Olympic Gaming -- Will Tech Culture Save Sports?

A man uses his tablet computer as he sits near Olympic rings placed in the courtyard of the Russian Olympic Committee headqua
A man uses his tablet computer as he sits near Olympic rings placed in the courtyard of the Russian Olympic Committee headquarters in Moscow, Russia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

When we think of the greatest moment in Olympics history, many of us look back at the 1980 USA win over the USSR ice hockey team. It was one of those real life Hollywood stories. A group of college athletes beating the best team in the world, against all odds, at the height of the cold war. What an amazing moment in sports history; it truly defined what the Olympics are all about.

But wait: did it really? And if so, is that such a good thing? When did international sporting events become a stage for political competition? Is this what the "sporting spirit" is all about?

"The sporting spirit" -- the concept that sport is above politics, something "neutral" and "pure" which creates goodwill between nations -- is a popular notion which is reflected in the "Olympic values". But research on the competitive nature of international sporting events shows it is closer to George Orwell's view of "the sporting spirit" as mimic warfare, focusing on the attitude of the spectators and nations "who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue ".

Ever since sport became truly international (after WWI), politicians began to appreciate its potential as a vehicle for demonstrating and advertising the potency of a political ideology. Victories of a national team may be used as a Propaganda tool internally (to raise moral and national pride) and externally (a sign of superiority). Sporting contests were turned into other rivalries: for example, communism versus social democracy, fascism versus liberal democracy, and communism versus capitalism. The Rio Olympics are of no exception! The recent doping scandal demonstrates that states still go to great lengths to win sporting competitions and that our globalized world is still not beyond national politics.

The effects of mass communications, willingly or unwillingly at the service of political ideologies, have been overall negative, providing states the tools with which political propaganda can be globally mass marketed. While many have talked about the globalizing effect of technology, in our current state, countries are becoming more nationalistic as they face globalization challenges. So while on one hand, we are led to believe that the Olympics are unifying nations beyond politics, on the other, we are fed messages which strengthen nationalistic political agendas.

This leads us to the question that needs to be asked -- and studied -- can modern technology work as a positive force countering our nationalistic tendencies that reveal themselves in international sporting events?

Most of the new technologies associated with international sporting events are aimed at improving broadcast, video, and virtual reality capabilities. Nevertheless, there are two new technological trends that deserve our attention: The role of social media in communicating sports and the effects of computer gaming.

Let's start with social media. According to a 2015 report, 87 percent of consumers use a second screen device while watching TV. This is changing not only the way we watch the Olympics but our entire psychological and cultural experience. As our attention is divided between two screens, we no longer need the TV commentator and network (or governmental) messages, but can engage in online conversation and analysis instead. This supposedly means that we are less exposed to state propaganda. The negative side of this change is that there is no quality filter or rules of PC in social media discourse and under the veil of anonymity, people feel much more open to let objectionable comments be heard. Social media is not reeducating us in our nationalistic perception of sporting events and sometimes even amplifies it by creating "echo chambers" of homogeneous opinions by like-minded people. Such was the case regarding the online debate about the "representability" of the ethnically diverse French national soccer team. Online or off, it seems that sports cannot escape politics and the issues of national identity. For now, social media platforms are not changing these tendencies.

As for gaming -- the biggest pastime of the Y generation -- it may change for the better the way we perceive international competition. While many of us see sports as an important social activity and frown upon online gaming -- thinking it only promotes solitary behavior -- upon further examination it seems that there is much to be learned from gaming culture. Here are three gaming social behaviors which could positively impact our view of competitive sports.

Social engagement and cooperation -- a Columbia University study of more than 3000 children, found that playing video games promotes real-world social engagement and teaches children to cooperate, support, and help others in order for them to succeed. This can be seen in Gaming etiquette -- created and upheld by the gamers themselves - which puts an emphasis on teamwork and cooperation, helping weaker players, and playing by the rules.

Inclusiveness -- In the gaming world, we lose physical borders and replace them with virtual ones. And while language is still a barrier, it is much more likely for an international team of gamers to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal than it is for athletes competing under their national flags. Gaming also has no age and gender limitations, typical of sports.

Wisdom of the crowds -- Whereas sporting competitions are controlled by political bodies, in gaming, the participants have the power to object and force their wills and rules on the developers of the game.

In Jane McGonigal's famous TED talk, she speaks of humanity's need to play more online games in order to solve global challenges. Fulfilling this need will produce offline behavioral effects which hopefully could help us abandon our nationalistic views of sporting competitions and replace them with a more inclusive ideology.

It seems that our glimmer of hope for the future of sporting events to truly embody the "sporting spirit" lies in us embracing the "gaming spirit."