Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Games without Fun

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Games without Fun

Article excerpt

Commercial and technological pressures are turning modern sport into a ruthlessly competitive industry

At first sight games, sport and play seem so similar as to be indistinguishable. People play tennis, rugby and baseball. The loftiest expression of competition in sport bears an illustrious centuries-old name: the Olympic Games. Play is a form of sport, and sport is a kind of play. But on closer inspection the illusion of identity between play and sport is soon shattered. Far from being similar, they start to look like opposites. Play has something spontaneous and unorganized about it, whereas sport is governed by rules. It is true that a game such as chess is also codified by very strict rules; and that, conversely, a sport such as walking has very few. The matter becomes confusing. As so often, looking closely at apparently simple, obvious ideas (which in fact conceal a lurking element of linguistics and philosophy) leads to mental confusion. But let us try to be clear.

Play is so ancient that its origins are lost in the earliest history of mankind. And it goes even further back. Monkeys, cats, dolphins-most animals and their young ones play. Nobody is going to maintain that animals engage in sports, but it is obvious that they play. In a well-known French film, La Guerre du feu, we witness the birth of laughter and speech in our most remote forebears. Even in those distant times play occupied an important place. Ontogeny repeats phylogeny: i.e. the development of the individual passes through the same stages as the development of the species. From their earliest years children play, alone or in groups, with things or with their hands, without ever having had a single lesson. They are not thinking of taking part in a sport, developing their physique, competing with others, or breaking records: but they play. People in all cultures, latitudes and periods, however serious their preoccupations and duties, will go on playing-till their dying day. Indeed, it may be that the loftier their functions the more important play is for them. A head of state with his guard of honour, his protocol and his personal style perhaps does more playing than a tramp does.

All the world's a game, with obscure rules

The multifarious activities we call play, apparently so simple yet actually so complex, have interested philosophers, historians, psychologists, sociologists and ethnologists. They have a bearing on religion, war, science, technology, culture and art. The whole world ends up looking rather like a great big game, with obscure rules involving every one of us.

Play is ubiquitous; and in one form or another has probably been a feature of every successive civilization. Bull-running, still a feature of Spanish culture, was practised in ancient Crete. The ball games of the Aztecs, played on holy pitches called tlatchi, combined the blood of their defeated enemies and a highly-developed religious symbolism. The famous buzkashi of the Afghans, a kind of polo played with the carcass of a goat, has inspired novels in many languages. Basque pelota, Moroccan fantasia, Japanese martial arts, aquatic processions such as those on the Grand Canal at Venice, the famous palio at Siena, the Carnival of Giants in Belgium and northern France-all these and many more are popular regional manifestations of universal play. UNESCO set out recently to preserve and make known these valuable and varied features of national identity. Like so many monuments in Greece, Italy, Cambodia, India, China, Mexico and elsewhere, they too are part of mankind's cultural heritage.

Again, we cannot help being struck by the enormous variety of games. Among the old traditional types, some have to do with religion, others with the collective memory, social dissent and violence. Others again are obviously the forerunners of sport. These are all group games, imbued with history, religion and culture. But then there are all the innumerable children's games, card games, games of chance, chess, charades, word games and helter-skelter. …

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