Obligatory World Cup Post

Clive Thompson on why “Soccer” (sic) annoys merkins:

“…game design reflects the national soul. Americans are predisposed to enjoy games where the rules encourage lots of scoring. Soccer wasn’t architected that way, so Americans don’t like it. Baseball, basketball, and football, in contrast, were designed to allow for lots of scoring — and they are thus huge hits in America, a country obsessed with toting up manichean victories.

I seriously doubt Cannon and Lessner are even aware of the existence of ludology — the philosophy and design of play. But they have nonetheless illustrated precisely why ludology is such a powerful way to understand national cultures, and the differences between Americans and Europeans. It also helps you understand why the writers are so damn snarky, and their critics so correspondingly nasty: It’s because ludology is one of the most gut-level, passionate areas of philosophy, and play is so central to our identities. People can be tepid about whether or not they like a book or a movie. But nobody is is wishy-washy about play. A game either totally rocks or totally sucks, and there is no phase transition between the two.”

0 comments
  1. nick s said:

    I disagree. While baseball allows high-ish scores, a ‘perfect game’ is one in which the other team not only draws a blank, but doesn’t even get off home plate.

    My counter-thesis: Americans are predisposed to enjoy games based upon discrete set pieces. The pitcher facing the batter. The half-court in basketball. The called plays in American football. (The exception is ice hockey, and that’s not really an American sport. It’s a sport for Americans who don’t like American sports.)

    That’s why they seem to appreciate Beckham’s free kicks more than midfield approach play. And penalty shootouts. And the comments to Clive’s original post note the three-act structure (or ‘Hollywood ending’) that’s often encouraged by the apportioning of timeouts.

  2. charlie said:

    i always find it fascinating that some games get to the level of global national sports (for exmample, why is football such a popular sport whereas volleyball or track and field are not?); that the set up leads to the resulting play style, scoring, tempo, need for endurance, etc (how optimal are football rules for what players and audience want out of them?); and i wonder how much (as you hint above) culture affects the acceptance of games in much the same way as gender and age do (for example, why is baseball popular in central america and japan – american conquests or something else?)

  3. anno said:

    further to nicks post, the thing that always strikes me about american sports as opposed to european or british sport, is the highter degree of specialisms. Football and cricket seem to favour the all rounder, and all rounders are often celebrated as the pinnacle achivement in the games. American football on the other hand appears to generate an endless amount of sub catagories of play, kickers who are only used a handful of times etc.

  4. matlock said:

    I’d echo the comments about baseball not being high-scoring – its actually about metrics. Americans love games that have good metrics. Basketball is the simplest version of this, with its crazy scoring, NFL and MLB are stat-fests, with every possible combination of performance history measured and compared. The ‘perfect game’ – in which a pitcher finishes a complete 9 inning game (a rarity) without letting an opposing team player on base – is the holy grail of american sport because it is such a unique statistic, not because it is high-scoring. Witness also the national uproar about drugs-shamed Billy Bonds exceeding Babe Ruth’s career home run record, and compare it to the comparative murmur that greeted Ronaldo breaking Gerd Muller’s record for World Cup goals.

    American sports are set up for micro-management, their ludic structures encouraging tactical plays supported by endless statistical analysis – sport for McKinsy-ites, perhaps? Football, by comparison, is pretty stat free, although Pro-Zone is starting to make inroads with management and press. Beckham’s free-kicks appeal to stat-addicted US commentators, but how would they categorize some of the sublime flicks and kicks that Zidane pulled off against Brazil? There are no metrics for that kind of flamboyance, and that could be the ultimate cultural difference – the US demands metrics so that questions of merit can be rendered absolute (or at least, can be categorized); Football encourages free play, and moments of artistry that have little ultimate impact on the game, other than to make it beautiful…

  5. Dan said:

    An American said to me on Friday that the lack of technology in referee’s decision making is one of the major problems i.e. how can the balance of the game rest on something so impossibly variable? Thought this was interesting about American culture’s (note: not Americans!) approach to problem-solving through technology and, I guess, in theory an attempt to create a ‘level playing field’ (ahem) through technology too … But also therefore uncomfortable with things left to chance, variability, inconsistency, decisions in in one person’s hands etc. We all know football could use tech to ‘decide’ on whether the ball crossed that line, but a) it would slow a very fluid and perfectly balanced game down too much, and b) perhaps things even out in the long run, and c) would technology really *decide*? (nature of truth etc.), and d) a bit of lack of control isn’t a bad thing to get used to; actually quite a good thing to learn to live with?

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