People enjoy playing games because they are animals who like to compete and dominate; to play, strive, outwit, win, are all important survival tools. But there is more to games than this, particularly team games. Members of a cricket, football or bowls team play together, often socialize together and either create or express their friendship in this way. Friendly rivalry over a game of chess or in the squash court may also cement friendship. Matching minds and bodies or depending and sharing with other members of the team, both give great satisfaction.
Friends play together and the stress on learning games at school is also meant to be a lesson in friendship. Like friendship, play is not directed to a practical goal. It is ‘just a game’, but to refuse to play is a rejection.
Equally intriguing is why people watch games and sport. The extraordinary growth of spectator sports, undoubtedly deeply influenced by television and by the way in which sport, alongside sex, is the main way of selling goods, is one of the marks of our world.
The historian of technology Lewis Mumford suggests that modern sports may be defined as ‘those forms of organized play in which the spectator is more important than the player’. It is a spectacle, in many ways closer to drama or ritual than to playing a game.
The crowd become part of a chorus, emotionally and psychologically bending together, taken for a moment out of their ordinary lives and worries. Like spectators at the contests of gladiators and wild animals in Rome, or its modern equivalent, the bull fight, or even the circus, the crowd cheers and boos. Even in the privacy of their home, people dress up in their team’s colours, drink lager and pretend that they are part of the crowd, as they watch the television.
Being in a crowd makes us brave. We can shout and say things we would normally be too timid to express. It is often the time when we can make our prejudices and passions known, whether for our country, our political opinions, or our hatreds, in a way which as single individuals we find impossible. It is not surprising that all dictatorships love assembling partisan crowds and setting them marching and singing and shouting.
Mass sport and private play are forms of conspicuous consumption. Many modern societies have a great deal of leisure and people fill up their spare time, and often demonstrate their new found affluence, through games. Often they do this publicly. But equally often privately, in the world of computer games and internet rivalries.
The increasing leisure time often created by machines must be filled. Playing in various ways is what humans like to do in their spare time. So if anything is the new ‘religion’ of the world, it is football. More money, emotion and activity is now generated by sport, games and hobbies than anything else on earth, except war. Indeed war, to some of its proponents, is the sublimest form of game. It adds the spice of the risk of death to the usual thrills of other contests. On the other hand, for many people it is better to fight in the world cup than in the trenches.