Sports and Physical Games

In Playing Games, I offered a definition of game playing as the pursuit of arbitrarily-assigned value. In this post, I’ll offer a definition of the closely-related word “sport”.

Briefly, a sport is an activity that, like a game, is constrained by rules and limitations, and for which one of those limitations is a natural limitation on some extreme aspect of the player’s physical performance.

Most, but not all, sports are also games – I’ll explore the world of non-game sports presently.

A footrace is a sport because one key constraint on performance is a natural limitation. There are no speed limits – each runner is welcome to run as fast as possible. But the contest does not spiral out of control so that all players run infinitely fast. They simply can’t do that. The limitation is a natural one.

Candyland is a simple race game, played chiefly by children, in which the object is to reach the end of the path before the other players. It resembles, in some respects, a footrace. But Candyland is not a sport because the rules that limit the speed with which the player’s token can travel along the path all have to do with drawing cards and matching colors.

Occupying a middle region between games that are sports, and games that are not, are games in which there is some aspect of physical performance, but in which the limitation is not one of speed or strength, but one of precision. I call these “physical games”.

In darts, for example, any reasonably healthy person can throw a dart that weighs less than an ounce the 7′, 9 1/4″ that separates the dartboard from the toe line. But the ability to land the darts in very small regions of the board is a physical skill that is developed only through long, disciplined practice, and can be assisted by a careful analysis of the various muscles involved in throwing a dart. Unless they’re careful to compensate with other exercise, dart throwers develop somewhat larger muscles in their throwing arm than on their non-throwing arm. So there are some sport-like aspects to darts, and it’s not entirely unreasonable for dart throwers to insist that they’re playing a sport rather than a mere game. But most people would recognize dart throwing as a different kind of activity than, say, weightlifting, and I think it’s well to have a different way of describing it.

The distinction between sports and physical games is not a clean one. In bowling, for example, the basic act of rolling a ball down the lane is one that nearly any healthy person can accomplish, and there is usually a penalty rather than a premium associated with doing it at great speed. But bowling balls are heavy, and some of the effective techniques for bowling them require the application of extreme spins well beyond the capabilities of anyone by a bowler who has trained hard. Elite bowlers do not have the Adonis-like physiques associated with, say, elite decathletes, but they do have well-developed musculature that sets them apart from ordinary healthy people. I think there’s a fair case for considering bowling to be a sport rather than just a physical game.

In billards, the case is weaker. Again, any reasonably healthy person can use a cue to strike a ball with all the force that’s required in most instances – the differentiating ability is not strength, but precision. But in some forms of the game there are advantages to a break shot that must be both precise and extremely powerful. Players who excel in a game like snooker, which generally does not require any power shots, often suffer to some extent when they are asked to transfer their (otherwise very comparable) skills to a game like nine ball, in which a powerful break is a great asset. And all forms of billiards reward a certain physical grace that enables the player to be steady in what, for others, would be a very awkward posture.

Even games that have no obvious physical component reward strength, or at least stamina, when played under tournament conditions. Many elite chess and poker players train themselves physically so that their mental faculties will not be impaired by the physical hardships of long hours of play.


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