Soccer, Baseball, Football

June 16, 2010

The world cup has started. I’ve only seen ten minutes of it; they happened to be the ten minutes in which the US scored its goal against England (or, rather, the English goalie scored against himself). Good luck on my part, I suppose, tuning in when I did.

Unlike the great majority of the world, I’m not a fan of soccer. Partially, I admit, it’s because I’ve never spent the time needed to understand the sport. I have a basic understanding of the rules – even the off-sides rule isn’t that hard to understand, after all (compare it to the arcane definition of a balk) but the strategy of the game I’ve never spent a great deal of effort trying to understand. I don’t have much desire to, though; the game is too fluid for my tastes.

This is really the main distinction between soccer and baseball. When it comes down to it, I suspect, there are really only three kinds of team sports: soccer, which is the same sport as hockey and basketball; baseball, which is the same as cricket; and American football, which is the same as rugby.

  • In soccer (and hockey and basketball), you have a completely fluid game where two sides are trying to get the ball into the opponent’s goal but possession can shift at any time, and there is no clear division of the action except after goals and out-of-bounds, and thus at each division both teams are back to being equal except for the score.
  • In baseball, you have a completely delineated game, where teams take turns going on offense and defense, which involve completely separate goals, and each at-bat is a separate action. The game has basically no fluidity to it, and there are numerous states (having men on base, getting outs) that a play can begin in that make the teams unequal yet with the score remaining the same.
  • In football, you have a strange mix of the two. There are separate offensive and defensive squads, but both teams intend to get the ball in the opponent’s goal, and possession can shift at any time. There are clear divisions between plays, and teams can gain yardage and lose downs without scoring. Yet the basic symmetry of the game gives it a sense of fluidity not found in baseball or soccer.

Of all the professional sports baseball is my favorite, and I think  it is because it is so delineated – it makes it possible to describe it is a step-by-step progression in a way you can’t describe a soccer game. Football I can enjoy for similar reasons, but I find myself easily bored by soccer (though I find it easily the most interesting of the soccer class of games); it always seems the same except when someone scores, and once there’s a score, there’s nothing to be excited about because it’s already back to normal.

Still, I wonder if I wouldn’t like soccer better if it were higher scoring – not as high as basketball games, but more like a baseball game, with an average score being 5-4 not 1-0. That’s about an average football score too, once you factor out the x7 multiplier – a 5-4 game translates into a 35-28 game, which is quite reasonable, and since field goals are only x3 not x7, it makes sense that they tend to be a bit lower than that.

So, though I prefer baseball mainly for its divisions and ability to be analyzed, I wonder if the reason I actively dislike soccer, or at least find it boring, has more to do with the low scores. If a 5-4 score, i.e. 9 total scores, is ideal for a 3-hour-game including commercials (so, a 2-hour game without them), does that mean the proper ratio for sports is a score every 10-15 minutes? Anything significantly more than that leads to a repetitive monotony (in basketball it’s a score every 30 seconds, which is way too often), while anything significantly less leads to a boring game (soccer is probably about a score every 45-60 minutes, though I couldn’t say exactly).

How much deviation from this 10-15 minutes can there be, I wonder, before the sport becomes boring? I also wonder if having such a ratio for some reason requires delineation, separation into different plays. At first glance that may seem preposterous, but it makes a sort of sense. All achievements in sports, I suspect, will be either really difficult (and so happen extremely rarely) or be really easy (and so happen quite often). Delineation means you can have multiple steps that are easy to achieve while requiring that many be achieved in succession in order to score. Having a pitch go in one’s favor is relatively easy; scoring a run requires that happening several times without three outs occurring first. With a more fluid game, you can’t do this, and so either scoring is easy (basketball) and happens too often, or it’s difficult (soccer) and happens too rarely. It’s hard to achieve a good mean.

As a simple thought experiment: consider transforming baseball into a game where there were no gradual accomplishments – it was either all or nothing, every time. The game would consist, basically, of team A making one pitch to team B, and if it results in a home run, team B scores a run; if not, team A comes up to bat. I don’t think that would be a very good game.

Kasparov on Chess

January 25, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily‘s links today include this article by Garry Kasparov about computers and chess. It’s quite fascinating, and touches on the issue of finitude that I’ve been talking about recently and find so fascinating; it also ends with the suggestion that poker, rather than chess, is a better fit for the modern age – a suggestion I tend to agree with, for basically the reasons he gives.

