in defense of competition

by Bernie DeKoven on August 21, 2012

In his article In Defense of Competition, Ian Bogost gives us an intelligent and incisive perspective on the spirit of play.

There is a place for playful competition, and it’s the informal world of friends and loved ones. There’s competition among artists and musicians who try to outdo one another, yet this competition arises out of mutual admiration and an understanding that the “winners” and “losers” are arbitrary, exist only in the individual artists’ heads. Competition between friends where the winner matters for only a few moments, then is forgotten. Competition against the self, where the only limit was set by the person trying to overcome it.

When you formalize that competition, problems result, because any formal set of rules allows a player to expend ridiculous effort in the pursuit of maximizing themselves within those rules. Not that those rules especially matter, or prove anything objective. With the Olympics you have individual performers who have dedicated their lives to competition, only to fail once and definitively, and then all that effort has been for nothing. Or worse than nothing: it has been to reach a pinnacle that slightly outperforms a hundred other pinnacle performances, all but a few of which will be subsequently ignored. There is something violent about the process.

Sports that emphasize team play are somewhat better, because those emphasize the beauty and creativity of working in inventive patterns – but even then, the competitive aspect is superfluous to the really interesting parts of the sport. That kind of collaboration can exist outside of a competitive landscape. The world of dance is so open that any individual idea might be valued, yet it still rewards physical magnificence. There the achievements are uniquely individual: the obstacle you strive to overcome is the unique demands of the movement you’re trying to attain. And in a single year of dance, creativity arises of a diversity that puts whichever competitive athletic activity you’d like to shame.


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