Friday, September 28, 2012

Modern Competition

There are two main points to remember from Tuesday.  First, competition occurs in the context of limited resources.  Second, games and play developed to hone groups of organism's abilities to survive.  With these thoughts in mind, let's talk about the modern state of competition.

The average living creature's time will be divided between genetic survival activities and rest.  When they aren't hunting, trying to mate, protecting young, or trying to find or create shelter, creatures will sleep and recover from wounds and exertion.  When a creature doesn't need rest and doesn't actively try to survive, they have leisure time.  From a perspective that says "I want to continue surviving," leisure time's optimal use is furthering your ability to survive.  In short: you train, you test, you rest.

Humans--specifically, first world cultures--do not have to try that hard to survive.  It doesn't feel like it after working six double-shifts in one week for an underwhelming paycheck, but compared to living in the wilderness and not dying of starvation/exposure/disease/lions, it's pretty easy.  This is mostly because humans have automated a lot of their survival through farming, agriculture, and mass-production of goods.  The result?  Lots of leisure time.  And, as mentioned, creatures tend to use that time to train and learn for the sake of increased survival.

This is where humans take it to a new level though.  As mentioned, sports, games, and competitions are meant to train skills by setting up a safer, artificial environment.  However, because the survival need is so reduced in a first-world country (compared to being a gazelle or something), many skills developed to succeed in a given competition don't actually get used to help you survive.  Even stranger is the fact that the competitions we create are so artificial that they wouldn't really contribute to survival at all.

Well, that's not quite true.  Being a competitive poker player might not teach you much about surviving in a jungle, but it does teach you things about statistics, intelligent risk taking, and thinking rationally in the face of massive potential losses.  And in the environment that humans have created, those can be very valuable skills indeed.  When competitors talk about transferring skills they learn in games into their real lives, even though real life is pretty far removed from a more primal form of survival, the skills still help.

Where it gets particularly crazy, however, is that sports, games, and competitions have become so big that people will train their entire lives specifically to compete in the artificial environments using artificial skills.  Their survival in the modern environment--their pay and their status--can legitimately depend on how well they do.  So the artificial environments become much less artificial because those people's role in society is to perform in them.

Why is that?  Why are sports and games so big?  What is so appealing that people pay money to spend leisure time--time they could be spending to further their own survival--on spectating and watching artificial fitness scenarios?  And why do the best players become revered celebrities?

I'll go into that more next week!  Thanks again for reading.


  1. I wonder if you've listened to the WNYC Radio Lab episode on "Games".... hmmmmm

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