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In Defense of Competition
On sport, games, success, and failure
August 11, 2012
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On her blog, my Georgia Tech colleague Amy Bruckman writes about her dissatisfaction with this year's Olympics. While she loved the games as a kid, Bruckman wonders if her new feelings of disappointment arise from watching them as an educator rather than as a little girl: "I look at young people and want to see positive outcomes for all our kids. And I wonder why in the world we need a social system that creates so many losers." Echoing some common concerns, Amy laments that many kids take sport "beyond healthy exercise to an obsession that dominates their childhoods," and that sport represents another example of how our "formal education system unfortunately also creates winners and losers." Citing an example from this year's Olympics, Bruckman reflects on watching Jordyn Wieber cry on international television when she failed to qualify for the women's gymnastics all-around competition. "Why am I watching this?" Amy wonders, before reaching a summary conclusion that pits competitive sport against collaborative enculturation: "Why aren't more of our pastimes collaborative?"

Amy's comments remind me of other recent grievances about competitive games and sports in the game research and development community. For example, David Kanaga recently wrote against didacticism in games and in favor of exploration and playfulness. Competition, argues Kanaga, destroys the play impulse by "impos[ing] a value system on our experience," one "pre-determined by the game's design." Likewise, Doug Wilson has argued, following German play advocate Henning Eichberg, that players play best, that games are most beautiful when players are allowed to make of them what they wish. Instead of achievements, argues Wilson, games can embrace "unachievements," borrowing from folk games (particularly in the Nordic tradition) and playground games where each participant's achievements are given equal consideration. Don't tell me what a game should be, what it means to be good at it, what it means to master it—such is the kind of argument Kanaga and Wilson and others advance.

While Amy Bruckman doesn't mention these examples specifically, she does observe that our cultural rituals both reflect and construct who we are. There's no denying it. But I wonder why so many believe that competition represents a kind of ritual we don't want to have. Bruckman does a good job dressing up her criticisms of competition and her support of collaboration in social access and mobility, and she's got a point. But when she asks, "Could school sports be more collaborative, where everyone is working together to meet a shared goal?" I wonder if she has any idea what goes into football or soccer or even team gymnastics, for that matter. Sure, yes, team sports are not communities and they are not nation-states. But they are not prisons either, and I'm rather tired of hearing that there's something so desperately wrong with pushing one's body and mind to the very limits of human potential.

Take Jordyn Wieber as an example. She's seventeen years old, and has been impelling herself forward in the insanely high-pressure international gymnastics scene knowing that she'd be washed up before twenty. Women gymnasts typically get one shot at the Olympics, and even then only if the timing works out. Not only that, but she'd been reared as both a gymnast and a young woman in America, where mediocrity and equity rule, rather than, say, behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s or in China today. You better believe she was disappointed, and the government wasn't even going to ship her family off to a gulag.

But were we really watching just Wieber's disappointment, like some sort of awkward schadenfruede, like it was an uncomfortably scripted scene from Glee or Big Brother? Not really. Because despite the enormity of the disappointment and its associated embarrassment, she recovered quickly, congratulated her teammates, and moved on. Sure, she'd won the team gold, but this was the individual all-around, this was her life up until this point. I dare anyone to react better in a situation fractionally as charged and high-profile. Wieber took artistic gymnastics more seriously than you or I ever will, she took it at face value, for the absurd and arbitrary and stupid and enchanting practice that very few will allow it. She exposed herself to it, in front of millions, billions maybe, and she came up short.

There is a war on sport and on competition, waged in the name of equity and openness and participation. Yet, ironically, those in favor of collaboration and openness also produce ferociously competitive and exclusionary positions in response. Wilson's physical party game JS Joust, for example, is like the playground game King of the Hill, in that one player remains standing, encouraged to do whatever it takes to win. And Kanaga's call for a "utopian state of play" embraces all possibilities for play save the one that takes a particular game at face value, that asks what it would be like to imagine that that game discovered a pure truth worthy of taking for what it is. And likewise, Bruckman's rejection of competition in favor of investment in collaboration absconds with the individual achievement that she and others would have to admit in order to allow an athlete like Wieber admission into the imagined community of accomplished Americans. That's hardly the more sophisticated, worldly response of "an educator" rather than "a little girl." Or if it is, woe to us educators, and woe to us adults.

Bruckman admits that even her own educational methods fashion winners and losers, even if, in her words, "We need lots of capable people—every one we can find." But what counts as capability? Which talents are worth celebrating and culturing, and which ones are to be cast aside, deemed secondary, distractions from what's really important? Amy seems pretty sure that Olympic aspiration is a big dream without much meaningful reality behind it—or in front of it, perhaps, since so many amateur and professional athletes don't know what to do with themselves when their competitive careers end.