Incidentally, the most recent XKCD is among the best; they hadn’t been all that great in recent weeks, but this one completely reversed that trend.

Anyway, for now, have fun with those links; I’ll hopefully have a substantial post up sometime later this week.

Metaphorical Board Games

December 27, 2009

My younger brother got a backgammon set for Christmas; the nature of the game provoked in me some questions which I will not convey, regarding the nature of traditional board games. Specifically, what is the action of the game a metaphor for? What I mean is, since each game is a microcosm, we must ask, what is the movement of the pieces, the goals of the different sides, etc, supposed to represent in terms of the real world? What follows is an exploration of this question with regards to various different board games:

  • Draughts (a class of games of which American checkers is a specific type) is one of the simplest of the well-known traditional board games. Its metaphor is clear and uncomplicated: two sides are fighting each other, your goal, as the leader of one side, is to kill all the soldiers of the other side. Most of the other rules have to do with making the game playable, and do not develop the game’s metaphor. A possible exception is the rule for getting a king when a piece gets to the opponent’s side; this seems to represent how experienced soldiers are more powerful. These games are among the oldest known board games, originating before 3000 BC in Sumeria, and mentioned in Homer; men have always fought each other in war.
  • Then there’s chess. The game is similar in many ways to checkers – indeed, it’s played on the same type of board – but it adds differentiation between the pieces. The battle here is not between two crowds of people, but between armies, with footsoldiers (pawns), well-equipped warriors (knights, bishops, rooks), and a queen and king. The king also adds an interesting dimension to the metaphor; the player is no longer a vague presence directing his army, he is physically present on the board; the king is the player. So the game doesn’t end with the destruction of the entire army; it ends when the king is captured. As one would expect, since it involves combat between complex armies with specialized tasks, chess is a significantly newer game than draughts, originating in India in the 6th century AD, and making its way to Europe by the 10th.
  • Another interesting group of board game in this general theme is the Tafl games. There are different because they are between uneven forces, and while one player’s goal is to kill the opponent’s king, the other’s is to have his king escape. The metaphor seems to be that a king and his loyal bodyguards are surrounded on the battlefield, and the guards must sacrifice themselves in order to help the king escape from the opposing army. It seems fitting that these games are Scandinavian in origin, since the lord-thane relationship is of such importance in those cultures.
  • Another board game that I’ve played very little of, but which is one of the most popular in the world, is Go. The metaphor here, as I understand it, is of controlling territory; the individual pieces do not matter as much as the land they are on, and the goal is to be the one with the most board space at the end. And again, I find that this seems somehow appropriate for its origins; it is an East Asian game, originating around 400 BC in China (though legend traces is back to 3000 BC). Oriental society has always seemed to me more interested in the societal group than in the individual, as opposed to Western civilization; thus Go fits them quite well.
  • The Tables family of games (of which backgammon is a member) is the final game I’m going to talk about. These all involve moving around a board past the opponent and trying to be the first to get all your pieces to the finish; the metaphor, then, might be one of racing. But this doesn’t make all that much sense. Neither does war, though; in what kind of war is the goal not to kill the opponent, but to send them back home? It might have something to do with merchants and trade, but I really haven’t figured it out. Backgammon is one game whose metaphor I can’t unravel – perhaps because it seems to mix them. I do know it is one of the oldest board games, being dated to before 3000 BC; perhaps, then, whatever the story was intended to be, it has been lost.

Sports and “Sports”

August 23, 2008

I’ve been watching some of the Olympics this week (despite the fact that I think the USA probably should have boycotted them), and thinking about the nature of the competitions.

One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not saying this is a particularly startling insight on my part – is that the sports can, for the most part, be divided into two categories. There’s the ones where you win by earning points, or runs, or whatever, through your own actions, and there’s the ones where you win by convincing judges to give you points. Examples of the former would be, say, baseball or soccer or tennis or the 100 meter dash or something like that; examples of the latter would be stuff like gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming.

Now, is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the latter type of “sport”? I’m not sure they even deserve to be called “sports”. Sports are supposed to be tests of the athletic skill of the competitors. The competitors in gymnastics, diving, etc, are athletes, certainly, but it seems to me that these so-called sports are not testing their athletic skill – they’re testing their ability to convince the judges to give them points. This leaves the ultimate responsibility for determining the winner in the hands of the judges, not the hands of the competitors.

