Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Mind Sports are indeed a sport!

I have been asked to make the case for Mind Sports to be considered as a sport when it comes to the awards of half-colours and colours. I would like to exceed this brief somewhat, because in many ways the question is academic. Mind Sports is already recognised as a category one sport by the Department Of Sports and Recreation and by SASCOC in South Africa, and internationally by Sport Accord, the controlling body of world sport. It is thus a case of fait accompli, and in terms of my argument, Q.E.D! I would like to argue that Mind Sports should play an important part of any co-curricular programme whether considered a sport or not.

Mind Sports include many different codes such as board games like Chess, Checkers, Morabaraba, Backgammon, Go or Diplomacy; card games such as Bridge or Poker, included by The International Mind Sports Federation after a US judge ruled Poker was not a game of chance; computer games such as DotA, League of legends, Tekken, FIFA and so on; historical wargaming; and role play games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

eSports were  included in the 2014 Asian Games, and may soon be part of the Winter Olympic programme. Mind Sports such as Chess, Checkers, Bridge and Go have been in included in the World Mind Games which follow the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and the ways in which Mind Sports articulate with other sports is not only becoming clearer and more regularised every year, but the huge viewership and amount of money wrapped up in eSports in particular, makes this one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Although the question around whether eSports is a sport or not is only just emerging into the public debate, within the sporting community itself, at the upper reaches of decision-making at any rate, it is already a done deal!

For many, though, the vision of Mind Sports such as Checkers or video-gaming as a sport is problematic, and I would like to argue this case on two fronts. I would like first to make the case for Mind Sports as an important part of any school’s co-curricular programme, fulfilling a role usually associated with physical sports, and secondly tackle the issue around whether it is indeed a sport or a recreational activity.

Thomas Arnold’s argument for the importance of team sports in education still stands today as one of the central pillars of the modern education system. Few teachers would argue that sports are not a vital component of education, and schools which cannot offer sporting activities suffer for it greatly. Computer gaming is often characterised as anti-social and harmful. And yet a raft of research is now indicating quite the opposite. The emerging consensus is that up to three hours a day of video-gaming is actually good for you in terms of happiness, social-well-being, and would you believe it, even eye-sight! This is because video-gaming is essentially an intensely social activity, and for kids growing up in a world where they are discouraged from loitering in public places; online socialising, including gaming is a vital component in developing social maturity. Gaming, especially the more competitive team-based eSports such as DotA or CounterStrike, are games which encourage collaboration and team-work. A great deal has been written about the role of online gaming in treating autism, and I think it would be fair to say that in many ways computer gaming and muscular Christianity are not incompatible notions! I am not saying that DotA should replace rugby or hockey in terms of building body, mind and character, but I am saying that eSports, in a digital world, should be seen as equally vital in developing well-rounded, socialised human beings.

James Gee has highlighted the ways in which computer gaming stands as an exemplary model for learning, and argues that schools should take heed of this. Jane McGonigall has argued cogently for the social significance of gaming, and no less a figure than Albert Einstein, himself a keen Chess player, believed that games are the “highest form of investigation”.

This needs some unpacking. I was struck by a piece of research that came out recently which looked at what areas of the brain were activated during writing. While amateur writers, more concerned with whether to use this word or that had one area of the brain activated, professional writers were using the same area of the brain as is used during gaming, ie. the strategic decision-making areas. Professional writers are not concerned with word-choice; they are making strategic decisions about how to persuade their audience, what writing strategies to employ, the same kinds of decisions games-players make all the time. Knowledge is often conceived of as sitting on a continuum between highly abstract, universal knowledge such as algebra or the concept of relativity, and highly contextualised and experiential knowledge, as in History, Literature or Biology.

Jerome Bruner argued that this dichotomy between paradigmatic and narrative modes of knowing is in fact a false dichotomy, and I think this is what Einstein had in mind.

