Players or Fighters?

Robin Turner
Jul 29, 2018 · 9 min read
Taijiquan “master” about to go down

The martial corner of YouTube has been busy of late commenting on a match between two martial artists, the MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter Xu Xiaodong and taijiquan (t’ai chi) player Wei Lei. The fight was over in seconds, with Wei Lei going down almost immediately and getting pummeled on the floor until the umpire ended it. Most of the online arguments were pretty silly since a practitioner of one martial art getting beaten by a practitioner of a different art says almost nothing about the relative strengths of those arts — after all, when MMA champion Conor McGregor was bested by Floyd Mayweather, no one said “See, MMA is useless, you should all learn proper boxing.” What I want to talk about here, though, is not whether taijiquan is an effective method of fighting (it is, but only if you train accordingly). The interesting thing for me, as someone who teaches English and writes about games (and sometimes writes about English and teaches games), is why we talk about taiji “players” and MMA “fighters” when taijiquan is not a game but MMA arguably is.

So what is a game? There is no definition that fits every use of the word “game” (as Wittgenstein famously pointed out) but the one most commonly used in ludology — the study of games — comes from the philosopher Bernard Suits: “to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity” (“What is a Game?”). In other words, a game has a goal and some rules that prevent you from using the most efficient means to reach that goal, and the rules only exist for the sake of the game, rather than for moral, legal or practical reasons. The example that is always quoted is golf: you have a specific state of affairs you want to achieve — getting a ball into a hole — and rules that limit how you can do it — you have to hit the ball with a stick rather than picking it up and putting it in the hole, which would be more efficient. Moreover, there is no reason to do it like this other than the fact that that is how you play golf. Let’s apply this definition to taijiquan and MMA and see how far it gets us.

Yang Zhengfu looking not at all playful.

Taijiquan is well known as a gentle form of exercise, kind of like yoga only not as stretchy. It’s also a martial art, though both in mainland China and in the West the combative side tends to played down, hence the comments on YouTube about it only being for old folks in the park. Although it’s a leisure activity, it’s hard to see how taijiquan could be a game as Bernard Suits describes it. The bulk of taiji practice consists of doing the form: a series of slow movements based (often obscurely) on fighting techniques. There is no goal here; you aren’t trying to get to the end of the form by overcoming obstacles in your path. You’re not trying to finish it as quickly as possible, or even as slowly as possible. You just do it. And because there is no goal, there are no rules to limit the means you can use to get there.

There is one taiji activity, pushing hands (tuishou), that could meet the criteria: it has a “specific state of affairs” players try to achieve — getting their opponent on the ground or out of the ring — and rules which severely limit the means of doing it — no punching, kicking or prolonged grappling. The rules exist to make it an effective training exercise, but you could say they turn it into a kind of game, and indeed it is played competitively. (I nearly entered one of my students for one of the first pushing hands competitions in the UK, but unfortunately he had to go to a wedding that day.) But taijiquan as whole is not a game. You can say its goal is health, spiritual development or kicking the crap out of people, but these are not what Suits called lusory goals. (Like “ludology”, the word comes from Latin ludus, meaning game or competition.) Like the rules of a game, the goal of a game is there to enable us to play the game. There’s no inherent value in getting a ball into a hole or a net; we do it because it lets us create an enjoyable game. This is not the case with taijiquan or other traditional martial arts.

Hard to think of this as a game (andriuXphoto)

Now let’s apply Suits’s definition to MMA, and in particular to UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) matches. Firstly, there is a specific state of affairs to be achieved, or rather a couple of possible states, since a match can be won by either a knockout or points, with judges “giving the most weight in scoring to effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area and effective aggressiveness and defense” (Unified Rules). We can take this as a lusory goal because the contestants would not normally want to punch, kick or grapple, let alone knock each other out (Conor McGregor being a possible exception). There are also rules that limit the means you can use to achieve this goal. Fans like to think of UFC as “real fighting” (as opposed to pansy martial arts like judo or taekwondo, one presumes), but there are actually 31 different activities that are classed as fouls. When you think about it for a moment, that makes sense. In boxing, you are only allowed to hit your opponent with your fist, so you don’t need rules to specify how you can kick or grapple, like foul #12, “Kicking to the kidney with a heel” or #9, “Small joint manipulation.” The interesting question is whether these rules are game rules. Kicking someone in the kidney with your heel is not something one is normally allowed to do anyway, and as Suits points out, moral and legal rules are not game rules: they exist for their own reasons, not because they enable a game to take place. In contrast, the offside rule in football and the en passant rule in chess are pure game rules; they were added specifically to make the game more interesting, and they have no meaning whatsoever outside the game. Rules #9 and #12, like the majority of the UFC rules, aren’t quite like these, though, since they were imposed for safety reasons. It’s not that the game is less enjoyable if you allow elbow strikes to the back of the head (fouls #10 and #11 combined); it’s that people die.