Which means that ideology-related bias (I could easily see a judge from the US not giving high marks to a gymnast from China because those two countries are seen as adversaries), home-field advantage (it seems to just be acknowledged fact at these Olympic games that the Chinese have an advantage in judged “sports” because the roar of the crowd is louder for their athletes, making them seem more impressive), and pure whim play much too large a role.

And don’t try to tell me that the way the judges determine the scores is in some way scientific and they are just applying a set of simple rules to what they see. Even if that is in theory the case, it is clearly not the case in real life – a sport where one judge can give a 10.0 and another an 8.5 to the same dive, for example, cannot be based on objective observation of what happened.

Still, you do have sports that are kind of on the border – I don’t know much about boxing, and so am not sure if it falls into the sports or “sports” category, and while it seems like wrestling is objective, there are apparently judged involved to determine when exactly to award a point. And even with sports like baseball or football or soccer, you have umpires or referees who have an influence on the game even though they are on neither team.

But I don’t think this is the same thing. With calling balls and strikes in baseball, for example, the umpire does have to make the call, but he is saying that an event happened a certain way. He is making a call about facts. With judged sports, they are not making calls about facts, they are translating their opinions into a pseudo-scientific scoring system. They are not saying “this dive was worth 8.5 points and anyone who disagrees with me is in error”, they are saying, “oh, let’s see, he did X, Y and Z well but messed up on W a bit… let’s give him an 8.5, that sounds about right”. And different judges can come to different conclusions, and give different point values, and this is seen as acceptable, even perhaps a good thing.

Good thing, bad thing, I don’t care – but it does make it, in my opinion, not a sport.

It would be interested to see what would happen to the Olympics if all of these “sports” were taken out, though. Most people probably wouldn’t watch if the Olympics consisted only of track and field and swimming and soccer and stuff like that. But it would be more of a contest of pure athletic skill. It would also probably result in the US beating China in the Olympic medal count; right now the US has more medals total, but the Chinese more golds, but I suspect this is largely a result of the Chinese winning in the judged “sports” (IIRC they swept men’s gymnastics, and diving too, and did really well in the women’s of both those sports too) – if you take those out, the US probably wins by a hefty margin. I don’t know, though; the US probably has a lot of medals in those sports too, after all.

Game Review: Portal

July 21, 2008

So, a few weeks ago (actually, five or six weeks ago… the summer is passing by rather quickly), I was at a friend’s house and ended up playing the game Portal all the way through. It’s only an hour, maybe two, long. Quite a fun game, even if it’s not Free Software.

Anyway, the gameplay of Portal is quick fun. I like the first-person-puzzle-game aspect of it – combining FPSs and geometry problems is quite brilliant. And the storyline is quite compelling and well presented. It manages to show the world of Aperture Science, GlaDOS, the portal gun, and the deadly neurotoxin in an extremely believable manner. But what struck me most was how it presents a rather complete world in such a short period of time. Like I said, the game’s only an hour long.

Now, Portal is not really autonomous – it is tied in with Half-Life (also a rather good game; I haven’t played Half-Life 2), and Aperture Science is presented as a rival company to Black Mesa, the location of the experiment-gone-wrong in Half-Life. However, the idea of a stand-alone story containing a stand-alone world that could be presented in a short period of time in a reasonably complete manner intrigued me. Portal comes close – really, if you ignore the references to Black Mesa, it basically succeeds.

This is, of course, a form of mythopoeia, but I’ve never heard a word to refer to this particular subset. There is, however, one that basically fits the bill – “microcosm”. A miniature world. As I’m using it, it basically means a fantasy world that is simple enough that its nature can be conveyed in something about the length of a short story. Fairy tales often fall into this category; Sleeping Beauty (my favorite fairy tale), for example, gives you a world of good and evil fairies who have the power to control the lives of mortals. That’s really all you need. Everything else is assumed to be the same as in the real world – even if Sleeping Beauty isn’t set in the real world.

The short story I recently finished writing (but haven’t finished revising, so I haven’t posted it yet) is this kind of story. It basically wants to get across the idea of – a giant spiral ramp, good guys at the top, bad at the bottom, and they fight battles in the middle. The middle is empty. That’s the microcosm “On The Staircase” takes place in. There’s a story to go with it, of course, about one inhabitant of the staircase – but the world is just as important as the story.