Beyond any knowledge of this or that, lies the meta-theory, and in this realm metaphor and narrative are the building blocks of knowledge. All knowledge is situated within a given paradigm, and knowledge is often advanced simply by shifting paradigm. A case in point would be the disagreement between Niels Bohr and Einstein over quantum physics. Einstein could not believe that God played dice with the universe and refused to believe in the possibility of any of the “spooky” effects of quantum mechanics. We now know that Einstein was wrong, but at the time both paradigms stood in stark contrast to each other, with different ways of explaining the universe, neither proven. When Gauss dreamed up his non-linear geometry he did not suspect that space might indeed be curved. Charles Boole had no idea his Boolean algebra would have applications for electronics. The venture into quantum physics, non-linear geometry or Boolean algebra were all game-like, what-if explorations which played with the conventional world-view.

Games are meta-theoretical in that they approach questions around how to construct what is known into a coherent view of the world, they are ways of investigating the meaning of meaning! If we know this, what do we do with this knowledge? If it were this way instead of that way, what would it mean? This is the realm of intellectual history and the philosophy of knowledge. Knowledge does not stand alone, it stands within a tradition and within paradigms, and what I imagine Einstein meant by games as the highest form of investigation, are the tools we use to move beyond the straight-jacket of the paradigm.

Now, I am not saying that Chess or DotA can be seen as somehow more important than Science, but playfulness is a form of investigation, and games in education are not just tools to engage, they are also cognitive tools. We are only just coming to appreciate this, and I would argue that gaming, including computer gaming should be seen both as a sport important in building character and as tools we can use for cognitive development generally because they enhance our ability to think strategically. I believe that games play is essential in developing problem-solving skills, and may help explain why boys seem better at it than girls.

In many places Chess is being introduced into the academic curriculum with good effect, but I believe it would have greater effect to introduce a range of games. Different games address different aspects of general intelligence, which is why a good Chess player is not necessarily a good draughts player. Mind Sports includes a range of games, and all have their value and place. I believe all schools should be aiming at building body, mind and character, and that mind sports has an important role to play in this process. Not in isolation but together with academics and physical sports.

But are Mind Sports, whether they be computer games or board games like Checkers, Go or Backgammon, or card games like Bridge, not recreational rather than sporting in nature? Maybe they have a place in the educational programme, but not as sports! Maybe they should be considered cultural activities rather than sport.

The dictionary definition of sport usually goes something along the lines of “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other” (Merriam-Webster). There are usually three major elements to the definition and that is that it is physical, involves contestation, and is governed by a set of rules. Mind Sports easily qualifies in the latter two of these elements, so the issue really comes down to the definition of physical. All Mind Sports involve a physical element. Chess pieces are moved, cards are dealt, die are rolled, and mouse clicks are made. We have not yet achieved a state in which our minds can exist independently of our bodies. All sports have a mental aspect and a physical aspect, and this should probably be inserted into the definition.

In some eSports hand-eye co-ordination is crucial, but clearly there is not necessarily a high level of physical exertion required, although stamina is always crucial. On the other hand we need to understand that the level of physicality required of any sport sits on a continuum from heavily physical sports such as swimming to those with less exertion such as darts or pistol shooting! eSports certainly require a greater level of hand-eye co-ordination than some sports which require only exertion – such as nurdling or caber-tossing! One can see that the argument then revolves around whether pure physical exertion (running) or hand-eye co-ordination (clay-pigeon shooting or archery) is more integral to one’s definition of physicality. Given that physicality is only one element in the definition of sport, and that all sport is both mental and physical to some extent, it is easy to see why Sports Accord, the umbrella body for world sport, Olympic and non-Olympic sports, has accepted Mind Sports into its fold.

So why should Mind Sports be considered sports in schools rather than cultural contestations such as debating, theatre sports or poetry slams? I believe that Chess, for example, or eSports both involve very similar dynamics in terms of a rule-governed contest to sports which is somewhat different to the contestation of a debate or public speaking. Firstly the logic of the contest in a debate or poetry slam is usually more about the performance than the result. While a school may be declared a winner, it is usually by adjudication rather than by a rule-governed outcome. In eSports or Checkers, players win the game every bit as much as they do in netball or tennis! You do not need an adjudicator to decide who won or lost. Secondly, Chess or DotA shares with rugby or cricket the aspect of being a game, a common vocabulary, conventions of running leagues, tournaments and matches, with notions of a season, regular fixtures and medals, cups or trophies to be won. Debating leagues are run somewhat differently.

For all these reasons, I would argue that schools need to recognise Mind Sports as a full sport!

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