other words, part of the magic of sport is the capacity to play on multiple levels of the process. Sportsmanship is people on a quest to develop technical and moral excellence through sport. The competitors require a nuanced comprehension and respect for the interrelationship between each other, the objective of the contest, while attempting to master the most difficult challenge. Therefore, argues Feezell, the “key to sportsmanship is the spirit of play” (94).


Works Cited

Other Resources



League updates + Tag report

League updates

After an impromptu off-season, League has three events in April.

  • Saturday 12 April, 2-4 pm — League play at Satellite Gallery for Canadian Art Gallery Hop
  • Sunday 27 April, noon-2 pm — League play day in Elm Park
  • Tuesday 29 April, 7pm — PushupKucha, our brand-new short presentation format. Stay tuned for more.

Over the past couple months, we’ve been running play workshops for groups and working with Simon Fraser University student Louise Rusch. Below is the first of a few pieces of her research that Louise will be sharing with us here. This includes some reflections on the game of tag arising from our January play day. One of the games that emerged that day was an ongoing game of tag, marked by the passage of a toy medal. From now on, the person in possession of the medal at the end of each League event is It until the next one. Jay is currently It.

Noodle fencing, from League tag day

Studying Tag

by Louise Rusch
Arts & Culture Studies student, Simon Fraser University

Notes following League Tag day

The theme for League this month was tag – a game of chase. In tag, someone is “it”, and they need to chase others, and either transfer their “it” status to the person they tag, or continue to be “it”. The simplistic structure allows for an infinite number of variations of the game, depending on the space, props, group dynamics, number, and age of the people involved.

From a physical literacy perspective, tag is about learning to self monitor and control your body in motion and space. Players practice the skills of agility, efficiently moving from a resting to a sprinting mode and building stamina for the long chase.

From a cognitive context, tag is about being chased or chasing, strategically considering the skill of balancing and shifting between defensive and offensive position, often simultaneously. During the League session we explored this idea when we did team fencing bouts with long foam noodles in the tennis courts. One team would often single out one player and try to create an opportunity for a quick side tag of the other opponent using speed, control of the noodle, and surprise.

Socially, tag is about power dynamics, especially around the concept of being “it.” Is “it” a desirable place because you want to be the centre of attention? Because you have the confidence to know your place in the group and can easily assess who may or may not be your equal? If you are playing team tag do you have the experience and skill to both keep yourself active in the game and also be a support to your team members?

In Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, they cite Chris Crawford as stating that all games are a system of conflict and that, paradoxically, it is the staged conflict found in games that makes the play meaningful. Thus playing games is also playing with (dis)comfort with conflict situations (Salen & Zimmerman 250). Later they also note that the simplicity of being either hunted or hunter leaves no room for ambiguity, and that this simplicity is part of the appeal (317).

Historically, “it”ness was attached to illnesses like the plague, thus being less than desirable. Transferred into a game situation, this undesirable state of social isolation is what motivates the “it” person to find someone to tag, which also extends the momentum of the game.

Emotionally, tag tackles the concept of winning and losing, and of being singled out from the group. “It” might represent a place of fear that one will not have the skills to successfully complete a tag.

There have been recent controversies about letting children play tag. These centre on tag as an elimination game, older children dominating the game, the potential of one child being victimized as the “it” person, and the ramifications this might have on self-esteem.

Play theorists often connect tag to rough and tumble play. Anthony Pellegrini reported in a 1995 study on rough and tumble play, that as children enter school age the similarities between “hit at” and “tag a peer” allow for an easy transition into games with a more cooperative structure. He notes that as children get older, rough and tumble play is more likely to be about dominance and related to negative social behaviour (Pellegrini 121).

In terms of formal studies of tag, a study entitled “The ‘It’ Role in Children’s Games,” by clinical psychologist Dr Paul V. Gump and play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, focused on two different types of “it” games. “It” games were chosen because they are so common in children’s play, and they define specific roles for the players. Power, seen as separate from player skill, was defined as having the ability to choose when the competitive encounter would begin and which kind of play would be chosen for the chase. One game was defined as a low-power because the “it” did not have a lot of control in the game, while the other high-powered “it” game allowed for more control. The research tested the assumptions that high-powered “it” games were more successful generally for players, and especially for unskilled players. Forty boys between seven and ten were tested in advance for athletic ability, to ensure that unskilled players were not needlessly put in positions that would be discouraging for the players or create boredom for the group (390-3).

