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Are Sports Games?

April 21, 2012

Are sports, games? Absolutely, yes.

Well, some of the time.

This is probably the question that comes up the most often when people think about this topic: Do sports even count as games? Are all sports games? Or just some of them? What’s makes a sport a game, or a game a sport?

One of the main problems are that we simply don’t have a very good definition for games. Several attempts have been tried, from the pithy, to the obvious, to the exhaustive. But it’s surprising tricky to make an all-inclusive definition. But regardless of the definition, some sports are going to manage to sneak in. All definitions I know contain several key elements.


I think we have that covered.


The goal in most sports is to win by having more points, a faster time, a smaller stroke count, etc. It’s almost always an observable, quantifiable outcome. In many sports you win by, well, scoring goals. It doesn’t get much simple than that.

Player agency

This is where Sid Meier’s “interesting choices” come in, and this is where some sports start to stumble. On the face of it, many sports don’t seem to have much in the way of choices when the player is actually in the match. In the 100-meter sprint, you run as fast as you can. In target shooting, you try to shoot as accurately as you can. Even in more classical team-based sports, a baseball hitter is going to “choose” to hit the ball as hard as he can every time.

But these views may be overly narrow. Is the choice between “swing now” and “swing .5 seconds later” a meaningful choice? Maybe. But what about the choices on the other side of the mound? Is it possible for one player to be playing a game while another one isn’t?

These are some of the issues I hope to explore.


From → General

  1. Okcrow permalink

    Perhaps it is a sport to the players and a “game” for the manager? In baseball, to bunt or hit away, to draw the infield in, to shift the infield against a particular hitter, to steal a base, these are all manager’s decisions. Fast ball or curve? that is usually the catchers decision, the old “hidden ball” trick? I think rules can be tweaked to make a sport more or less of a game as well.

    • Yeah, I’d been giving that a little thought as well, and its worth pursuing. I was thinking something similar about the NFL after reading Moneyball. There are frequently too many variables, and not enough iterations to be able to say statistically “this player is better than that player”. But, I think if you’re comparing coaching systems, there’s some possibilities there. I don’t really know enough about the topic to say.

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