The problem with having winners and losers isn't that there are winners and losers. It's that we fail to respect and acknowledge all the different ways that victory and failure can play out while still taking seriously the specific conditions of a particular individual or group in relation to a particular sport, game, practice, or circumstance that can be won or lost. To hate competition is selfish. It means caring only about what one can do or can imagine doing, and refusing to take a broader look at the massive variety of talent that coarses through the collective veins of humanity. It's the opposite of collaboration.

Instead, we ought to find and create paths that match our individual talents but that do not subsume them, that give them room to grow, and that let them develop into new forms still, not just sport or science, not just individual achievement or collaboration. As for sport, as for games, let us compete. Let us subject ourselves to the stupid caprice of structures and rules we didn't invent, for they are one of the best places to practice the contingency and folly of really real reality. Let us feel their weight as invitation rather than oppression. Those who do so in earnest are far more likely to have a perspective from which they can empathize with others, whose talents lie elsewhere.

Comments (7)
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Alfie Kohn's wonderful book "No Contest" (http://www.amazon.com/No-Contest-Case-Against-Competition/dp/0395631254) is essentially a giant literature review arguing against many commonly held myths about the benefits of competition. One of his most intriguing points is that pretty much any competitive activity can be reconfigured as either collaborative or competitive against one's self, often with surprisingly few changes. The result preserves many of the motivational and interactive elements of competition without pitting people against each other.

Doesn't this view of failure and victory admit that "winning" and "losing" is meaningless so long as you've done so according to the rules and are willing to accept the appropriate medal at the finish line, practicing a serious but empty cynical formalism of play? Further, doesn't the self-consciousness of the absurdity of those conditions displayed here and in Bruckman's piece lead us to test the wild contingency of the adventures staged under the auspices of the really real conditions of these games and find them to be an organized appearance of once-in-a-lifetime chance, fortune, and defeat?

This drama for me deflates into a stacked prop deck from a James Bond film since the game doesn't stop on the mat. The winners and losers congregate away from the table in headlines like "Jordyn Wieber, 'Fierce Five' set to turn 2012 London Olympics gold into green". All this leaves me wondering how these playthroughs can prepare us for encounters with reality and not just teach us to carefully manage the sponsorship of different realities.

Joshua Comer on August 11, 2012 9:05 PM

What is this future reality for which these competitive endeavors are supposed to prepare us? Further, why should that reality be of any more substance than the game, itself? To suggest that a competition is a means to some end is to diminish the value of the competition itself.

Trust me, the athlete who competes isn't thinking of their future endorsements as they do so. Maybe after. Maybe before. But not during. Even in the most commercial of sports, the competition is an end to itself, just as worthy of focus and drive and purposeful development as any other form of soul-craft.

Just because some more life happens after the competition does not mean that the competition is nothing more than a set up. The logical conclusion of that line of thinking is that nothing is of any importance if only because some more stuff will happen after it.

Jason Kolaczkowski on August 11, 2012 10:54 PM

Whether we're talking teaching or games, the collaborative and competitive each have a place. Collaborative play is important because it teaches social and rhetorical skills. Competitive play is important because it pushes competitors to their highest possibilities. As Ian mentioned, achieving these possibilities is always a collaborative endeavor in itself. Olympians and students both need mentors and peers to practice with and the amount of time spent in collaboration always far outweighs that of competition.

When it comes to teaching, educators need to balance competition and collaboration. Too much competition can make struggling students give up. Too much collaboration can turn the classroom into a feel-good atmosphere of little consequence. When classrooms become too collaborative, they foster a culture of self-esteem where grades become inflated. Students are rewarded for mediocre work and are led to believe that others will see their small efforts as satisfactory. This type of teaching lie is just as toxic as the hostile competitive environments where student work is criticized to an unfair degree. When students compete too much, they are sold a different lie: that their future success and happiness is only dependent upon their performance in the classroom. The truth is that success often comes from building social relationships and collaborations, not just from being skilled at a certain task.

What I get from Ian’s final paragraphs is that competition is important for identity formation. Competition helps us realize what we are truly good at (and not just in a everybody gets a gold star way). When we compete, we know that the metric used is in earnest. We know that we have left the culture of self-esteem and that our accomplishments are genuinely noteworthy. This is important because identity formation comes from knowing our strengths and weaknesses so that we may use them to our advantage. When it comes to a student’s futures, a good educator balances collaboration and competition. They are supportive of relationship building while also being honest about a student's skills.

By all means, professor, let us compete – but against whom? Towards whom should we direct our aggression, our frustration, those negative emotions which arise in any kind of struggle? Should we be aiming them towards other people, or towards ourselves when we fail to meet a goal set by somebody else's abilities rather than our own?

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.

Rory Marinich on August 14, 2012 9:24 AM

See Kurt Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron".

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