I’ve written several times about the many places we see the idea of a Yin and Yang duality played out in the real world. Even the application of the Yin and Yang concept has a Yin (of true opposites) and a Yang (of thing and not-thing). For example, the opposite of light is not-light, but the opposite of positive is negative.
One of the true opposites is the idea of analog versus digital or, more generally, of continuous versus uneven. Recently I was thinking about the differences between various sports, and I realized there’s a connection to the “smooth or bumpy” distinction I wrote about a while back. Looked at in terms of play, some sports are essentially continuous while others are not.
It turns out that some sports are “analog” while others are “digital.”
Of course, the terms “analog” and “digital” are only metaphoric — the more appropriate terms in this case are “continuous” and “discrete” (or “smooth” and “bumpy” if you prefer less formal terms).
The dividing line between the two is that some sports (for example: football) consist of specific plays or actions (in football, they’re called downs). Before and after such actions, the field and players are — in some sense — idle and the game is halted.
Other sports consist of continuous play, at least until a score (or goal or point or whatever) or “foul” occurs. In some cases, such as basketball, play may even continue after a score.
Before we continue, we need to talk about the MacGuffin.
The famous filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock used the term “MacGuffin” to refer to any object that provides the focal point around which the story revolves. It doesn’t matter what the object is — a critical document, valuable jewels, an ancient relic, whatever — the point is that everyone in the story is interested in it.
Quentin Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, had the mysterious briefcase from which came a golden glow. We never find out what’s in the briefcase — Tarantino has said even he doesn’t know what’s in there — and it really doesn’t matter. It’s just a classic MacGuffin stripped down to its bare essentials and used to drive the plot.
If you think about the movies you’ve seen, you’ll realize how many of them involve some kind of MacGuffin.
Most sports have a MacGuffin; a ball of some kind is very common, but hockey has a puck, and badminton has a “birdie.” I think the concept gets a bit fuzzier with board games and really fuzzy with something like Tic-Tac-Toe.
In any event, in most sports the MacGuffin is instrumental in scoring points. The ball has to go into the basket or goal (soccer) or cup (golf). (That this isn’t so in baseball is just one more thing that makes baseball rather unique.)
Continuous (“Smooth”) Sports
Sports that are continuous are often characterized by rapid play in which the MacGuffin changes possession between opponents. Many of them are played on small courts, often indoors, and in many cases a time clock is involved.
The combination of fast, continuous play and a smaller court makes these sports exciting to watch even for those unfamiliar with the rules. (But all that continuous action can also have a numbing effect that ultimately makes them kind of dull to watch.)
But the defining characteristic is that, once the MacGuffin is put into play, the action continues until some specific event ends it. The play-ending event might be a score, a foul or “off-sides” of some kind, or the clock may run out.
Basketball: The MacGuffin is the ball the sport is named for, and once it’s put in play, the action continues until the clock runs out or a foul is committed. Possession of the ball shifts between teams — sometimes very rapidly. The object is scoring points by getting the ball through the hoop on the team’s side of the court (which is claustrophobically small and typically indoors for professional basketball).
Hockey: Essentially basketball on ice using a puck and goals. Faster (and much more violent) than basketball, but essentially the same sort of game. That includes being played on a small court — indoors for professional hockey and with lots of outdoor court for amateur and scholastic-level play.
Soccer (Futbal): Hockey without the ice and played with a ball on a much larger field (almost always outdoors).
Discrete (“Bumpy”) Sports
The key characteristic of sports that are discrete is that play consists of plays or turns. The plays themselves might involve quick action, but the game itself can often seem sedate or slow due to the time between turns.
(American) Football: Again the MacGuffin is the ball for which the sport is named. A game consists of downs, and there is strong sense of ball possession on the part of the offense. The primary object is getting that ball across the goal line, usually in the hands of a player. Points can also be scored by a special event, the field goal, which involves kicking the ball between the goal posts.
Baseball: In many regards a very unusual sport compared to most others. For one thing, the eponymous MacGuffin is in possession of the defense! In many cases, actual contact with the ball by the offense is a Bad Thing. Further, the ball really has nothing to do with scoring points (runs), which are obtained by a player legally rounding the bases and coming home.
Even the discrete nature of baseball exists on two levels: The overall unit of play is the “at bat,” which features a batter squaring off against the pitcher. But each pitch is also a unit of play (an injury can result in a new pitcher or batter continuing the at bat).
So far I’ve looked at team sports. There are also sports where one player opposes another (e.g. tennis, air hockey, racquet ball) and sports where several players vie for a winning score (e.g. bowling, golf, darts, cards). These sports also divide into continuous or discrete play.
In fact, that distinction tends to align with the mano-a-mano nature of the sport.
Tennis, ping-pong, badminton, air hockey, racquet ball and squash all are continuous sports. As with the team sports, they feature smaller courts which are typically indoors. Action tends to be rapid and fun to watch, even if you don’t really understand the game.
They’re also characterized by deliberate transfer of the MacGuffin from side to side. In fact the whole nature of these games is sending the MacGuffin back and forth trying to force the opponent to make a mistake in handling it and returning it.
Doubles tennis and volley ball progressively bridge the gap from individual sports to team sports, but both fall squarely in the continuous action category.
Golf, bowling, darts (or archery or target shooting) and croquet involve players taking turns hoping to achieve the high (or in golf, low) score (or in some cases hoping to finish first). Golf certainly takes place outdoors and features the largest court among sports (except maybe for some kinds of auto racing).
Except for darts, most shooting-type sports take place outdoors as well. Bowling, of course, is pretty strictly an indoor sport, but there is lawn bowling and horseshoes.
Generally players in these sports have their own MacGuffin(s) (darts may be shared, although I do have my own set), and players do not interact directly with the other players. Specifically, other players are not allowed to interfere with a player taking their turn (except, perhaps, for heckling). One counter-example to the no interference rule is croquet (which can be downright vicious).
Horse, plane and auto racing are individual continuous sports in which all players perform at once, but in which there is little or no direct interaction. There is no real sense of offense and defense in racing, and most races take place outdoors.
These sports plant a foot on each side of the division! The brevity of some races almost makes them discrete sports (drag racing seems very much so, for example).
Chess, Go, most card games, mazes and puzzles, board games and checkers fall into a category of their own.
Some of them barely require a MacGuffin or can be played with a crude version. None of them require a court or playing field, and most of them have a mano-a-mano component, although many card games involve individual performance.
Sports! More than pizza and beer!!
So now you have a whole new way to look at and think about sports (which may come in handy when your team is losing and you need some kind of distraction)!
Are they continuous or discrete (and in what ways do those concepts apply)?
What is the nature of the playing field and the MacGuffin (if any)? How are points scored, and what wins the game?
How important is it to fully understand the game to enjoy it?
What is the role of the individual versus the team? Do opposing players directly interact with each other?
There’s always more to the picture than just who’s winning and who’s losing!