Deathmatch Chivalry

Video Games and the Tournament

Aristotle once remarked that you can learn more about a person in one hour of play than you can in a year of conversation. Competitive sports and games bring out the essence of our being, and that is as true today as it was thousands of years ago.

Now, you probably don’t have to be clairvoyant to realize that I’m a closet video-game enthusiast, but I hope you won’t let my slightly obvious bias toward computer games cause you to dismiss a rather unusual thesis that I’d like to put forward as a way of exploring both the Aristotlean view of play as a moral compass, and chivalry in the 21st century:

“Video games are the modern equivalent of the knightly jousting tournament.”


All right — I can hear all the parents and teachers out there snorting in disgust. “Jousting tournaments were elegant, romantic endeavors that celebrated courtesy and nobility,” you say, “but video games are mindless displays of violence that encourage laziness, brutality and self-indulgence.”

If that’s your opinion, you might be interested to learn that in 1130 A.D. those “romantic and noble” knightly tournaments were banned by the Christian church as part of the Council of Clermont, where the sport was referred to as “violent” and “detestable.” The ban was reissued in 1139, 1148 and 1179, which gives you an idea of how hopelessly ineffective it was. Knights absolutely adored these “violent and detestable” martial games.

Why did the medieval church condemn tournaments so adamantly? Because bishops and clerics felt that such games gave knights license for sloth (since knights competing in tournaments were neglecting other duties), greed and pride (as tournament winners received both cash and renown). To them, tournaments were three of the seven deadly sins all rolled into one.

PennsicBattleNow, for those of you who’ve never played a video game, let me take just a moment to review the logistical similarities between a “first person shooter”-style game (often called a “deathmatch”) and a real medieval tournament.

First, there’s the setting. Medieval tournaments took place in broad, rolling expanses of land, and involved dozens, if not hundreds of participants all on the field of play at the same time. (Those one-on-one jousting matches with a rail down the middle of the field — like the ones depicted in A Knight’s Tale — weren’t invented until much later.) Knights taking part in a tournament had their choice of a variety of blunt “rebated” weapons — swords, spears and maces, to name a few — that were designed to mimic the performance of real weapons without being truly lethal.

Then, there are the objectives. Knights who took part in a tournament weren’t performing for the pleasure of a crowd of admiring ladies, they were trying to beat their competitors into submission. When an opponent surrendered (or was knocked unconscious), he was taken to a safety zone called the “recets” where he paid a penalty fee to his captor, then was allowed to return to the playing field.

Halo-TournamentIronically, all of those factors are true of any of the video games you’ll find in your local computer store, such as Halo, Unreal Tournament or Return to Castle Wolfenstein: competitors are confined to a specific playing map, they’re given a choice of weaponry, and when “killed,” their on-screen avatars are really just sent to a neutral zone before continuing with game play.

But the parallel between video games and “knightly tournaments” isn’t limited to mere rules and tactics. There’s one more similarity — but it has to do with what you’ll find in your heart rather than what’s on your hard drive.

In the Middle Ages, tournaments were seen not only as a sport, but as an allegory for the challenges, temptations and frustrations of real life. In medieval society, where the emerging sense of chivalry was transforming a predatory warrior class into a productive element of civilized society, the tournament allowed knights to “practice” their knightly virtues: showing mercy to fallen opponents, cooperating with friends and teammates, adhering to the rules, demonstrating courage against overwhelming odds. As historian Juliet Barker observes, “What made tourneying doubly precious in chivalric eyes was its glorification of knightly ideology.”

And here is where we find that a video game, like a tournament, can be transformed from an indulgence in violence, brutality and mindlessness into something resembling a noble, gallant and enriching echo of the medieval games held to honor the Code of Chivalry.

Players in a video deathmatch can overwhelm, mock and humiliate their on-line opponents — or they can travel a higher road. Skilled players can set their own limitations (above and beyond the minimal restrictions imposed by the game’s parameters) when playing against less-experienced opponents, such as voluntarily restricting their own weapons, or choosing to wait for a set time before each “respawn.”

In addition, novices and experts alike can exhibit nothing less than chivalrous, gallant attitudes on the field of cyber-battle. Complimentary exchanges like, “Excellent tactics!” “Great game!” and “Thanks for playing!” should replace the atrocious taunts pre-programmed into some of today’s games: “You be dead!” “Loser!” or “You play like a girl!” Also, they can commit themselves to refraining from altering the outcome of a match by using “cheat codes,” no matter how hot the competition gets — an honest loss is always superior to a victory based on a lie.

The anonymity of cyberspace and the unfettered competitiveness of a video game can tempt us to indulge our worst behavioral tendencies — just as the concealment of a suit of armor and the unsupervised chaos of a medieval tournament must have done for knights of the Middle Ages. Both scenarios remind us that the purpose of chivalry is not to extend dainty courtesy to others, but to recognize and reinforce the finest qualities within ourselves in a “savage arena,” to assure that when we look into the mirror we see a decent human being instead of a bloodthirsty animal.

And there is one disclaimer that’s necessary here: Nobody (and especially not children) can plop down in front of a video screen and expect to embrace the concept of “chivalrous competition” in a moral vacuum. Kids need parents, role models and mentors to help them realize that the computer-generated worlds and characters of their video games are nothing more than reflections of themselves and their own sense of honor. Adults who play video games must make the deliberate choice to behave honorably and chivalrously, no matter how intense the competition gets or how badly the other players act.

Even in the Internet age, Aristotle’s “hour of play” can teach you something about others, but it can also teach you something about yourself. When given the opportunity to humiliate someone, to score an effortless victory or to cheat your way to a top score, how to you react? Do you succumb to egotism and self-indulgence, or do you seek the more rewarding standards of fair play, personal challenge and respectful competition? The warrior’s code of honor lives on in the spirit of those who compete with chivalry in today’s video games.

© 2004 Scott Farrell

Details in this article taken from: The Tournament in England: 1100-1400, by Juliet Barker, and Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages, by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker

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