Sports that Are Not Games

In defining “sport”, I’m mindful of the fact that it seems to be desirable to characterize an activity as a sport – so much so that there’s a distinct tendency for games with any physical component to claim to be sports. And even games with no obvious physical component, like chess, show an increasing tendency to characterize themselves as “mind sports”, and to dream some day of having their claim to sport-hood ratified by being included in the Olympics.

Thus, I’ve reconsidered my initial inclination to define “sport” strictly as a subset of “game”, knowing that would only enrage the practitioners of anything I didn’t admit to the pantheon of sport. But I still think there’s a useful distinction to be made between sports that are, and those that are not, games.

Though there are, as usual, difficult cases where the classification is arguable, I think it’s helpful to consider two kinds of sports that are not really games: artistic sports, and nature sports.

Artistic Sports

By artistic sport, I mean any competition in which the criterion for success is subjective, appealing to an aesthetic sense on the part of a judge. The reason such activities do not meet my definition as games is that the value that is pursued is not really arbitrary.

Consider, for example, ice dancing. Ice dancing is, beyond doubt, a competition that tests extreme physical exertion, and requires physical training as demanding as any other sport. But the criterion for success is not some arbitrary act, like kicking a ball into a net, but rather the ability to tell a story, to be graceful, and to be judged beautiful – all of which depend on subjective judgment. And these values are not arbitrary, they are real. The best ice dancers appeal to the same aesthetic values as the ballet.

Figure skating is only slightly more game-like. In recent years, there has been an effort to make the judging of figure skating competitions somewhat less subjective – a change motivated, in part, by the perception that some judges were concealing a bias in favor of certain competitors behind the extreme subjectivity of the task of judging. But even with guidelines that specify the number of points to be awarded for the success of certain difficult maneuvers, or to be deducted for certain failings, the core criteria for judging figure skaters speak to subjective elements like storytelling, grace, and beauty.

All forms of gymnastics belong to the category of artistic sport, as does diving. But it is not enough that a sport be considered capable of beauty. Association football, or soccer, is often referred to as the “beautiful game”, and it sometimes does appeal to a rather rarified aesthetic cultivated by its most devoted fans. But it’s still entirely possible to get an ugly win in soccer.

Ski jumping is a sport that tests the boundary of the definition. The primary criterion for success is the length of the jump (as adjusted, in recent years, for conditions), but there is also a small component of the jumper’s score supplied by the subjective judgment of the judges as to whether the jump displayed proper form. I suspect, however, that the role of the style judgment is as a safety measure rather than a really aesthetic criterion. Points are awarded for a “Telemark” landing not so much because the Telemark is particularly beautiful, but because it is a reasonably safe way to land in a sport that’s inherently dangerous. If competitors were allowed credit for a few extra feet of jump length by stretching themselves into an awkward and dangerous posture when they landed, the whole sport would suffer.

Nature Sports

The other category of non-game sports is nature sports. Among these are hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, skating, and mountain climbing. All of these activities can be made into games by imposing arbitrary point counts, or by setting fixed courses to be traversed in the quickest time. But they are all physical activities that most practitioners pursue for their own sake. Most skiers enjoy sliding down mountains on their skis without ever entering a formal ski race, and most hikers enjoy walking in the outdoors without ever entering an orienteering competition.

These activities are also ones that were, originally, motivated by practical concerns. Once, and to some extent still, people go hunting and fishing not because they enjoy stalking their prey in the outdoors, but because it is a good way to get food. They hike and ski not to enjoy nature, but to get from place to place. And some outdoor activities, like lumberjacking, which are still primarily practical productive activities can be made into games by imposing point counts and standard timed tasks.

The example of lumberjacking might suggest that other, usually productive, physical tasks might be made into games. As some of these don’t involve being out in nature, perhaps it’s a bit too restrictive to call this category nature sports. But, while no doubt there are, somewhere, say, competitive welders who have found ways to gamify welding, such activities are rarely referred to as sports.

3 thoughts on “Sports that Are Not Games”

  1. I would somewhat argue that things like weightlifting and many track and field events aren’t games but rather contests even though they are more or less completely objective rather than subjective. Things where people independently do some challenge and then get a score without interacting with the other participants. Similarly, I feel like racing events are probably not “games” in the common usage sense as well.

    And I don’t know that gymnastics and diving are as subjective as you think. As far as I know, there is some kind of rubric where the kind of moves the athletes can perform all have point values, and the point values from the routine are added in an objective way to get a total score. And then points are subtracted if the moves aren’t performed correctly. It would be like saying tennis isn’t a game because the referee is subjective in determining if the ball is inside or outside of the line.

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  2. I agree that there is a useful distinction to be made between games where the competitors interact directly with each other and those where they perform against some fixed standard. But I still think they’re both games. Otherwise, I think you’d have to say that golf is a game when the competition is match play, but not a game when it’s medal play, which seems wrong to me.

    There may well be competitions that I’ve put in the artistic sport category for which the standards of judging have been so thoroughly specified that there’s little, if any, subjective judgment left. Possibly diving, and some of the gymnastics competitions like the vault have become games. But I think that some gymnastics events, certainly including the new “rhythmic gymnastics”, but also including floor exercise, ought to be considered artistic sports rather than games.

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