Parable of The Games

A certain man played basketball on Sunday, and many other games throughout the week.  So long as he played, he found himself improving at basketball, and got a little exercise as well.  On other days of the week, he played other games, and sometimes tried to bring skills, rules, and strategies learned elsewhere to the basketball games he played on Sunday.  And vice versa.  The court was at the center of an ancient ritual complex, for some reason, like you’d find among the ancient Maya.

Anyway, there were Sundays when this man would take his place on the bench, and allow others to play basketball.  Then he would hear teammates, and appointed coaches talking about basketball.  How strange!  Sometimes officials emerged, and blew their whistles, stopping the game, imposing penalties on players.  The more these spectators spoke about the game–how it should be played, who gets to play, how to measure victories, what scores and stats ought to be recorded, compensation, tales about the game’s history, and so on–the sorts of comments broadcasters often make, he found himself doubting.


Now, does it make sense to say one doubts basketball?  Of course not.  One only doubts comments made about basketball.  Does it make sense to “know basketball is true”?  Not really.  Unless by “true” one means, “good,” and the sort of knowing really is a sort of “playing for a team I like and trust.”  Only when the man stops playing the game does he wonder about the game, and begin to doubt his place on the team and the wisdom of his teammates and coaches concerning their understanding of the game.   You might say that because of a multitude of tv timeouts, halftimes, and injury delays, the man came to be a spectator to a sport.

Yet he does not doubt the game itself, for that makes mischief of the meaning of the word “doubt.”  He may find, however, that he no longer enjoys playing according to regularly updated coaching methods, schedules, and often arbitrarily altered officiating.  Sometimes he finds the game being played merely as a form of exercise, as though conducted on behalf of some other unspoken purpose like losing weight; and yet it is played sluggishly nonetheless.  Should he rally his team to play harder, or to join another league, or to practice more often, more vigorously?  Maybe take the best players and start his own team?

What is this man to do?  Stop playing basketball entirely?  Take up the easy aphorisms of the broadcaster?  Join another sport, and insist that the coaches, teammates, league officials, and so on are running things in some manner that is better than the league or sport he plays on Sundays?  Only so long as he plays their games, does he feel this way, it seems.  He has become a skeptic of commentary, and sees games everywhere played.  Should he listen while on the sidelines, he may come to doubt many things about every game, and yet not doubt the games themselves.


One day, the man agrees with a fuzzy, wise old mascot who tells him, “no one doubts games they play.  The play itself is beyond convincing or doubt, because it is play.  The play is the thing.”  So, he thought: just because someone does not doubt, does not make the claims made about that thing any more or less accurate or true.  And so we cannot rely on post-game or half-time interviews, either, to get the player’s point of view.  That view is not found in words, the man thinks; and understands why words uttered by spectators are seldom other than cheering and booing.

And yet, once a spectator, the man found it impossible to play basketball without also observing the game, even while on the court.  His perspective has split.  The man has introduced spectatorship onto the court, and that is not part of the game, he realizes.  So he stands on the sideline, literally on the line itself.  How long can he stand here?


It is the talk about the game, by spectators not playing the game, which brings in awareness of the game itself, as a game (with rules, officials, coaches, marketers, ticket-takers, cheerleaders, and so on).  Only then–when it’s known as a game–can the game be paused so one might rest on the bench, taking part in the game as a spectator, rather than as a player of the game.

Spectating is a new form of play. It requires players.  Children don’t spectate, for instance.  Adults do.  And only then does one come to doubt the game: as a spectator.  But the man is not doubting the game itself.  He doubts what is said by spectators.  Those who play, whose hearts are fully in the game, do not doubt.  They know the game from the inside, as children.  And yet that cannot be said about spectators who are playing another sort of game: commenting, directing, instructing, coaching, and so on.  That game can be played upon every other sport; but we can all agree that broadcasters, cheerleaders, officials, marketers, and even coaches are different from players.

The man sees that the spectator’s game is far more widespread and lucrative than the game they claim to see and talk about.  He does not confuse their game for the basketball game itself, which must be played to be known.  The question that confronts the man, once he moves beyond the simple world of parables: how to tell who is playing basketball, and who is playing the other sort of game?