Nevertheless, there are some rules in MMA that mark it out as a game. Contestants are required to wear gloves, and although that may look like a safety measure, gloves came to be used in boxing to make matches more exciting, not safer. In bare-knuckle fights, contestants are very wary about punching each other because if you hit too hard it’s easy to break your hand. Punch a wall if you don’t believe me. Watching a couple of guys cautiously circling each other until they can get in a haymaker isn’t very entertaining. Then there’s foul #26, “Timidity, including, without limitation, avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece or faking an injury.” There is nothing dangerous, immoral or illegal here; in fact, timidity is a pretty normal reaction in a situation where somebody keeps trying to punch you. But timidity spoils the game of MMA as much as aggression might spoil a game of pat-a-cake.

Strictly speaking, then, an MMA match is a game, and so is a match in any other combat sport, like boxing, wrestling or judo. So why don’t we talk about “MMA players” or “taekwondo players” just like we talk about “basketball players” or “Candy Crush players”? Why do we prefer to call them “fighters”?

The second question is easy to answer: we call MMA participants fighters because we call an MMA match a fight, and that’s because it looks like a fight. Whether it really is a fight depends on how strictly you define the word “fight”. If you see any kind of competition as a fight, then of course it’s a fight, but then so is a game of chess or a business takeover. If you see a fight as an all-out attempt to kill, injure or physically dominate an opponent, then it isn’t. It’s actually a play-fight, or if that sounds too much for kiddies, a fight simulation. Combat sports simulate combat just like flight simulators simulate flying or Civilization simulates history. The difference is that they’re much closer to the real thing, and out of the combat sports, MMA is the closest.

The reason it sounds odd to call an MMA match a play-fight is the reason we don’t call MMA fighters players. English is perhaps unusual in having different words for “play and “game”. In many languages, the verb and the noun are just different forms of the same word, like German spielen and Spiel, Italian giocare and gioco, or Turkish oynamak and oyun. What English doesn’t have is two different verbs for children’s play and playing a serious game. In Portuguese, for example, you can say:

As crianças estão brincando. (The children are playing.)
Os homens estão jogando cartas. (The men are playing cards.)

Similarly, ludologists sometimes exploit the difference in Latin between ludus, a serious game with rules, and paidea, children’s play. This is why we talk about gladiatorial games, but we don’t think of gladiators as playing. Similarly we don’t think of boxers or MMA fighters as playing because we don’t think of these as playful activities.

This leads me to another definition of “game” which I’ve used elsewhere: “A game is a structured activity designed to facilitate play.” This is designed to complement and refine, not replace, Suits’s definition, and although it doesn’t work for some peripheral games, like gladiatorial games or the games of game theory, it works well for most activities we’d call a game in everyday life, from tennis to Monopoly. In terms of the ludus/paidea distinction, Suits’s definition lays out the conditions for ludus, while mine adds the paidea aspect. This puts MMA right on the fringe of the “game” category, and explains why we don’t talk about “MMA players”.

That leaves us with the question of why we talk about “taijiquan players”, given that taijiquan is not a game. I suspect the main reason is just that it’s an over-literal translation from the Chinese. In China you can say of someone who does taijiquan, Tā wán tàijíquán — literally “He plays taijiquan” — but you could equally well say Tā wán yǒngchūnquán — “He plays Wing Chun.” There is nothing special about taijiquan here, and although wán translates as “play”, it’s used more like “practice”. Incidentally, the same person in the ring would be referred to as quánshǒu — literally “fist hand”, though normally translated as “boxer”. (Thanks to Steve Lee for the clarification.) However, I think the term “play” stuck not only because it translates the Chinese, but because people like the idea of “playing”. Taijiquan is full of Daoist paradoxes — speed coming from slowness, hardness from softness and so on — so it’s not surprising that the idea of fighting coming from playing would be popular.

Some years ago, I briefly studied hapkido, a crazy Korean martial art that’s like a really painful mixture of taekwondo, aikido and judo. After classes (which were usually one-on-one sessions where I got beaten up for a couple of hours) we’d go home and have drunken conversations about life, the universe and martial arts. During one of these, my teacher said, “When you study martial arts, you get to the point where you have to decide whether you’re a martial artist or you’re playing at martial arts.” My answer was “I don’t know if I’m a martial artist, but I’m definitely playing.”

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