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Games and Sports

Entry updated 14 June 2023. Tagged: Theme.


This entry deals with games and sports as a theme within sf. Games based on sf are treated under a wide variety of headwords branching out from the Games entry.

Just as sf's concern with the Arts has been dominated by stories about the decline of artistry in a mechanized mass society, so its concern with sports has been much involved with representing the decline of sportsmanship. There was a marked tendency, in sf from the second half of the twentieth century, to assume that the audience-appeal of futuristic sports will be measured by their rendering of violence in terms of spectacle: the film Rollerball (1975), based on William Harrison's short story "Roller Ball Murder" (September 1973 Esquire), is perhaps the clearest expression of this notion. The Rollerball scenario is echoed in the Videogame series Speedball (from 1988).

There are two forms of stereotyped competitive violence which are common in sf: the gladiatorial circus and the hunt. The arena is part of the standard apparatus of romances in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition, and extends throughout the history of sf to such modern variants as that found in the Dumarest series by E C Tubb (1967 onwards). Combat between human and Alien is the basis of Fredric Brown's popular "Arena" (June 1944 Astounding) and a host of similar stories, while very many visions of a corrupt future society foresee the return of bloody games in the Roman tradition – Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986) is a notable example. In the new century, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008) revisits this Dystopian theme in a Young Adult context; this became the film The Hunger Games (2012), with adaptations of novel sequels continuing the cinema franchise. The BattleTech Shared-World series (see also Robert Thurston) moves the formula on to a galactic stage. Ordinary hunting is extrapolated to take in alien prey in such stories as the Gerry Carlyle series by Arthur K Barnes (stories June 1937-Winter 1946 Thrilling Wonder; coll 1956 as Interplanetary Hunter), and Miniaturizing oneself to battle ferocious micro-organisms is a common future pastime in William Tenn's "Winthrop was Stubborn" (August 1957 Galaxy as "Time Waits for Winthrop"; vt in Time in Advance, coll 1958).

A familiar variant features human protagonists as the victims rather than the hunters; examples include The Most Dangerous Game (1932; vt Hounds of Zaroff), The Sound of His Horn (1952) by Sarban, Drag Hunt (1969) by James Broom Lynne, Come, Hunt an Earthman (1973) by Philip E High and many works by Robert Sheckley, ranging from "Seventh Victim" (April 1953 Galaxy) and "The Prize of Peril" (May 1958 F&SF) – with its anticipation of associated reality Television – to such later novels as Victim Prime (1986) and Hunter/Victim (1987); the original short "Seventh Victim" was adapted for Cinema as La Decima Vittima (1965; vt The Tenth Victim) directed by Elio Petri. A notable series of relevant theme anthologies is the three-volume Starhunters series (1988-1990) edited by David A Drake. The oft-presumed equivalence between the spectator-appeal of sport and that of dramatized violence reached a 1970s peak in Norman Spinrad's "The National Pastime" (in Nova 3, anth 1973, ed Harry Harrison) and the film Death Race 2000 (1975), later remade as Death Race (2008). Further film examples include The Running Man (1987) directed by Paul Michael Glaser, eXistenZ (1999) directed by David Cronenberg and Gamer (2009) directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

An opposing trend is one which suggests that the people of the future might substitute rule-bound Wargames for actual Wars, thus avoiding large-scale slaughter of civilians. The idea was first mooted by George T Chesney in The New Ordeal (1879). Sf versions of it include "Occupation: Warrior" (March 1959 Science Fiction Adventures UK) by James White, "Mercenary" (April 1962 Analog; exp vt Mercenary from Tomorrow 1968) and its sequel The Earth War (1963) by Mack Reynolds, The Cold Cash War (1977) by Robert Lynn Asprin, the Gamester War series begun with The Alexandrian Ring (1987) by William R Forstchen, Surface Detail (2010) by Iain M Banks and also a number of films, including Gladiatorerna (1968) and Robot Jox (1990).

