the spirit of the game

In his recent column in the Guardian, musician and play ethicist Pat Kane comments on the underlying significance of a rather disappointing event  during the Olympics where some athletes were disqualified from the badminton finals for “ostentatiously throwing their matches.”

He says that they:

“…did us all a valuable service. They reminded us what we’re essentially doing when we watch or play organised games of any kind. We’re refreshing the elements of character, and affirming the subtle bonds and codes that allow us to live with each other. The ‘spiritual’ dimension to our games goes deep.”

This leads him to some deep thinking about the nature of games and rules, the Olympics and how it serves society. I highly recommend that you read his article in its entirety. In the mean time, here’s a my artfully selected sample of what you will find:

As children, playing games is what we do to forge the very mechanics of our selves-in-society. It doesn’t matter how scrappy or strange the materials used, how wildly inappropriate the semi-clothed dolls or multiple-tentacled space aliens are together. Once a group of children decide on the rules of the game – again, however ornate or opaque they are – then those are binding, for as long as the game is played.

We can collectively agree to change the rules if our experience is dissatisfying, or we feel we can squeeze more excitement, thrills or challenge out of it. But once you agree, the mutual expectation is that we are together in this complex space – and that the “spirit” of the game’s rules hover over us, enjoyably constraining our actions, pushing us to an agreed finishing line.

We are rehearsing, for fun, the necessary conditions of living with other tricky human beings. We are toying with the social contract, in order to practise it with a subtle literacy…

However buried and muffled, the civic ideal of games – that through them, we are learning how to balance our human agency with our fellows – still wins out. Formula One racing cars exist in a jungle of regulations, but many of them are about limiting the capability of the cars – stopping them taking corners at 300mph, or removing “traction control” systems – in order that driving skill can still determine technological prowess…

We should always remember that play is also messing around with materials to see what happens, as much as submitting to the rule-set of a game. Loki and Proteus sit alongside Zeus and Hermes in this department of the human condition. But we shouldn’t angst too much about having to struggle to maintain the “spirit” of our games. Dramatising that struggle – to figure out how to live richly but respectfully with others – is the best function the Olympics can fulfil for us. (italics mine)

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