Chris Bertram muses about metaphors, specifically about machine metaphors for the mind (clockwork, hydraulic, computer) and gaming metaphors for society (bowls, billiards, football). Whether a society’s basic outlook is reflected in or by its games is one of those interesting problems that’s more tractable over a few beers than it is actually researchable. Two axes that immediately suggest themselves are national preferences for team vs individual games, and games of skill vs games of chance.
A friend of mine has a plausible theory that Americans like team games where you can keep detailed, meaningful statistics about every individual player. Baseball, American Football and Basketball meet this requirement. Real Football does not. Witness the efforts of American TV networks to introduce the concept of an ‘assist’ during the 1998 World Cup. Of course, cricket immediately suggests itself as a counter-example to this line of though. An alternative tack is to treat the problem historically, as Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman do in their book Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. As for cricket, I think England is the only country north of roughly the Tropic of Cancer that plays the game. With the possible exception of Canada. Time for a beer…
(The sociologist Eric Liefer (who has also written a book about sports) once observed that game theory is badly named, because it is all about the analysis of games that do not have to be played. His work on chess players showed that the best players are successful not because they can think more moves ahead, but because they can sustain “robust action.” They know how to sustain the game while simultaneously keeping their own position as flexible as possible while trying to lock their opponent into a narrow set of viable choices.)
Chris wonders about the effects of having hurling as your national sport. (We pause here for our American readers, so they may make a feeble joke about Irish people throwing up, possibly while drunk.) I’m not sure. In case you’re not familiar with the game, hurling is best described as a cross between hockey and murder. Or ice hockey without the ice and the pads, and with the capacity to strike the puck through the air. It’s the fastest field game in the world. As an illustration, here is a photograph taken at the 1959 Munster final. It shows Waterford’s goalkeeper, Ned Power, saving from Cork’s Christy Ring. Power has just caught the sliotar (that’s the ball, about three inches across, made of leather-covered cork and quite hard) in his left hand while Ring was trying to “double” on it, that is, strike it with his hurley while it flew overhead. A Waterford full-back has just failed to prevent Ring from swinging. His hurley is wrapped around the front of Ring’s torso. Take a close look at it. It’s the only one you can see side-on. The head or wide end of the hurley is called the “bas”—- it’s the part where you balance or hit the sliotar. See that dark band running across it? That’s a thin piece of metal spliced around the head of the hurley to help prevent the wood splitting when it hits the ball, or another hurley. Or indeed another player.
I’ll leave it to others to decide what effect a pastime like this might have on a nation’s psyche.