Do We Really Care about the World Cup?

The World Cup is finally upon us! And despite being 32 years old, I can barely contain my child-like excitement. I have supported the country of my birth (Germany) since I was 6 when, alas, they faltered to Denmark in the final of Euro ’92. But one might sensibly wonder why I’m excited. After all, how Germany plays in the World Cup has no bearing on how things go in the rest of my life. And then the whole affair seems just so arbitrary: getting a football into a goal is an inherently meaningless exercise—doing so under stipulative restrictions (you can’t use your hands!) less meaningful still. If really pushed, many sports fans will concede that whether their team wins doesn’t matter, not really. When you think about it long enough, it starts making more sense to ask not why I or any of us cares about the World Cup, but how. How is it even possible to get so worked up about such an event?

Kendall Walton has an answer. But before we look at it, we need to take a quick and dirty tour of his theory of make-believe.

Walton’s theory is complicated and expansive, but there are two basic insights that matter here. The first is that engaging with works of representational art is in an important sense the same kind of activity as the make-believe games kids play. The second is that just as we can use toys and works of art to play these games, so we can use our mental states to do so. I’ll briefly explain each of these points and then return to sport.

Two children decide to play a game in which puddles are lava. One sees a puddle too late and tries desperately to avoid it. But she loses her balance and accidentally steps in it. ‘You fell in the lava, you’re dead’, the other says. The kids are engaged in a make-believe game in which it’s appropriate to imagine of a puddle that it’s lava, and appropriate to imagine when someone steps in a puddle that someone has fallen in the lava. The puddles are what Walton calls ‘props’: they are actual things that make certain propositions true in the fictional world of the game. They do this through what Walton calls a ‘principle of generation’. The principle tells you what is true in the make-believe given what is actually true. It’s not literally true that there is lava in front of the child, there’s just a puddle. But given a principle of generation that says where there’s an (actual) puddle there’s (make-believe) lava, the puddle makes it true in the game’s fiction—makes it fictional—that there’s lava. So props are actual things that, by way of a principle of generation, make propositions fictional and in so doing make it appropriate to imagine one way rather than another.

The same, claims Walton, is true of how we engage with representational artworks. Etiyé Dimma Poulsen’s sculpture Shuruba, for instance, depicts a vibrantly clothed woman with a classic Ethiopian shuruba hairstyle.

Etiyé Dimma Poulsen sculpture: 'Shuruba'.

The sculpture is a prop that makes it fictional that there is such a woman. Someone who points at the sculpture and says ‘There’s a person’ would be saying something literally false (since it’s just a sculpture) just as someone pointing at the puddle and saying ‘There is lava’ would. But in the game she plays with the sculpture, much as in the puddle game, it is true that there is a person, and so fictionally she speaks truly. What goes for sculpture goes also for paintings, feature films, novels, poems, etc. although each art form employs its own medium-specific principles of generation.

Walton’s second insight is that just as puddles, dolls, toy cars, and paintings, sculptures, or novels can be props in games, so can the mental states of the games’ participants. The child who desperately tries to avoid stepping in the puddle, for instance, may feel suspense-like sensations, especially if she is thoroughly into the game. Those sensations, Walton points out, are also props, making it fictional that the child feels suspense. In just the same way, if I feel fear-like sensations in response to watching a horror film, those sensations will make it fictional—in the game I play with the film, if not the film itself, since the film isn’t about me—that I am afraid.

Okay, so much for the theory. What does it have to do with sport? Walton’s contention is that, often, when we cheer because our team scores, or groan when they concede, we are engaged in the same kind of activity as when we cheer on a hero in a film, or cry when tragedy befalls her. That is, we’re engaged in a game of make-believe. Events that are actually not very important (putting a ball in a goal, images on a screen moving in certain ways) make it fictional that there are events that are very important, and so we imagine that scoring a goal and winning the game are important. The euphoric or disappointed sensations we feel make it fictional that we are overjoyed or devastated about the outcome.

If Walton’s account of our engagement with sport is right, then it helps explain a number of things, among them:

  • Our relatively quick recoveries from sporting tragedies. These would be no more puzzling than our quick recoveries from experiencing fictional tragedies.
  • The apparent incongruity between our wildly enthusiastic emotions during matches, on the one hand, and our calm assessments at other times on the other. Again, this appears analogous to the way we care whether Superman saves the day while reading the comic, but concede that it doesn’t matter at another time.
  • The apparently identical way we reassure those who’ve undergone sporting or fictional tragedies: that ‘it’s only game’.
  • Our ability to pick teams or players to support more or less on a whim.
  • The lack of indignation or disgust we (typically) feel towards others who don’t support our team.