The sf sports story is almost entirely a post-World War Two phenomenon, although the pre-World War Two pulps did feature Clifford D Simak's "Rule 18" (July 1938 Astounding) – in which one of the ever-popular "all-time great" teams is actually assembled – and one or two rocket-racing stories, such as Lester del Rey's "Habit" (November 1939 Astounding); and much earlier van Tassel Sutphen had included a couple of golfing-sf stories in his The Nineteenth Hole: Second Series (coll 1901). Many early post-World War Two stories are accounts of man/machine confrontation (see Machines; Robots). Examples include the golf story "Open Warfare" (May 1954 Galaxy) by James E Gunn, the boxing stories "Title Fight" (December 1956 Fantastic Universe) by William Campbell Gault and "Steel" (May 1956 F&SF) by Richard Matheson, the Chess story "The 64-Square Madhouse" (May 1962 If) by Fritz Leiber, and the motor-racing story "The Ultimate Racer" (November 1964 If) by Gary Wright (1930-2004), who also wrote a fine bobsled-racing sf story in "Mirror of Ice" (June 1967 Galaxy). The numerous games played in Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept Science-and-Sorcery sequence include, in Blue Adept (1981), a version of American football with human-led teams of uncreatively obedient Android players. Rowdier ball games feature in Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals (2009), in which the Discworld City of Ankh-Morpork tries to impose rules on the traditional violent scrummage of street football; and Lois McMaster Bujold's Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (2015 ebook; rev 2016), whose "boot polo" is a violent game originating in the military, played on rough terrain with three teams, awkwardly placed goals (one underwater), and the added distraction of hostile alien fauna both inhabiting and being released at intervals into the playing area.

The changing role of the automobile in post-World War Two society provoked a number of bizarre extrapolations, including H Chandler Elliott's violent "A Day on Death Highway" (October 1963 Galaxy), Roger Zelazny's story about a car-fighting matador, "Auto-da-Fé" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), and Harlan Ellison's "Along the Scenic Route" (August 1969 Adam as "Dogfight on 101"; in The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, coll 1969). C M Kornbluth's The Syndic (December 1953-March 1954 Science Fiction Adventures; 1953) features a macho form of polo in which armoured vehicles replace horses and the armoured ball is moved by bursts of fire from assault weapons.

Other popular sf themes are often combined with sf sports stories. Gambling of various kinds appears in many ESP stories, for obvious reasons, and superhuman powers are occasionally employed on the sports field, as in Irwin Shaw's "Whispers in Bedlam" (February 1969 Playboy) and George Alec Effinger's "Naked to the Invisible Eye" (May 1973 Analog). Stories which examine the possible impact of biotechnology on future sports include Howard V Hendrix's "The Farm System" (in Full Spectrum, anth 1988, ed Lou Aronica and Shawna McCarthy) and Ian McDonald's "Winning" (in Zenith 2, anth 1990. ed David S Garnett). Full-length novels about future sport are relatively rare; examples include The Mind-Riders (1976) by Brian M Stableford, about boxing, and The Last Man Is Out (1969; vt The New Atoms Bombshell 1980 as by Robert Browne) by Marvin Karlins, about Baseball (which see for many further examples).

Cricket is relatively rarely encountered, though Lord Dunsany wrote several short Fantasies of supernatural or diabolical intervention in the game – including the Jorkens tale "The Unrecorded Test Match" (in Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey, coll 1954) – and Maurice Richardson's The Exploits of Engelbrecht: Abstracted from the Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club (stories June 1946-April 1950 Lilliput; coll of linked stories 1950; exp 2000) features the challenge of facing a literal demon bowler (this collection also offers surreal distortions of football, golf, wrestling and other sports). Andrew Weiner's "The Third Test" (Summer 1982 Interzone #2) posits that a particular cricket innings is Earth's chief attraction for visiting Aliens, while Douglas Adams wove the game's paraphernalia into an absurdist Space Opera plot in Life, the Universe and Everything (1982); this storyline was originally submitted to Doctor Who circa 1976 as "The Krikkitmen", but rejected by the current script editor. Tennis, like cricket, has few sf treatments: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) offers a throwaway line about the importation of Mathematics into the game with people of the year 623 After Ford playing tennis on a Riemann surface, while Keith Roberts's "Sphairistike" (February 1984 F&SF) features a Wimbledon Centre Court player who may be an Android. In Comics, Alan Moore's Mad Scientist character Abelard Snazz invents giant Robot tennis-players in "The Multi-Storey Mind Mellows Out" (March 1982 2000 AD); unfortunately their personalities derive from the "bio-chips" of temperamental twentieth-century players, to disastrous effect.

