West Virginia University
20 Dec

Football is a sport. Monopoly is a game. What about chess? What about NASCAR? What about Dance Dance Revolution? What, if anything, distinguishes a game from a sport? Here?s one answer from a young philosopher.


This week’s guest philosopher is Brynn, a 5 th grader from Morgantown , WV . Her favorite subjects in school are reading and science. She is currently reading ?A Series of Unfortunate Events? by Lemony Snicket. Brynn is an outstanding athlete. She plays ice hockey, basketball, and she is a runner and a swimmer. For the past three summers, Brynn has competed in the kid’s division of Morgantown ’s Sprint, Splash, and Spin triathlon. This summer, she plans to compete with the adults, taking on a 5k run, 10-mile bike ride, and s 330-yard swim. She has already started training with her mom. Brynn also likes music. She plays the trumpet and piano, and sings in a choir.

Brynn’s interest in sports led her select a very hard question for THE QUESTION. Brynn chose, ?What’s the Difference Between a Game and a Sport??. This question is so easy to understand, and yet extremely difficult to answer. My interview with Brynn did not end with any resolution about an answer. She and I are still scratching our heads on this one! What a perfect opportunity to add a new twist to THE QUESTION.

OK, on to our philosophical business. What is the difference between a game and a sport? Brynn began crafting her answer by listing some clear-cut examples of games and contrasted the games with a list of some clear-cut examples of sports. The initial list went as follows:

Games: Checkers, Cards, Blockus, Tag, Hide and seek.

Sports: Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, Swimming, Kickball, Hockey.

From this list, Brynn made some observations and started crafting some answers. Games and sports can both be competitive. Sports seem to require physical effort, but games seem to require very little physical effort. Both games and sports seem to have rules, and have winning and losing as goals, but sports seem focused on scoring and timing. Brynn considered four possible theories, but rejected all four of them. I will list each of the theories and explain why she was ultimately unsatisfied with all of them.

(BT1) An activity is a sport and not a game when the activity requires considerable physical effort.

While BT1 is interesting and does help us distinguish playing checkers as a game and playing basketball as a sport, Brynn did not think this was a satisfactory answer. After all, Brynn noted, playing a great game of tag or a game of hide and seek can require considerable physical effort. And, you could also imagine an unusual game of checkers requiring enormous physical effort. Imagine, for example, that each of the checkers weighed 50 pounds! Brynn also noted that she considered golf a sport. If you play golf and get through the golf course by using a golf cart, you might not need much physical effort. She had similar thoughts about NASCAR driving. Finally, it seems that shuffleboard is a game, but curling is a sport. And, yet, they require similar movements. So, Brynn put BT1 to rest.

Brynn considered a second theory, based on the idea that although both sports and games are competitive, and have winners and losers, sports focus on scores and times. The second theory went like this:

(BT2): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the winning and losing is determined by times and/or scores.

Again, we had a theory that worked pretty well with the original list of games and sports. Winning in hockey, basketball, running, and soccer is determined by scores or times. However, it seems that in checkers, cards, hide and seek, and tag, the winners and losers are not determined by scores or times. After a moment of reflection, Brynn found a problem with this answer too. She pointed out that there are games where scoring matters. Cribbage, scrabble, and euchre, for example, are games where scoring does determine the winners and the losers. Another theory bites the dust!

Brynn considered a third theory. Perhaps what determines whether an activity is a sport or a game is determined by the Olympics. If there is an Olympic event with the activity, then it is a sport. If not, it is not a sport. Here is the theory:

(BT3): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the activity is an Olympic event.

Once again, we have a theory that looks good when we take a look at our initial list of games and sports. Hockey, basketball, swimming, running, and baseball are all Olympic sports, so they are sports according to BT3. As far as I know, hide and seek, checkers, and cards are not. Unfortunately, there are some reasons to think we still don’t have a good answer to our question. One reason to worry is that new events are added to the Olympics every year. Would we really want to say that the year before a new event is officially in the Olympics, the event was not a real sport? Brynn did not think that seemed right. In response to this objection, you might consider a modified version of BT3 where you require not that the event actually is an Olympic event, but that it could be an Olympic event. So, instead of BT3, you might consider:

(BT4): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the activity could be an Olympic event.

BT4 avoids the problem that caused Brynn to reject BT3, and it also seems like it fits pretty well with Brynn’s initial list of games and sports. I think we can be pretty confident that hide and seek and checkers will never be Olympic sports. And, all the sports listed are Olympic Sports.

Of all the theories she considered, BT4 was Brynn’s favorite, and if she had to give an answer BT4 would be it. Here are some reasons to think we do not yet have a good enough answer. BT4 implies that decisions that are made, or will be made, by the Olympic Committee, can never be wrong. Isn’t it possible that some activity could be played in the Olympics, but it would not really be a true sport? And, isn’t it possible that there could be a sport that would never be an Olympic sport? Maybe there could be a sport that is too boring, too violent, or too weird to be picked as an Olympic sport. That should not disqualify it as a true sport. And, finally, isn’t there one big question that the Olympic Committee asks, when deciding whether an activity should be in the Olympics? Isn’t that question: ?When is an activity a sport and not a game?? So, we would still need an answer to the question!

Brynn’s philosophical work earns an A+. Although we do not yet have an answer to our question, Brynn has helped us gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of a truly mind-boggling problem.