Notes on Cybersport: The Opponent

Dennis Hemphill recently published an article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (2005) entitled "Cybersport". His purpose was to explore the possibility that computer-based simulations, videogames, and other virtual worlds might constitute new vectors of experience that may be considered as forms of sport.

Obviously, the topic is of great interest to me, since the concept of what I referred to as "virtual sport" is at the very heart of sportsBabel's genesis several years ago.

While Hemphill's goal is to critique some of the underlying philosophical assumptions underpinning the idea of "sport" to determine if there are, in fact, theoretical opportunities for a "cybersport," I plan to play the foil and critique parts of his argument in a series of posts here at sB.

Critique No.1: The Cybersporting Opponent

Obviously, not every sport involves the competition of one human being against another. We may consider mountain climbing, surfing, or bullfighting as sporting practices that involve a human "competing" against an immovable object, flowing weather, or animal, respectively.

Do we extend this possibility to human versus machine?

Put another way, who is one playing against when participating in a virtual sports simulation (Hemphill's cybersport)? Is it:

  1. versus another human opponent, temporally synchronous, via a layer of technological mediation?
  2. versus another human opponent's digital construct, which was created from an archive of that individual's previous embodied performances (ie. temporally asynchronous)?
  3. versus an abstraction of many performances by many individuals (ie. temporally asynchronous), which forms a simulation that we currently refer to as "artificial intelligence" in today's sports videogames?

I would argue that #1 most closely approximates my definition of virtual sport. But what of the other two scenarios?

Hemphill spends a great deal of time discussing the notion of embodiment as it relates to sport and cybersport. What also seems clear is that there is room for spatiality to be negotiated — virtual sporting spaces are definitely possible and consistent with a definition of sport. However, if that is the case, then temporality becomes a key consideration: can sport (versus another human being) be asynchronously contested?

Or, on the other hand, do we consider human versus machine sporting practice possible?

Fight Club

Donna Haraway would certainly endorse the latter, given her thesis that the boundaries between human, animal and machine are "leaky" at best. And if she is "right" then we must acknowledge that cockfighting and robot wars constitute sporting practices, as do any pugilistic/sporting combination pitting human against animal or machine, as in the bullfighting example above or versus digital constructs.

All of which is to say that the way we currently understand sport is about to change dramatically. Perhaps it all ends in a ritualistic Flesh Fair? More to come.


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