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Football, IQ, and the World of Mathcraft


How should we think about worldly success? When someone accomplishes a difficult goal or achieves impressive results to what degree is it a consequence of inherent ability, hard work, or random luck? These are interesting questions about life, right? They are deeply related to the fundamental philosophical issues of how one should live one’s life and what we should find admirable in other people. To me, these questions seem to have all the hallmarks of the sort of big ideas that “speak to the human condition” in the way that we would like games to be able to do.

I am put in mind of these questions by the recent kerfluffle between Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell, and the role that Football stats have played in this debate.

Is it possible that Football has something to contribute to a complex intellectual debate that touches on, among other things, evolution, meritocracy, racism, and scientific literacy? I should drop the rhetorical questions because obviously I think it does. But the way that Football speaks to the human condition in this case is not the way we might expect, it’s not like we play through a game of Football and then come away with a new perspective on these issues, as if we had interacted with a specific argument or claim about the world. Instead these particular meanings emerge out of the way Football has woven itself into the lives of a large community of people who play, watch, and think about it.

Among many other things, Football is a sort of folk sociology, it is a very large-scale experiment in understanding subtle and counter-intuitive truths about cause and effect, talent and results, determinism and randomness. It is also a sort of folk epistemology, challenging us to consider the limits of our ability to measure and understand the world as possibility space, to find patterns in data, to distinguish signal from noise, to predict the behavior of complex systems and make truthful claims about them.

And the amazing thing is that Football is both of these things while being primarily a folk art. Those who crunch its numbers in order to analyze its nonholonomic constraints and unlock the secrets of its eigenvalues do so out of a sense of deep pleasure, compelled by an experience that is simultaneously scientific and aesthetic.

And if, like me, your personal taste in games tends more to fireballs and armor than interceptions and hamstrings then consider how roleplaying games like World of Warcraft explore this entire universe in reverse. Where sports culture takes the concrete reality of actions in the world and extracts statistical patterns from it, RPGs use statistical rules to produce actions in the world. Both types of games explore, reflect, and engage with the mysteries of quantification, measurement, probability, and uncertainty.

I believe the effort to follow along with an argument like that between Pinker and Gladwell makes us better, smarter people. And I am proud that games have something valuable to contribute to this process.


  1. I like this piece, especially because I am continually fascinated by the way that sport becomes a mirror in which we reflect on our identity as individuals and as a society. (What is america without Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali? Just read Neverland or CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary if you want a marvelous analysis of the relationship of colonialism and cricket.) I would be very surprised and heartened if any video game came to play an analogous role in our culture.

    The scientific analysis of sport (the kind that is at issue between Pinker and Gladwell) is so resonant with video games because they are both about the susceptibility of the world and its actors to law, no? The beauty of both is the relationship between freedom and constraint that transpires when we draw the magic circle.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 4:11 am | Permalink
  2. Frank Lantz wrote:

    It’s fun to consider what it would look like for there to be a video game that operated on the same scale and occupied the same social space as Football. I guess looking at how Starcraft works in Korea gives us a glimpse. But I think there are other versions of that possible future that have less space marines and more poetry.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

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