Resuscitation science

“Aesthletics”, or, why don’t people invent new sports? My latest Wired News gaming column

Wired News just published my latest video-game column, and this one is about physical sports. It’s got an an interesting pedigree. A while ago, I was chatting with Hasan Elahi, an art professor at Rutgers University (I was actually interviewing him for an upcoming story I’ve written about him for Wired magazine.) I mentioned to Elahi that I’m fascinated by game design, and wondered idly why — in an age where video-game design is flowering — there’s almost no-one designing new physical sports. Elahi informed me that one of his grad students, Tom Russotti, actually was designing new sports, and he put me in touch with him. Ta da: A few months later, I hooked up with Russotti in Prospect Park here in Broolyn, where I got a chance to play one of his new sports! (That video above is a record of our spastic game: I’m the guy in the jeans who appears in the first scene.)

Interestingly, this column highlights the dirty secret about my Wired News gig, which is that it really isn’t about video games at all. It’s about ludology and the philosophy of play! It just turns out that video games are the best possible vehicle to discuss ludology these days — so they’re the natural subject matter.

Anyway, the column is online here, and a permanent copy is archived below:

The dawn of “Aesthletics”

Why don’t game designers create more real-world, physical sports? I talk to one guy who does

by Clive Thompson

I catch the Whiffle ball with one hand, spin around, and begin dribbling it off my bat as I drive for the goalposts. Damn: I’m swarmed by defensemen frantically waving their bats and trying to block my shot. Taking a dive for it, I spy an opening — then smash the shot past the goalie.

Woo hoo! I’ve just scored the first goal in a ferocious game of “Whiffle Hurling.”

Yes, Whiffle Hurling. I suspect you’ve never heard of it. Actually, I’m positive you’ve never heard of it — because the sport didn’t exist until two years ago.

Whiffle Hurling was invented in July 2005 by a Tom Russotti, an MFA grad student at Rutgers University — and the sole practitioner of what he calls “aesthletics.” So far, only 10 games of Whiffle Hurling have ever been played. I can personally attest that it’s insanely fun and offers up a genuinely new blend of activity: The crazy intensity of Irish hurling mixed with the low-stress, low-injury appeal of Whiffle ball. It manages to be simultaneously casual and intense, which is perfect for nerds like me.

And it also poses an interesting question: Why don’t more people invent new sports?

After all, we live in a golden age of play. The video-game industry is bristling with innovation: You’ve got haptic controllers on the Wii, titles like Eye of Judgment merging card-games with computers, and the increasingly strange economic activity in online worlds. Our culture is clearly hungry for new forms of play.

Yet how many new major physical sports have you played in recent years? Zero, I’ll bet. The pantheon of major team-sports — football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey — hasn’t significantly altered in decades.

So Russotti decided to expand the field a bit. By creating a new sport, he decided, he could level the playing field between athletes. When you join a pickup game of basketball or football, it’s always slightly marred by the fact that some of the players will be totally experienced — making it slightly more dull for the less-expert folks. A new sport wouldn’t have that problem.

Russotti began casting around for ideas, and while visiting a family vacation home in the country, found a pile of discarded Whiffle bats. Presto: Russotti decided to design a variant of hurling that uses Whiffle plastic. The rules are generally similar to the old Irish sport: You can catch the ball with your hand and remain stationary, but to move you have dribble the ball on the Whiffle bat. Otherwise you have to pass by hitting the ball.

“I figured it’d have all the action, the exhilaration, but different physics because of the plastic balls and bats,” Russotti told me when I met him and a gang of friends in New York to play the game. (He also instituted some delightfully silly rules: One team is required to wear sombreros.)

As we raced around the field, I quickly intuited some basic strategy. For example, I realized that I didn’t need to drive up too close to the goals — I could shoot successfully from midfield. Then I realized that it paid to be aggressive: If the opposing team was about to gain control the ball, I’d dive headlong into the mud and whack it away — using something closer to a golf swing. Pretty soon I’d developed a reputation on my team for being psychotically willing to fling myself nose-first on the ground.

Meanwhile, one of my opponents demonstrated a scarily amazing facility for dribbling the ball long distances — which let him easily traverse the field, since you’re not allowed to interfere with a dribbling player.

Essentially, were figuring out how to play. And this is, counterintuitively, a big part of what makes a new game so great: You get to explore the intriguing and unpredictable ways that the rules interact.

Video-game players understand this implicitly: We often find that the thrill of a new game is in the process of mastering it — not the mastery itself. (Indeed, once a video game is mastered we often stop playing it.) You never get this experience with an existing, well-known sport like soccer or football, because the rules have been exhaustively explored.

Russotti, too, has had to gradually fine-tune Whiffle Hurling as he watches how the athletes interact. During the first game, he discovered that offensive players were camping out near the goalposts, which made it trivially easy to smash a goal past the goalies. (I love it: Camping.) So Russotti instituted a 15-foot goal-shooting line. And after personally suffering a brutal black-eye injury in the first five minutes of the inaugural game, he instituted a “no physical contact” rule.

This is other delicious thing about playing a new sport: You get to watch the rules evolve, which gives you front-row insight into the intellectually fascinating process of game design. Baseball and football and hockey all underwent the same tweaking process, but because they don’t change much any more, people don’t think of them as designed objects. And because we don’t think of them as designed objects, we don’t think about designing new sports.

The irony, of course, is that Russotti is merely doing what children already innately do. Children in playgrounds invent their own physical games every day. It’s a completely natural human activity, but it’s drummed out of us once we go to school and are told that the small group of advertising-supported team sports are the only “serious” ones. For the rest of your adult life, you never deviate.

Unless, of course, you hook up with Russotti. In a few weeks he’s going to showcase another new sport he’s invented: A version of basketball played with three opposing teams, three nets and two balls.

I can’t wait.

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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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