The results indicated that the low power game was most discouraging for unskilled players and more likely to encourage the group of other boys to behave inappropriately to the “it” person. Often the unskilled player would try to avoid these games before they started. Successful players in either game possessed athletic ability, a sense of power, used strategy, and had “personality factor,” defined as drive or perseverance (395). It was felt that unskilled players were more likely to be successful in games that included an element of chance. I thought the comment about the correlation between skill and chance was interesting, and it corresponds to my own observations from my work (in the field of recreation). I also thought it was interesting that in the low-power games, not only was the “it” person not having a good time, but the other boys also seemed more likely to taunt him (394-7). This speaks to the reality that, without being good or bad, games can have a darker side.


TED talks about play

Some TED talks on questions of play, games, improvisation, iteration, and innovation.

Stuart Brown: Play is more than fun
“A pioneer in research on play, Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults — and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.
“Stuart Brown’s research shows play is not just joyful and energizing — it’s deeply involved with human development and intelligence.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness
“Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of ‘flow.’
“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of “flow” — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.”

Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play
“At the 2008 Serious Play conference, designer Tim Brown talks about the powerful relationship between creative thinking and play — with many examples you can try at home (and one that maybe you shouldn’t).
“Tim Brown is the CEO of the ‘innovation and design’ firm IDEO — taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.”

Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do
“Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School, spells out 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do — and why a little danger is good for both kids and grownups.”

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world
“Games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds, and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? Jane McGonigal says we can, and explains how.
“Reality is broken, says Jane McGonigal, and we need to make it work more like a game. Her work shows us how.”

Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life
“When game designer Jane McGonigal found herself bedridden and suicidal following a severe concussion, she had a fascinating idea for how to get better. She dove into the scientific research and created the healing game, SuperBetter. In this moving talk, McGonigal explains how a game can boost resilience — and promises to add 7.5 minutes to your life.”

Gabe Zichermann: How games make kids smarter
“Can playing video games make you more productive? Gabe Zichermann shows how games are making kids better problem-solvers, and will make us better at everything from driving to multi-tasking.”

Steve Keil: A manifesto for play, for Bulgaria and beyond
“Steve Keil fights the ‘serious meme’ that has infected his home of Bulgaria — and calls for a return to play to revitalize the economy, education and society. A sparkling talk with a universal message for people everywhere who are reinventing their workplaces, schools, lives.”

Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans
“With never-before-seen video, primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo (a TED Fellow) shows how bonobo ape society learns from constantly playing — solo, with friends, even as a prelude to sex. Indeed, play appears to be the bonobos’ key to problem-solving and avoiding conflict. If it works for our close cousins, why not for us?”

Why Play?

League was conceived in all seriousness as a forum for playing invented games and sports. (Note: next play date is Sunday 30 December.) Why this focus on play, you ask? Isn’t it a frivolous pursuit? This reaction isn’t unexpected. On one hand play might be dismissed a useless luxury, and on the other it could be characterized as trifling because of its concern with rules.

Yet on the contrary, many have argued that play is a fundamental human impulse, even one of our highest achievements. Thinkers from the realms of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, education, and theology, have argued for the importance of play. Their varied defenses of play do not deny the characterizations of play as both free and rule-bound, and in fact argue that these properties are part of what makes play one of the great human goods.

Play is fundamentally tied to human culture
In an important early definition of play, Johan Huizinga identified play as free and set apart from ordinary life, a sacred activity that unfolds within a delimited sphere — the “magic circle” of play. Play creates and respects order, is utterly absorbing for players, and is unrelated to material interest.(1) With these characteristics of freedom and order, play precedes — and indeed is one of the conditions that generates — human culture. “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play(…) it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”(2)

Anthropologist Roger Caillois buit on Huizinga’s work, describing play as “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.”(3) Yet play is an essential component of human society; many social structures and behaviours can be viewed as forms of play. Caillois outlined fundamental forms of play, each of which also range between structured and spontaneous: games of chance, role playing, competition, and vertigo (altered perception). These forms of play tend to be institutionalized within societies: for instance, games of chance take cultural form in lotteries, institutional from as the stock market, or appear corrupted in the form of superstitions. Play is embedded throughout human culture.

