The deep structure of sports

Americans enjoy a panoply of sports as diverse as ice hockey and sand volleyball. While it is true that we partake in a wide variety of games, the apparent variation between games masks just how similar they are. It may not be obvious to the naked eye, but games as dissimilar as soccer and basketball share the same deep structure.

It’s not just basketball and soccer that share an abstract outline. Football, rugby, hockey, handball, water polo and lacrosse use the very same skeleton. Notice that all of these games can be summarized as follows: A rectangular playing area is divided into two halves; on either end lies a goal, which belongs to one of the two competing teams; each team attempts to place a ball into its opponent’s goal while also preventing its opponent from placing the very same ball into its own goal; the match is timed, and the team with the most goals when time expires is declared the winner.

As you can see, that is a detailed framework but it is by no means limiting. It allows for sports that require kicking such as soccer and sports that forbid it such as basketball. It accommodates surfaces from hardwood floors to grass to ice and to water. And yet, as accommodating as this “goal” framework is, there are still many games that lie outside it.

Another category of popular games can be described as “alternate shot” games, and they include volleyball, tennis, badminton and racquetball. The structure of some of these games bears a superficial resemblance to goal games in that the playing area is rectangular, the pitch is often divided into two equal halves and each team is assigned a half to defend. While that is true for tennis and volleyball, that is not true for racquetball, which has very little in common with the goal games.

The alternate shot games differ from the goal games in that the players are not attempting to put a ball in a goal but rather to prevent their opponents from returning the ball when it is in the opponent’s “court.” These games do not use time as the goal games do. The matches end when one side has scored the requisite number of points, which is different from the goal games in which it doesn’t matter if the winner scores one goal or 100 goals, so long as it scores more goals than its opponent.

Mysteriously absent from this taxonomy is the game of baseball. Baseball, its sister, softball, and its cousin, cricket, appear wholly different from all other games, and I will call them the “bat” games. The teams do not attempt to defend portions of the field as they do in the goal games. Instead, they take turns trying to score on the same goal. Also unlike the goal games, the defensive side handles the ball most of the time it is in play.

The bat games are also different in that they do not progress by the passage of time, as in the goal games, nor by the tallying of points, as in the alternate shot games. Bat games progress via “outs,” which are recorded by the defense, a concept that is alien to the other games.

The lesson we can take away from this analysis is that we are far from exhausting the range of possible games that can be invented. The goal framework is just one of many outlines a game can take, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of other frameworks.

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2 Responses to “The deep structure of sports”

  1. ATurner Says:

    Undoubtedly, and you can figure out the best of the game permutations in your free time. No better man for the job.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Another highly common structure for games to take, which I did not mention, is the “independent actors” structure. In this framework, the quality of the players is measured by having them complete the same task as their opponents, but without allowing them to impede the progress of their opponents. Examples include track and field events, golf, darts and bowling.

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