Games are used as a key to social advancement and control in a number of stories, including The Heads of Cerberus (15 August-15 October 1919 Thrill Book; 1952) by Francis Stevens, World Out of Mind (1953) by J T McIntosh, Solar Lottery (1955; vt World of Chance) by Philip K Dick, Cosmic Checkmate (1962) by Katherine MacLean and Charles V de Vet, and the Apprentice Adept Science-and-Sorcery sequence by Piers Anthony, beginning with Split Infinity (1980). Some sf stories produce future or alternate worlds where games are fundamental to the social fabric, as in Hermann Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; trans M Savill as Magister Ludi 1949; preferred trans Richard and Clara Winston as The Glass Bead Game 1969) and Gerald Murnane's The Plains (1982). A vicious games-based alien empire (whose incredibly complex game is called "azad") is successfully challenged by the protagonist of Iain M Banks's Culture space opera The Player of Games (1988), who believes himself alone in this endeavour but is an unwitting pawn of his own Culture. In other novels by Philip K Dick, including The Game-Players of Titan (1963) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), games function as levels of pseudo-reality. Still other works deploy games not as a central theme but as both local colour and a metaphor giving insight into the culture, as with the territorial game "kol" played in the fiercely competitive society of Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982; vt Geta 1984), or the vaguely reversi-like "Ochmir" which explicitly mirrors the alien political background of Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed (1983). Sf writers who have shown a particular and continuing interest in games or sports include Barry N Malzberg, who often uses surreal games to symbolize frustrating and ultimately unbeatable alienating forces – as in the apocalyptic Overlay (1972) and Tactics of Conquest (1974), and in the quasi-allegorical The Gamesman (1975) – George Alec Effinger, who also uses game situations as symbols of the limitations of rationality and freedom, notably in "Lydectes: On the Nature of Sport" (December 1975 Fantastic) and "25 Crunch Split Right on Two" (April 1975 F&SF), and Piers Anthony, who often uses games to reflect the structures of his plots, notably in Macroscope (1969), OX (1976), Steppe (1976) and Ghost (1988).

The game which has most frequently fascinated sf writers is Chess, discussed at length in its own entry. Fritz Leiber's slight "Knight's Move" (December 1965 Broadside; vt "Knight to Move" in The Book of Fritz Leiber, coll 1974) uses two-dimensional battle games like chess and one-dimensional track games like Ludo to symbolize the opposing factions and ideologies of his Change War series (see Changewar). Solitaire games tend to be frowned on in sf as the domain of obsessives. A crossword enthusiast, for example, is so fascinated by the grid possibilities of Martian words in Evelyn E Smith's "BAXBR/DAXBR" (in Time to Come, anth 1954, ed August Derleth) that he barely notices their context of imminent Martian Invasion; another, in Arthur Sellings's "One Across" (May 1956 Galaxy), is lured by Basilisk clues into visualizing a crossword diagram in four Dimensions, throwing him into a fraught Alternate World; he escapes with difficulty and is "cured" of crossword addiction. The typically tricky hero of Eric Frank Russell's "Now Inhale" (April 1959 Astounding) will be killed by Aliens once he either wins or loses a game of his choice, and opts for a competitive version of "Tower of Hanoi" which, though strictly finite, requires an unfeasible 264-1 moves to complete. Life, a solitaire game rooted in the Mathematics of cellular automata and popularized in Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column for Scientific American, features in Piers Anthony's OX (1976) and more subtly in Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994); the topological pencil-and-paper game Sprouts played in Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972) was another Gardner "discovery" announced in his column. Both Life and Sprouts were invented by UK mathematician John Horton Conway (1937-2020) and his associates.

In the late twentieth century the rapid real-world evolution of electronic arcade Videogames and home-computer games sparked off a boom in stories and films where such games become too real for comfort. Often these are directed at adolescents: a game is used to conscript a space pilot in The Last Starfighter (1984), for example, and Michael Scott Rohan offers an early example of the arcade game that is more than it seems in "Vurfing the Gwrx" (in Peter Davison's Book of Alien Monsters, anth 1982, ed anon Richard Evans). Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein is not untypical in sucking its protagonists into a ruthless computer-games world, much as in the film Tron (1982). (See also Cyberspace.)

