The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
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Inventing a game

Last night, I caught “Silly Little Game,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the origin of Rotisserie League baseball / the fantasy sports industry. I’ve also been reading Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract on the Kindle and watching Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary on Netflix — which happens to feature (among many other notables) Daniel Okrent, who invented Rotisserie Baseball along with his other media-writer baseball junkie friends in New York.

So, okay, big deal: it’s April, and I’m geeking out about baseball. What else is new? Really, though, what all this baseball bingeing is making me do is think about GAMES — how we play them, all the levels at which we interact with them, and especially how they’re invented and go on to take a life of their own.

Some of the best parts of James’s book and Burns’s documentary are about the very early years of baseball. You might think we don’t know very much about baseball at all in the nineteenth century, but we actually know a ton. We’re even able to reconstruct individual players’ statistics going back practically to the Civil War.

And every difference between early baseball and the game today which you might point to that seems huge — fielders didn’t use gloves? Batters got to tell pitchers where they wanted a pitch? Baserunners would run into the outfield and across the middle of the infield to avoid tags? — doesn’t change that baseball 150 years ago looked almost exactly like the game you probably played in a yard or park or the middle of a street with your friends and brothers and sisters. The differences seem weird only because baseball is so unchanged.

Once the game is there — in its basic shape, its speciation — it’s there.

Another paradox: once the game is good enough that it can’t be killed, that means it’s too good to be controlled either.

This is what happened with rotisserie baseball — Okrent et al came up with the basic idea of the thing at their meetings at the Rotisserie Française restaurant pretty much as it exists now, but then it metastasized into dozens and hundreds of leagues, each offering slightly different rules, and then into football. Any control the original inventors tried to exert over the thing just led to people ditching the name “rotisserie” and calling it “fantasy.” And now these totally virtual, second-order games do billions of dollars of business every year.

Fantasy sports shows that all games, too — and maybe especially baseball — can be read closely or distantly. Close-reading a game like baseball — watching players play, or playing yourself — gives you the experiential feel of the game, its textures, its nuances, the color of the grass, the smell of the chalk. Everything that doesn’t translate into a rule book or a box score.

Even with a game as structured as chess, there’s still that reality of sitting at a table, competing against another player who’s sitting across from you — your mind and will against theirs, where the state of the pieces on the board is just a momentary expression of that fact.

On the other hand, distant reading offers you a completely different perspective on a game. You can deconstruct it, formalize it, break it into pieces and recombine it. That’s Moneyball. That’s text-mining. It’s the telescope, not the magnifying glass.

Can any game be looked at this way? I kind of think it can.

Last idea. I would love to be able to invent a game. Something as conceptually simple and detailed and fun as baseball, or rotisserie baseball, or Diplomacy, or even the weird balloon volleyball game my sister made up when we were kids.

I don’t know how I would do it. But if I could, I know I’d want to do it with the people in this room.


Re: inventing a game: — Painting Life with Rules

You know, I was thinking about games the other day while rewatching Burns’ Baseball series too. My grandfather’s generation loved baseball in part because it was so effectively captured by radio. I’ve said before that the sounds of baseball are probably better than the game of baseball. There’s a reason why “the crack of a bat” is romanticized more than “the swoosh of the net” or “the grunt of the linemen.”

Baseball is a perfect fit for radio, and similarly, football is a fantastic sport for television, which can be presumed to be one of the reasons football has eclipsed baseball as the predominant sport in the US. The god’s eye of the television camera gives an illumination to the game and the replay perfectly fits in the negative space between downs. The play, replay, down after down structure of football is perfect for the reflexive nature of television. So, based on the relationship between media and the sports of generations, I wondered what would be the sport for the new media of the internet.

And, you know, it occurred to me after reading this that if baseball is for radio, and football is for television, fantasy sports is for the internet. How great of a fit is that? It is meta, built on data and about the interaction of small groups. If that isn’t the web, I don’t know what is.

The other thought I’ve been having in relation to sports is the scalability of certain sports in relation to their global popularity. One of the many reasons soccer is so globally precent (besides tradition) is its ability to reduce down easily with little materials. A game of baseball requires just about 18 people, a few balls, bats, and more for it to work. Feasibly one could make a soccer match work with 2 people, a ball, and rag-tag goals. Baseball changes dramatically with fewer than 18 players. Soccer is essentially the same with 4 players. This pattern of scalability might also explain the world-wide adoption of basketball as well—it requires the same material list: at least 2 people, goals, and a ball.

Tim Carmody says…

Totally fixated on the baseball-for-radio, football-for-television thing too. (I was part of that Twitter conversation a couple of weeks ago.)

And it is partly a function of this close- and distant-reading thing. Baseball works well when you’re really close (playing it, at the stadium, listening on the radio) or really far away (crunching stats). Football benefits from a top-down, middle-distance view.

But you can improvise baseball pretty well. This is actually why stickball works. My brother and I played one-on-one baseball every day between, say, 1987 and 1992. On other days we played two-on-two or three-on-three.

You can also play pickle or catch. It was our version of free-play soccer. Really, the game that is toughest to play without significant players and resources is American football.

Soccer is huge in Europe, Latin America, and many parts of Africa, but it doesn’t really penetrate into Asia all that well. Cricket is huge in India & Pakistan (West Indies, too), basketball in China. Hmm.

Tim, have you read Player of Games by Iain M. Banks? It can be loosely considered a sequel (more like, second published book in the universe first described by) to Consider Phlebas which Robin referenced in the previous post. They’re both part of what are loosely described as Banks’s ‘Culture’ books. I’m pretty sure Howard & Robin would both second my recommendation of it. The ideas of distant and close-up analysis of games converging and applying machine learning to games are both factors.

Tim: you NEED to read this book.

Everyone else: you also NEED to read this book.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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