Play is an ultimate human goal
Some might wish to dismiss play as inconsequential because it is constrained by rules. Yet in the philosophical work The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits undertakes to define what a game is, and finally concludes that play is central to human ideals, and thus to any conception of Utopia. Suits provides the very useful definition that “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”(4) and a “lusory attitude” as a psychological will to accept rules in order to enter a state of play. It is the voluntary acceptance of limitations — the uncoerced freedom of play — that marks its exalted nature. In Utopia, we would be free to play.

Play is central to a meaningful life
Is luxury really the best way to characterize play? Since Aristotle, happiness has often been thought of as an ultimate goal of humans. However, as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi elaborates, it is not material luxuries that produce happiness or satisfaction, but rather the cultivation of conditions of “optimal experience.”(5)

In his primary work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi describes states of flow in the realms of physical activity, ritual, thought, creative play, and work. These are all activities that, like games, involve action within rules. “What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from(…) everyday existence.”(6) Certainly, these activities also can be pursued without attaining a state of flow, but the implications of Csíkszentmihályi’s arguments are that flow is important for these activities to feel meaningful.

A psychologist largely concerned with questions of creativity and joy, Csíkszentmihályi outlines flow as a satisfying state of concentration, engagement and absorption in an activity. Importantly, to achieve a state of flow requires a balance — play, in other words — between challenge and skill: “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”(7)

Play is transformative
Poet Diane Ackerman builds on Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Ackerman sees the possibility of “deep play” in myriad human endeavours, including experiences in face of nature, during extreme pursuits, in dramatically isolated situations, and working with language. “Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence), while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake, following certain rules (they may include the rules of gravity and balance), on a limited playing field. Deep play requires one’s full attention.”(8)

Importantly, though, these activities are not categorically playful, but rather deep play is a state of absorption in a situation irrespective of its character. It is ecstatic, rapturous experience. “Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights. Thus deep play should really be classified by mood, not activity. It testifies to how something happens, not what happens. Games don’t guarantee deep play, but some activities are prone to it: art, religion, risk-taking, and some sports”.(9)

Ackerman describes deep play in terms approaching religious, making clear that the transformative experiences she’s talking about have little to do, or are even impeded by, the proscribed habits of religion, although ritual delimitation is part of what creates the sacred space of play. “For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods, and decrees. Play always has a sacred place— some version of a playground — in which it happens. The hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it’s clearly set off from the rest of reality. This place may be a classroom, a sports stadium, a stage, a courtroom, a coral reef, a workbench in a garage, a church or temple, a field where people clasp hands in a circle under the new moon. Play has a time limit, which may be an intense but fleeting moment, the flexible innings of a baseball game, or the exact span of a psychotherapy session.”(10)

Play connects us with great ideas
Theologian Michael Novak has also written of the great passions that we are willingly drawn into when engaged with sports in particular. Novak explains the impulse to play and follow sports in terms of their conversation with ritual. “Even in our own secular age and for quite sophisticated and agnostic persons, the rituals of sports really work. They do serve a religious function: they feed a deep human hunger, place humans in touch with certain dimply perceived features of human life within this cosmos, and provide an experience of at least a pagan sense of godliness.”(11)

Novak’s classic The Joy of Sports is a convincing exposition on the religious character of sports that is reminiscent of early definitions of play as foundational to culture. “Play is the most human activity. It is the first act of freedom.”(12) “Play is not tied to necessity, except the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food and shelter. Play is human intelligence, and intuition, and love of challenge and contest and struggle; it is respect for limits and laws and rules, and high animal spirits, and a lust to develop the art of doing things perfectly. Play is what only humans truly develop.”(13)

