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New Games movement

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The pride of the Port Chester athletic program: Hippie Olympics. Nobody wins because they're all losers.
P.C.U. (1994 film)

The New Games movement was popular in the 1970s and early 1980s which sought to replace competitive sports with cooperative ones, and spectator sports with participatory ones. Its roots were in two movements from the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Human Potential Movement. Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand and Esalen Institute head George Leonard were early proponents and popularized the concept through books and several New Games tournaments, the first in Marin County (San Francisco Bay Area) in 1973. Outside of the Bay Area, the other center of the early movement was in Pennsylvania.


Stewart Brand created one of the first such games in the late 1960s, ironically called "Slaughter", which involved two groups of people trying to push a large ball over the other side's line in a sort of inverted tug-of-war, but with some on the winning side encouraged to switch to the losing side whenever it seemed like the ball was moving too far in one direction; this would supposedly teach cooperation over competition, and ensure a game in which there was heavy physical exertion but no winners or losers. The large ball was painted like the planet Earth. Brand's motivation as described in the first New Games Book had a more obvious connection to the opposition to the Vietnam War, as a game like Slaughter would allow people to get in touch with their warlike impulses and get them out of their system while turning the tables on the nationalistic implications of conventional team sports by encouraging people to switch sides to make sure neither side could push the Earth over the edge. He also felt the peace movement was unhealthily out of touch with intense physical activity and needed some sports of their own.

Books and influence[edit]

George Leonard's 1975 book The Ultimate Athlete was a re-thinking of the meaning of sports with a lot of Human Potential Movement influence, which contributed not only to the New Games philosophy of cooperative participatory sports but also was influential to the then-new popularity of activities like jogging and aerobics and possibly prefigured the more recent extreme sports boom. Despite the otherwise good points it has New Age woo woven in, particularly vitalism in its assertions that deep within every individual is an untapped "ultimate athlete" whose abilities are suppressed by "society's mid-body split", and the devotion of three chapters to a hypothetical "energy body" the author identifies as ki, which a rationalist will regard as utter claptrap.

The 1976 New Games Book, a collection of the most popular games from the early tournaments (complete with lots of groovy hippiefied photos and some primal scream-stream of consciousness like commentary), popularized New Games nationwide in the U.S. Most of these games are now forgotten, but a few such as "Ultimate Frisbee" became staples. The 1981 followup More New Games reflected the mainstreaming of the movement: gone are the counterculture trappings, in favor of a focus on getting the games into summer camps, schools and inner city youth programs.

New Games soon fell out of favor during the Reagan era, but the influence lives on in such things as corporate team-building exercises and in the popularity of sports where cooperation and personal achievement are the norm (for example, rock climbing is now practically mainstream, mountaineering has lost its old nationalistic conquering-and-flag-planting in favor of a personal growth "anyone-can-do-this" ethos, and then there is the "sport" of Disc Dog, which used to be called "Fetch"). On the other hand, does anyone even remember much less play "Snake in the Grass" any more?

External links[edit]