Theory: Definitional Questions, Out in the World

It’s tempting not to want to talk about “what is a game” anymore. The discussion in popular culture has become toxic; debates in academia take place in ivory towers that can seem divorced from the practical requirements of designers. We shouldn’t completely abandon definitional questions, though, as they do become important from time to time–as in England right now, where a judge is weighing whether Bridge is a “sport.”

The facts, as I understand them, are as follows: Sport England is an English government body that provides funding to groups that put on sporting events. It’s made the decision that bridge isn’t a sport; ergo, bridge organizations aren’t eligible for money. The issue before the court now is whether Sport England made a “reasonable” decision.

(As a side note: this is a very common approach to judicial review of decisions made by government entities. The court doesn’t ask whether the decision was right. Instead, it considers whether the decision was made using the correct process. So long as the process was OK–all the necessary steps were followed, and the decision was made in light of the appropriate rules–the court won’t get involved in whether the decision was good or bad. The court will only overturn if there was a mistake in the process, and even then the court won’t change the decision; it will just tell the government entity to go back and revisit the question, using the right process.)

Whether Sport England was “reasonable” will depend, in part, on whether it followed the rules about what kind of organization it can give money to. Doubtless those rules involve–perhaps even revolve around–a definition of “sport.” Lots of money could ride on a word or two’s difference in a formal definition of what’s normally a very informal idea.

It’s not always easy to work through definitional issues regarding games. Recently, even the exercise hasn’t been pleasant. However, we need to keep hammering away at the problems. Definitions are one of the interfaces between games and the real world. Poor definitions mean poor interfaces, with all the unpredictable and undesirable results that implies.


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