Novak notes that only certain ideologies privilege work over play, and provides an alternate view of play as the ultimate ideal. “Play, not work, is the end of life. To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to Labor in the Kingdom of Means.(…) Work, of course, must be done. But we should be wise enough to distinguish necessity from reality. Play is reality. Work is diversion and escape.”(14)

Play is a survival skill
Within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (in which fundamental physiological and safety needs must be fulfilled before questions of self-esteem), play is one of the concerns that are attended to once basic needs are secured.(15) Or is it? One could argue that strategic thinking and competition are survival skills, as we see in the branch of economics known as game theory. Problem-solving, socialization and learning through play are also recurrent themes of childhood development theories. Indeed, as Caillois described, play extends to many aspects of human activity.

Tellingly, animals also play. “Evolutionary psychologists believe that there must be an important benefit of play, since there are so many reasons to avoid it. Animals are often injured during play, become distracted from predators, and expend valuable energy.” The evolving theory is that play helps animals prepare to survive in their own particular environments.(16) The parallel to children developing motor- and social skills seems obvious.

Play is pervasive
As computer gaming becomes ubiquitous, as video games become the dominant form of entertainment in contemporary society, and as game design has become big business, it seems ever more pressing to understand the compulsions and potential of play. Experimental game designer Frank Lantz succinctly summarizes the promise of games: “Games can inspire the loftiest form of cerebral cognition and engage the most primal physical response, often simultaneously.(…) Games are capable of addressing the most profound themes of human existence in a manner unlike any other form of communication — open-ended, procedural, collaborative; they can be infinitely detailed, richly rendered, and yet always responsive to the choices and actions of the player.”(17)

We have reached a point where games are approaching ubiquity, a point where businesses are looking to “gameify” their offerings in order to attract consumers and cash in on those compulsions.(18) Given the pervasiveness of gaming, Lantz states simply why it is important to take play seriously, to push for the best that play can be: “If enough people believe that games are meant to be mindless fun, then this is what they will become. If enough people believe that games are capable of greater things, then they will inevitably evolve and advance.”(19)

Play can do good
We see, then, that there is a long tradition of believing in the good of games and play. Understanding the power of games, there is also emerging a domain of critical game design that takes the social practices of gaming seriously. Game designer Jane McGonigal is concerned with alternate-reality games intended to improve real life, with “pervasive games” that use game imagery to disrupt the conventions of public space, and with ubiquitous computing that imagines game-like interactivity in the real world. She has argued for the collective intelligence of online computer gaming as a powerful engine for solving problems, human evolution, co-operation and trust, producing optimism, and creating meaning. McGonigal goes so far as to say that “playing games is the single most productive way we can spend our time.” Her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World argues that game mechanics, particularly of massively collaborative projects, can be harnessed to make the real world a better place.(20)

It is uncertain whether the types of game that McGonigal proposes will ultimately prove compelling enough to generate continued play. And as play practices evolve and the social stakes are raised, we certainly should ask what games can accomplish, what good they might bring about. But fundamentally, play in itself is a good. Why do we play? Because it is part of what makes us human.

Germaine Koh
Vancouver, December 2012 (21)

Playing “Wicket Awesome” at League

1.    Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture, original Dutch 1938 (Boston: Beacon, 1955), pp. 8-13.
2.    Huizinga, p.173.
3.    Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, original French 1958, trans. 1961 (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001), p. 5-6.
4.    Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, original 1978 (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2005), p. 55.
5.    Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p. 1-3.
6.    Csíkszentmihályi, p. 72.
7.    Csíkszentmihályi, p. 71.
8.    Diane Ackerman, Deep Play (New York: Vintage, 1999), p. 188.
9.    Ackerman, p. 12.
10.    Ackerman, p. 6.
11.     Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 20.
12.    Novak, p. 32.
13.    Novak, p. 33.
14.    Novak, p. 40.
15.    “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, Wikipedia, saved 28 December 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.
16.     “Play and Animals” in “Play (activity)”, Wikipedia, saved 28 December 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_play#Play_and_animals.
17.     Frank Lantz, “Foreword” in Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press, 2003), p. x.
18.     Nick Wingfield, “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player”, New York Times, 23 December 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/technology/all-the-worlds-a-game-and-business-is-a-player.html?hp&_r=0.
19.    Lantz, p. xi.
20.     Promotion at http://realityisbroken.org for Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin, 2011).
21.     Thanks to Ian Verchere for reading and editing.