Further notable examples of computer games in sf include "Dogfight" (July 1985 Omni) by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson, Octagon (1981) by Saberhagen, True Names (1981 dos) by Vernor Vinge, Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985) by Orson Scott Card, God Game (1986) by Andrew M Greeley, Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) by Terry Pratchett and Bedlam (2013) by Christopher Brookmyre (see also Virtual Reality). Stories of space battles whose protagonists are revealed in the last line to be icons in a computer-game "shoot 'em up" seemed for a time to have succeeded Shaggy God Stories as the archetypal folly perpetrated by novice writers – although Fredric Brown's similarly plotted "Recessional" (March 1960 Dude), where the protagonists are chessmen, has been much anthologized (see Chess). Many computer-Game scenarios are, of course, science-fictional (see Videogame), as are many of the scenarios used in Role Playing Games (see also Game-Worlds).

When it comes to inventing new games, sf writers have had limited success. There have been one or two interesting descriptions of sports played in low-gravity or gravity-free conditions, but these are usually incidental to the real concerns of the stories in which they occur; stories set in Space Habitats frequently include descriptions of "Flying" games played in the vicinity of the rotational axis, and Robert A Heinlein's "The Menace from Earth" (August 1957 F&SF) centres on flying as a leisure activity in an atmospheric storage cavern on the Moon. Sling-gliding, in which gliders are accelerated by massive steel whips, is a plausible and dangerous sport featured in The Jaws that Bite, the Claws that Catch (1975; vt The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers) by Michael G Coney. The team sport of hussade, which plays a major part in Jack Vance's Trullion: Alastor 2262 (March-June 1973 Amazing; 1973), is not wholly convincing; the vaguely similar (in that play takes place over a water tank into which opponents are toppled) two-man combat game "kosho" in The Prisoner seems overtly parodic. The Board Game vlet in Samuel R Delany's Triton (1976) is cleverly presented, but the details of play are necessarily vague. This game was first written about by Joanna Russ in "A Game of Vlet" (February 1974 F&SF). In The Shockwave Rider (1975), John Brunner gave full rules for the board game "fencing" – a roughly Go-like game of territorial enclosure on geometric principles – but learned to his dismay that game-theory analysis rendered its seeming complexities trivial. The film Quintet (1979) revolves around the eponymous board and/or real-life game. Terry Pratchett's later Discworld books feature the board game Thud, resembling Chess in that it is a game of stylized battle (here between dwarfs and trolls); the game was designed by Trevor Truran and is central to Pratchett's Thud! (2005).

Gambling Card Games, often only vaguely described, appear with some frequency. Examples include Bluff in Philip K Dick's The Game-Players of Titan (1963), the improvised Fizzbin in the original-series Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action" (1968), raffles in Alexei Panshin's Star Well (1968), Sabacc in the Star Wars universe, Damage in Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas (1987) – preliminary card-play is also of importance in the hugely complex game central to Banks's The Player of Games (1988) – Cripple Mister Onion in Terry Pratchett's Discworld sequence, in particular Witches Abroad (1991) and Tall Card in Firefly (2002).

Games and sports are also very common in Fantasy and Science Fantasy, especially that set in Post-Holocaust or primitive worlds, as in Piers Anthony's early trilogy (1968-1975) collected as Battle Circle (omni 1977), or Eclipse of the Kai (1989) by Joe Dever and John Grant, which features vtovlry, a rugby analogue played triangularly and with throwing-axes. Indeed, the metaphoric nuances of games enliven fantasy of all sorts, from the croquet and Card Games in Lewis Carroll's Alice books to the game systematization of Psi Powers in Sheri S Tepper's True Game series; in both cases the arbitrary and obsessive nature of games-playing becomes an image of life itself.

Relevant theme anthologies include Arena: Sports SF (anth 1976) edited by Barry N Malzberg and Edward L Ferman, and Future Pastimes (anth 1977) edited by Scott Edelstein. [BS/PN/DRL]

see also: Leisure.

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