Professional Games and Spectating

Of particular interest to me in this week’s readings were Huizinga and Parlett’s claims that professionalized play, especially sports, tend to fall outside the definition of play. Certainly simple participation in “ball-games,” as Huizinga calls them, falls under the category of play, but does this change if the game becomes big business and one signs a contract to play?


Huizinga and Parlett seem to say it does. A significant condition of play for Huizinga is that it must be completely voluntary. Due to the “regimentation” that can permeate organized sports, Huizinga argues that “the spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness” (p. 197). Similarly, Parlett argues that “professional sports are essentially a branch of the entertainment industry” and goes so far as to claim that it is “a failing of urban, industrial civilization that too many people pay to have other games for them” (p. 25).


Along the same lines, these two pieces also inspired me to think about the act of spectating play. While it’s certainly much more passive than actually participating in a game, there’s something to be said about the communal aspect of spectating, as well as the ability to appreciate the tactics employed within that game. I’m not just talking about popular spectator sports, either. The spectators depicted in the “Scholars Playing Weiqi under Pine Trees” scroll in Parlett’s piece (p. 21) seem pretty engaged. I have a couple friends who routinely watch competitive Starcraft matches on Twitch with thousands of other people.


Griffin argued in his response that a key element of what makes games interesting is how players work within the system. They have “agency” and can make unique decisions and create unique narratives. I completely agree, and argue that these things can be just as interesting for the spectator as for the player. Ok, maybe not just as interesting in the case of many video games or monopoly; some games lend themselves to spectating better than others. Regardless, even if the act of spectating is not itself play, I think it can be something more than “a failing of urban, industrial civilization.” Whether it’s football, Weiqi, or Starcraft, some games, or perhaps some players, deserve to be watched.

Edit by MCG 1/22 to add image referenced above (‘Scholars Playing Weiqi’)

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