From the vault: “Checks and Balances” from Art Lies

When discussing play and art, I was reminded of this piece I was challenged to write four years ago for the art journal Art Lies. The theme of the edition, guest-edited by the curator Stuart Horodner, was “second acts” — the myriad other things cultural producers do to the side of their practices, and Stuart asked me to write about playing roller derby.

Although that sport has developed and changed a lot in four years (my current teammates would scoff at any resemblance to burlesque and we’re dropping our aliases, as the sport has become ever more, well, athletic), the words I wrote about how sport complements my activities as an artist still hold.

Click the title for the full article. Excerpts:

Checks and Balances
Germaine Koh
Art Lies
no. 61 (Spring 2009), pp. 22-23

As an artist, almost everything I do contributes to the “brand” associated with my name, but when I’m playing roller derby I’m known only as PLAYER 1.[...]

[O]f the sports I could choose to take up at the age of 41, roller derby aligns well with some of the principles of my work and public persona. Unlike most sports, it embraces social complexities, combining athletics and burlesque, aggression and caring, all with political self-awareness of these implications. It’s tied to music, street and grassroots cultures, and this authenticity is a big part of its growing underground appeal.[...]

I am obsessed with derby because it is a completely new activity unlike anything I’ve done before, and a genuinely challenging sport with a whole new-to-me set of rules, conventions and skills to master. These reasons also happen to reveal some basic principles of my work.

For me, art is a means of engaging with the world with the intention of contributing something original to the public exchange of ideas. The task I set for myself as an artist is to observe myriad patterns in the world and synthesize them into unexpected propositions that encourage us to reflect upon the systems around us. At a basic level, doing a wide variety of things and being in contact with people from many backgrounds makes me more culturally literate and agile—a more able and balanced observer and thinker. Although this is probably a truism, it also feels true in practice. Being involved in a lot of different activities and operating systems gives me insight into a wider range of phenomena, allowing me to think more subtly and opening up ever more fields of enquiry.

On one level, then, derby is just the latest of the many “other things” that I have thrown myself into for the simple joy of learning, experiencing something new, knowing more about the world and feeding a curious mind. But more specifically, the other things I do have always included sports. Competitive sport has helped make me a relatively well-rounded person. For the younger me, it was a toss-up between art school and finding a career in sport, and I was certainly the only art student playing on a varsity team at my university. Art finally prevailed when I realized that I could justifiably do all kinds of other things, including sports, under the umbrella of being an artist.

Except in a couple of instances, sport doesn’t figure literally in my art, but it’s there everywhere. A sense of competition is related to the standard of minimalism and conceptual elegance to which I hold my work. A feeling for emergent play and the organization of games helps me evaluate how audiences will interact with my work. The ability to concentrate while in a state of uncertainty allows me to conceive of lifelong projects and to have the faith to design others with open-ended outcomes. Being accustomed to playing within rules gives me a greater understanding of the innumerable conventions that I need to negotiate, and of course, the habits of teamwork are directly transferable to the collaborative aspects of my—and many other—disciplines.

Certainly, some aspects of organized sports are quite different than artmaking: it is often authoritarian, it requires adherence to immovable rules and uses set plays, and the goal-oriented nature of competition doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debate. Yet, other elements of athletics do encourage the types of rigor that serve artists well: strategy, focus, flow, tenacity, awareness and commitment are all ultimately developed through physical training. In other words, submission to a training regime is eventually good for freethinking too: a healthy body is more likely to house a healthy mind.

Sport also has the amazing effect of quieting the overly busy mind.[...] It’s primal, primary experience.[...] Sports let me reconnect with the delights of play and of really feeling stuff in the moment. The reckless way I play means that my career in roller derby is likely to be short-lived, but for now it complements, nourishes and provides a welcome counterpoint to the weight of my job.

[...]Vancouver, November 2008