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Monday, July 25, 2011

Politics and Honest Sport: I Wish They Were More Similar

Most of my life I've appreciated healthy competition. In my youth my parents taught me to play tennis. In high school and college I played soccer. In college I took up basketball and racquetball. Today, I'll play just about anything that involves something of a cardio workout. The golf and fishing just are not for me.

But it's not just sport that I can appreciate competition in. Every now and then, I like to indulge in a video game or two, usually of the real-time strategy variety (e.g. Starcraft, the original Warcraft games - NOT World of Warcraft -, or the Command and Conquer Series). These are games in which you raise resources and a military in an effort to obliterate an opponent occupying the same territory. You have to be sly about how you allocate your many resources (time, units, gold, etc.) and how you both build and use your military. It requires a great deal of strategy, and even the best gamer in the world is likely to run into an opponent who can detect their weaknesses and find a way to defeat them.

In both of these types of competition, you have to think on your feet (in one case literally) and react to your opponent if you want to succeed. You can't stay still, bid your time, or attack all out. The intelligent player balances their moves against their opponents and always tries to stay one step ahead.

What I think is most interesting about both sport and video game competition, however, is that I derive the most pleasure from reflecting on the complexities of the game. In racquetball (my sport of choice for the last three years or so), hitting a good ball doesn't just come when you know how to swing a racquet. The game often moves so fast that you have to watch your opponent hit the ball so have an inkling for where it might go, position yourself so that you have a decent chance of actually getting to the ball, know where your opponent is before you hit the ball so you have an idea of where not to put it, know the best angle to shoot the ball at so that it goes where you want, and, ON TOP OF ALL THAT, you need enough technique to execute. When a player is able to do all of those things and hit a nice ball, it doesn't really matter to me whether I did it or my opponent. I can still enjoy the moment. And that's true of the people I play with as well.

This can happen in video games too. The incredible number of variables that go into them help you enjoy a well-planned attack or an unexpected defense. There's something gorgeous about the intertwining of competition with collaboration in these situations. In one sense you are competing with someone else, but in a larger sense, you're collaborating in an effort to experience and learn about the game in new ways. The ultimate purpose is not to win, but to find new appreciation for the game, learn new and better ways to play it, and (in the case of sport) to get a good workout.

But when I compare the gorgeous nature of competition in sport and video games with the competition I see in politics, I notice something falls short.

If politics were sport (at least if it was racquetball with the people I play with), claims about the nature of reality that obviously have an element of truth to them would not be meet with resistance. If politics were my racquetball game, then claiming that placing completely inexperienced teachers in our most disadvantaged schools (the kinds of which the vast majority of them did not attend while they were in school) while expecting them to take night classes is not an effective way of closing the achievement gap would not be ignored by the other side. The other side, moreover, would not point to studies (produced by the organization that created those inexperienced teachers) that say that inexperienced teachers are just as effective at increasing test scores as experienced teachers.

I think that this political type of competition is different for two reasons. For one, claims on abstracter forms of truth will naturally be more debatable than whether the Orc Horde destroyed my base and rendered the Race of Men helpless to defend its homeland. But I think a commitment to winning rather than finding truth makes the competition of political talking points equally (if not more) frustrating to deal with.

In racquetball, the aforementioned argument regarding inexperienced teachers in tough schools might be a well-placed serve. The response that it has no merit would be a complete swing and a miss, followed by the resolute and undeniably inaccurate assertion by the returning player that he returned the serve beautifully and won the point while the ball died behind his feet.

The political arena perhaps doesn't astonish viewers as much when participants play the sore loser because seeing the ball die behind their feet sometimes requires that the viewer be a well-educated and critical thinker who's interested in the subject at hand. It's this pesky last part that seems to allow pundits to act like dufuses and get away with it while the people in the know can do little more than shake their heads in frustration.

Politics, unfortunately, is one form of competition I just can't get into for its beauty.

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