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TIME: The Games That Bring Us Together

It would be a brave writer who hazarded a guess at something that bound all the millions of readers of TIME magazine together, but here is one. Every person holding this publication, or absorbing it online, has played a game — and not one of them can accurately remember when they first did so. Play is elemental to being human. All of us, when tiny children, tossed colored balls around, or watched lights dance before our eyes, or marveled at the patterns on our mothers' skirts. All of us once threw a pebble, a stick or a ball; all of us, sooner or later, enjoyed playing with a sibling or a friend, hopscotching down a pavement, running along a dirt track. All of us sooner or later formed teams — though usually something far less formal and serious than that implies — to compete (without knowing the word or its meaning) in games of skill or chance. We have all played games; play is part of what and who we are. "Play cannot be denied," wrote the great Dutch sociologist and historian Johan Huizinga in 1938, in his magisterial book Homo Ludens. "You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play."

If play is one of the things that defines what it is to be human, we should not be surprised if it is also something that allows us to explore and share our common roots and sensibilities, wherever we live, whatever the cultures from which we draw sustenance, whatever faiths we revere. People have kicked or thrown balls everywhere from Mayan courts to Italian Renaissance piazzas. In fact, because play is something we have in common, the origin of many modern games is impossible to fathom. Who first raced horses? Probably the youngsters in some Mongol horde, centuries ago, coaxing their brave little ponies over the endless steppe — a habit that eventually migrated to the deserts of Arabia and which then later became the sport of kings in England and whiskeyed cavaliers in Kentucky. It was not long ago that Chinese scholars claimed that the infernally difficult art of coaxing a small ball into a hole was first perfected in the Middle Kingdom — something that the descendants of those Scots who long ago belted a ball around the sand dunes that line the North Sea like a strand of pale yellow pearls had something to say about.

But the back and forth over who was first to discover a game, it turns out, is less important than the sheer enjoyment of it. There can be no golf player or fan, Chinese or Scot, who did not watch the tussle between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open Championship at Torrey Pines and think, To hell with bragging rights, this is amazing. To quote Huizinga again, "Nature could easily have given her children purely mechanical exercises and emotions. But no, she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth, and its fun."

Tension — oh my, think of the heroics on the 18th green of Torrey Pines — for sure, but it is surely the sheer fun of games that brings us together. And it is that togetherness, if you like, that is the theme of the collection of stories that follows. In our economic age, where everything has a price (but not everything is valued), we have allowed ourselves to believe that it is commerce, trade, that binds the world as one. Earlier times would have stressed the importance of war and empire to the process of globalization; still earlier ones would have noted how the great faiths leapt from their origins in northern India or the Middle East to form communities of common belief.

All true. But games bind us, too. Where isn't chess played? Who doesn't know how to deal a deck of cards? Which country isn't watching the spectacular Euro 2008 football tournament now being played in Austria and Switzerland? (No, don't say "The U.S." For those who have long thought that Americans stood apart from some of the world's most popular games, the big news is that every single match in Euro 2008 is being broadcast live in the land of the gridiron and baseball diamond.)

The precise ways in which specific sports and games moved around the world varied, of course. Some of them — many, actually — followed in the path of those muscular, evangelical Brits, strong (they liked to think) in mind and body, who spread all over the world in the 19th century and took football, rugby, cricket and lawn tennis with them. More recently, some games spread by electronic means, with TV taking basketball, snooker, poker and video games into cultures that recently barely knew them. But whatever the mechanism, the games some people played have increasingly become the games that all people play.

It's not all fun, of course. In this year of a summer Olympic Games, it's impossible to ignore how Pierre de Coubertin's vision has constantly been hijacked for political purposes, most cruelly with the murder of Israel's athletes at the Munich games of 1972. When sport is played between nations — or between those who are asked to represent nations — nationalism, with all its potential for ugly rivalry, is never far away. That will be as true in Beijing this summer as it was in Athens four years ago — or in any town that has had the dubious distinction of hosting the Olympics.

But the dark side of international sport is not our concern here. Rather, it is what sports and games can show us that we have in common. Sport, as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair writes in our concluding essay, can teach all of us habits that are useful in the more humdrum hours of our lives, and, indeed, can be a tool in aiding human development in the less advantaged parts of our world. Beyond all that, there is a thrill, a charge, an excitement that comes from races, contests, play, games — one that outside the walloping emotions of love and passion is hard to beat. The first characteristic of play, Huizinga wrote, "is that it is free; is, in fact, freedom." That is why we love it.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT

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