Torch for Gaming: Please Stop It

A few weeks ago I, like most of the world, was glued to my television and bore witness to history. From Usain Bolt becoming the first man to repeat as Olympic champion in both the 100 m and 200 m distances, to Michael Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, to the Canadian women’s soccer team pushing the top ranked team in the world to its limits in a semi-finals loss only to come back and win bronze. These achievements represented the ultimate crown of human physical capacity.

On the heels of the Olympics, a petition was put forth by Torch for Gaming calling for “eSports” to be considered an Olympic event. When I first heard about this petition, I really couldn’t believe it. Even after reading the manifesto behind the petition, I’m still having a tough time accepting it because gaming really is antithetical to what the Olympics are about.

First let’s deal with the name, “eSports.” Saying that video games are a sport, even with the qualifying “e” for electronic, is like saying fishing, or bowling, or poker (or competitive eating) is a sport. It is a convenient fiction made up to make video games sound more serious. Sure video games can be competitive like sports, but sports involve physical activity. What sort of physical activity is one doing when playing video games? Sure we can play games that mimic physical activity (the tried and true Wii tennis arm flail), but video games for the most part are sedentary. That right there should immediately disqualify “eSports” from being considered for the Olympics because, you know, physical activity (i.e. pushing the limits of the human body) is a massive part of the Olympics.

But rather than stop there, let’s take a look at Torch for Gaming’s manifesto. Torch for Gaming takes excerpts of the Olympic charter and pairs them with their reasons as to why those passages fit their purpose. Every one of these points I find to be extremely debatable.

According to the section of the Olympic charter regarding the philosophy of the Olympics, that Torch for Gaming has cited:

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

From that, Torch for Gaming concludes the following:

“If this is the philosophy of the Olympic Games, then there is no sport which more embodies the Olympic mind than eSports. By their design, video games provide joy and education; they entertain and they teach. Games create ethical boundaries and challenge our views; they force us to govern and to abide. No other sport can claim such a combination of body, will and mind.”

I think a very important point is absent, mainly that every other sport in the Olympics has an incomparably greater balance between body, mind, and will than playing video games. I must be missing something because I just don’t see a relation between the points Torch for Gaming is trying to make and the section of the Olympic Charter they have cited. When I play video games, I don’t exactly have to will my mind and body to continue to play as I would if I were running a marathon or sprinting the last 100 meters to secure a victory in a 10 km race even though my every muscle in my body seared. Video games in no way stress such a balance. My mind might be working but my body sure as hell isn’t when compared to other Olympic events and what the athletes put themselves through to compete at such a high level.

Next Torch for Gaming touches on the Olympic spirit, a “Mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Their claim is that “Video games not only promote friendship, they provide friendship for those that can’t find them in their society. We build communities around our shared experiences not walls around our differences. We play fair and even when we stray, games are updated to maintain and even playing ground.”

I really suggest that they rethink this point.

Sure we can make friends playing some video games, but chances are we make a hell of a lot more enemies. There’s a little saying about anonymity on the web (or in video games): it makes assholes of us all. I can only recommend that Torch for Gaming listen to the ways gamers really engage with each other (in games or on message boards) because I think they’ll find that they’re not really on solid footing. Could you imagine Olympic athletes berating each other the way gamers do? No, because that in no way embodies that spirit of sportsmanship that the Olympics represent. Instead, when a race is over at the Olympics, the winners and losers will all congratulate each other for just getting to that level of competition. With video games, while we may get the odd congratulation for our great ePerformances, we are normally inundated with derogatory comments—not only at the end but during the entire course of a game.

Finally, Torch for Gaming cites a portion of the Olympic Charter pertaining to the goals of the Olympics: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Again, Torch for Gaming tries to marry those goals with their own: “Gaming knows no colour or creed, it does not discriminate on gender or age, it is open to all who want to play. More than that, eSports is accessible to many of those who are excluded from traditional sport by physical disability.”

Yes, gaming can be more accessible than some sports (at least physically that is what makes it so appealing), but accessibility doesn’t warrant inclusion in the Olympics. The Olympics are supposed to be discriminatory and are by their very definition elitist. We separate men from women, and honour those who dedicate their lives to achieving excellence in their chosen event. To acknowledge the exceptional work of those who cannot participate in able bodied games, we also have the Paralympics and Special Olympics. These events are not consolation ribbons, however, but require just as much if not more investment and dedication on the part of their competitors. Add to that the fact that physical disability no longer limits one from taking part in the primary Games (look at Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee who took part in the 400m and 4x400m relay—he is disabled, yet he participated even though it took legal recourse for him to take part) and the Torch for Gaming’s argument again falls apart.

On the other hand, to say that gaming aligns with the “harmonious development of humankind” is a bit of a stretch. Video games do discriminate. This is why we have a rating system that says the content in some games is not suitable for certain age groups. While that doesn’t necessary impact some gamers, it is just one example of external discrimination. Internally, gamers themselves are most responsible for most discrimination that occurs. I know when I play a game like Battlefield 3, I don’t want to have to listen to a 12 year old kid. The kid is 12; he or she shouldn’t be anywhere near some of what happens or is said in the course of that game (let alone be the source of it). Then we look at gender, and we are entering an environment that isn’t too female friendly. We could look at the tropes of female characters in video games that are continually perpetuated like Anita Sarkeesian, or we could look at incidents that occurred in some gaming communities. Either way, it doesn’t paint a flattering picture of harmoniously developing humankind. Athletes often get kicked out of the Games for not representing the humanist ideals of the Olympics—so too would the vast majority of gamers if they behaved as they normally would (yes, I am generalizing, but you get my point).

Ignoring these more conceptual matters, the argument is problematic on a more practical level. Simply put: including video games, or eSports, in the Olympics is just not realistic. What games do we play? We can’t include them all. If video games were included in the Olympics, then why not add in auto-sport, bowling, poker, or competitive eating? None of these activities even come close to meeting the criteria of Olympism, so we wouldn’t accept them as Olympic events.

We should really just take a step back and consider what Torch for Gaming is asking us to accept. Olympians are the peak of human athleticism and human physical achievement. To consider “eSports” an Olympic caliber event is to make light of the lifetime of dedication, the sacrifices, and the intense physical training that these athletes undergo to prepare for what is the definitive moment of their athletic careers. Instead of what Torch for Gaming has proposed, I would suggest something much more realistic: a video game Olympics. Hell if rednecks can have their own, why can’t gamers? That way, competitive gamers can hold their own world-class event, and such an event won’t cheapen what is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity for the most exceptional athletes.

But what are your thoughts on the matter? Should we or should we not include eSports in the Olympics? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.