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Why the game design of soccer annoys Americans

Why don’t Americans like soccer? In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Frank Cannon and Richard Lessner write an acerbic takedown of soccer in which they sneer at various conventions of the sport, such as the fact that it requires the use of the head to bonk the ball — an act “contrary to all human instinct,” the writers aver, which is why sensible games like football or hockey encase the athletes’ heads in helmets. They also argue that “any game which prohibits the use of the hands is contrary to nature.”

Deliberately hissy stuff, so as you’d imagine, pro-soccer bloggers reacted by angrily calling Cannon and Lessner ignorant, cultural-isolationist boors who just don’t get it.

But here’s the thing: Cannon and Lessner do make one extremely interesting observation about soccer. Soccer matches rarely end in high scores, they point out, and the proportion of gameplay that draws near either goal is smaller than in many other sports. As they write:

These infrequent occurrences in which the soccer ball approaches the end zone — where goaltenders wile away their time perusing magazines, trimming their fingernails or inspecting blades of grass — rarely result in a shot on goal. Most often the ball ends up high over the goal, missing everything by 20 or 30 feet. These “near misses” typically send the fans into paroxysms; TV announcers scream themselves hoarse. Then the players mill about the field for another 20 or 30 minutes or so and the goaltenders return to their musings before the ball returns, like Halley’s comet in its far-flung orbit, for another pass in the general vicinity of the goal.

Mostly soccer is just guys in shorts running around aimlessly, a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life. Whole blocks of game time transpire during which absolutely nothing happens … It’s like gazing too long at a painting by de Kooning or Jackson Pollock. The more you look, the less there is to see.

Sure, they make their point snarkily. But they’re quite right that game design reflects the national soul. Americans are predisposed to enjoy games where the rules encourage lots of scoring. Soccer wasn’t architected that way, so Americans don’t like it. Baseball, basketball, and football, in contrast, were designed to allow for lots of scoring — and they are thus huge hits in America, a country obsessed with toting up manichean victories.

I seriously doubt Cannon and Lessner are even aware of the existence of ludology — the philosophy and design of play. But they have nonetheless illustrated precisely why ludology is such a powerful way to understand national cultures, and the differences between Americans and Europeans. It also helps you understand why the writers are so damn snarky, and their critics so correspondingly nasty: It’s because ludology is one of the most gut-level, passionate areas of philosophy, and play is so central to our identities. People can be tepid about whether or not they like a book or a movie. But nobody is is wishy-washy about play. A game either totally rocks or totally sucks, and there is no phase transition between the two.

(Thanks to Arts and Leisure for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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