However, there are worries that I think undermine the make-believe account of sports appreciation.

The first is that it’s not clear our caring during the spectacle, and relative indifference after, are particularly unique to sport. In fact, it’s quite commonplace in more mundane activities. Consider playing a practical joke; narrowly catching or missing a bus; losing a desirable parking spot; finishing War and Peace; having the radio cut out, or threaten to, halfway through a gripping story one happened upon; making a green (or yellow) traffic light; settling a petty argument; binge-watching a TV series; having the last word; looking up trivia once made curious; solving a puzzle; completing a flawless musical passage. The worry is that if we apply the make-believe analysis to sport then, unless there’s some relevant difference, we ought to apply it to these activities too. But a difference looks elusive and it seems unlikely that all of these activities ought to count as examples of make-believe caring.

Second, it’s not clear that our recoveries from sporting tragedies are especially quick relative to more serious instances of caring. Take the evening news. We frequently see lives destroyed by war, repression, and (un)natural disasters. This may move us deeply. Yet, often, we put down our smart phones, turn off our televisions or radios, and find our concern quickly lost in the dust of mundane activity.

Third, sports and traditional works of fiction differ in their representational content. The fictional world of a sports match would be entirely the same as the actual world, except that the outcome is more important in the fictional world. This coincidence of worlds isn’t itself a problem. Maaza Mengiste’s novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, for example, contains many historical events that actually occurred in Ethiopia, but it’s still an engaging work of fiction. The problem is, rather, that the near total coincidence leads to a new puzzle. In reading Superman, one might cheer Superman on and wish ill upon Lex Luthor. This is intelligible because Superman is a good guy trying to save the world and Lex Luthor is a vainglorious plutocrat. On the make-believe account, however, competitive games make no propositions fictional that could explain our attitudes toward the game’s outcome beyond those true at the actual world. How, then, does positing such a fictional world help explain our enthusiastic cheering and sobbing?

Fourth, it’s not clear what distinguishes the kind of make-believe Walton has in mind and the sort of make-believe that is clearly not the mark of someone appreciating sport properly. At times, when stuck in an airport, say, I might find myself watching a football match between two teams I barely know. If one is playing in black and white (Germany’s colours), I can amuse myself momentarily by pretending that Germany is playing, provoking a make-believe interest in the game. But sustaining this imaginative project is difficult and, in any case, never arouses the same passions that really watching Germany play affords; it’s just a different kind of activity. The possibility of this kind of make-believe game cannot confirm the make-believe account, since it’s the kind one could play with any event or object; in principle, anything can serve as a prop that combined with a principle of generation generates fictional truths. But if I’m merely imagining that the game is more important than it is, in something like the way I might imagine that one team must win to avert nuclear disaster, in what sense is this different from what I sometimes do when stuck in the airport?

Fifth, it is important in sport that players really try, which is unlike theatre or film, say. Where players feign effort, or play toward a prearranged outcome, spectator interest disappears or changes entirely. This may be why ‘sports’ whose outcomes are known to be predetermined must be heavily supplemented with other forms of entertainment to make them watchable. In pro wrestling, for instance, elaborate soap stories hold the various ‘fights’ together. The Harlem Globetrotters must incorporate freakish feats of skill, pranks, and non-regulation props such as trampolines to sustain interest. This supplementation is needed in the same way that a broader narrative is needed to sustain interest in more traditional fictional sporting encounters, such as the Rocky films.

I put it that the make-believe account faces a number of difficulties it has to overcome. If a more conservative theory is available that would also explain other kinds of incongruous caring, we should prefer it. So what does explain our incongruous attitudes to sport? This post is running a little long, and my alternative to the make-believe theory is a little elaborate, so I’ll keep it brief.

Basically it boils down to this: our motivational attitudes are subject to a certain amount of volatility. They can become amplified and diminished in certain kinds of contexts, like when watching sport, allowing us sometimes to get ‘carried away’. Additionally, because of the way the outcomes of sports are detached from most of our other practical interests, it is relatively easy to step back from them and see them as trivial. However, this is no different, I argue, to the way we might step back from any goal, event, or activity and adopt a ‘philosophical’ or ‘detached’ view. So in the end, whether or not it ought to be, our interest in the outcome of the World Cup is very much real.

This blogpost roughly summarizes the main points in ‘Sport, Make-believe, and Volatile Attitudes’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 5(3) (2017), pp. 275-288, where you can see these arguments in fuller detail, including my positive proposal. Those without access to the article can visit my research page.



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