Life as a Strategy Game

June 18, 2008

It’s interesting, I think, to compare the mechanics of “real life” to the mechanics of different kinds of games. In other words, to look at life as if it were a strategy game.

Now, I’m a fan of turn-based strategy games – TBSs, from here on out. But they are, I will admit, somewhat unrealistic. Life is not like a TBS, but rather like an RTS – a real-time strategy game. If life were like a TBS along the lines of chess, we would have infinite time to consider the possible outcomes of our actions. Presuming that we would still have both free will and intellect, then all possible outcomes of our moves could be considered, and we would choose the best one. That would mean we could not do things we would later regret, and would be more like angels than men. We would still have free will, but in a form much different than what we currently experience as free will. I imagine this is the kind of free will angels have.

Though, do angels have absolute knowledge? I could imagine a TBS where you did not have absolute knowledge yet it was deterministic – say, Dark Chess, i.e. chess with fog-of-war. Is the angelic point of view more like that than like chess itself? (I’m fairly certain that angelic life wouldn’t have an element of chance, like, say, Wesnoth does. Angels don’t play dice, I would guess.)

As it is, human life is more like an RTS – it doesn’t wait for us to make our decisions, it moves on with or without our consent. This is one of the implications of being physical as well as spiritual beings. It’s funny how often we forget it, though; there is I think a tendency to approach life as if it were a sequence of decisions to make rather than continuous motion.

A Defense of Brawl

March 13, 2008

So, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out Sunday at midnight. A friend of mine bought it then, so I’ve had access to it for the last 96 hours. And I’ve spent way too much time playing it. (according to the game it’s been played for 40 hours, but I myself have probably only played for 10-15 hours. Which is still a lot.)

Sure, it’s fun. For those interested, my characters are going to be Zelda, Pit, Ganondorf and Wolf. I already knew how to play Zelda from Melee; I basically learned Pit on Sunday, since he’s a pretty easy character; I played as Ganondorf for a while on Monday, and I’ve decided I’m going to learn how to use him, but so far I’m not that great with him; I picked up Wolf yesterday and have played him exclusively since then, and have gotten decent with him.

But, I wonder, and perhaps you do as well… Is playing for 10-15 hours not a bit excessive? Am I not wasting my time?

I’ve thought about it, and in the end, I think – no.

Playing video games is justifiable in several different ways. I’ll look at three – (1) It’s a social activity, (2) it stimulates thought, and (3) really, what better stuff do I have to do?

  1.  Clearly Smash is a social activity (as long as you’re playing in a group, not by yourself). And it’s truly social, not like sitting in a room with a bunch of people and watching a movie, which is either a solitary experience in a group setting or extremely unpleasant. You interact with the other people playing – taunting them, allying with them against the leader, yelling raucously, and generally getting into the competitive spirit. If you accept that social activity is a good thing (and I think you have to – if we were not intended to participate in society, we might as well not be corporeal beings), Smash seems like a fairly good option as far as social activity is concerned.
  2. Indeed, I do think Smash is good for the mind. I have been gently mocked for using the term “strategy” in relation to Super Smash Brothers, but I think I had a point – playing Smash, or really any video game of decent complexity, does more than just train pattern recognition and quick reflexes. Take a stage like Hyrule Temple. It requires thought to decide when to go into the “cave of infinite life”, to decide when to charge the enemy and when to use ranged attacks, to figure out the best places to place mines, to decide who to target and who to avoid fighting (and this depends on the skill level of other players as well as the in-game situation). Really, Smash presents the players with a fairly complex system they must try to manipulate – and I think that probably helps with system manipulation in general. (I’ll stop now before it sounds like I think Smash should be taught in schools.)
  3. This isn’t to say I think Smash is the ideal activity or anything. But, really… what do I have to do that’s more important? I can only spend so much time every day processing knowledge, by which I mean the verb “reading” generalized beyond literature, or producing knowledge, by which I mean writing generalized beyond literature. I honestly couldn’t stand spending 100% of my waking hours doing that, and I don’t think it would be natural for me to do so either – like I said above, man is meant to be a social animal, not just a knowledge processing/producing machine. So I might as well play Smash. It’s better than going out and getting smashed.

That said, I could probably stand to spend a bit less time playing Smash and a bit more working on Orbivm, etc… and I probably will. I only played for 10-15 hours over the past four days because the new game had just come out. Isn’t not a permanent thing. Really. I promise.

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