Play with words, play with numbers: About academic games

Henning Eichberg
University of Southern Denmark

The process of building and handling academic knowledge has sometimes been called a “game” (Wagner, 2016). Is this just metaphorical? Let us approach the issue from the study of play and game.

In today’s academic world, in the field of humanistic studies (and sport studies are part of this, as there is no sport without human beings as basis), people play two main forms of games simultaneously. There are games of words, ideas, and oppositions – and games of numbers, quantitative scales, and derived models.

On the one hand, academia thrives on the play of ideas and questions, of controversies and disputes. This game has its roots in the tradition of philosophical critique. Scholarship consists of telling and elaborating narratives, and of searching, finding, constructing, and falsifying certain connections between phenomena of the life world. The game aims at building an order – and at questioning order. This results in playful intellectual fireworks of patterns and anti-patterns. The creativity of the game is fired up by exchange and discussions – in critical sociality. Uniting play, narration, craft, and poetical imagination, this game – from Socrates to Friedrich Nietzsche and Peter Sloterdijk – has been appreciated fo making people wiser about life.

On the other hand, and starting from positivist physics, games of test knowledge and data knowledge have invaded the study of human life. This knowledge, labelled as “evident” truth, is produced by measurement and randomized control. It demands a narrowly defined, but highly developed craftsmanship, with questionnaires, randomization, standardization, and computer simulation. The game encapsulates the human being in a laboratory – and finally makes it, as a living being, disappear in statistics and sophisticated models, in functional systems and normal distributions. A highly artificial play language has been developed in which the human being is substituted by “data”.

The “evidence-based” academic game is normally regarded as serious work and not as play, and indeed, it lacks in high degree the element of laughter. Much more, it is dominated by the stress of correctness: excluding (instead of questioning) bias and cultivating the anxiety of making mistakes. And yet, it has a certain play character, too, though another one: it is a game with numbers, focusing on certain defined results. As it is directed towards the production of a quantified outcome, it can be compared to sport, which is the modern streamlined version of playful game.

The test-and-data knowledge is connected with new patterns of publication, which have invaded the field of social and humanistic studies from the side of science and engineering (and in terms of cultural geography from America). This publication strategy is directed towards the collection of points by output, crystallized in impact factors, h-index, and other measured quotients. The publication game creates a secondary world of numbers, showing who you are as researcher, and where your place is on the ladder of excellence. It builds a certain stress of competition and hierarchy, which is known from sport, where the star is at the top – having an equivalence in the academic hot-shot.

Study as a merit ranking game may function at the expense of the quality of knowledge. Online publications have taken over, which no longer – like academic journals – are read by the academic community and present reviews and critique. The sections of critical review have mostly disappeared, as the “journals” exclusively serve to collect bibliometrical points – on a one-dimensional scale. As the reviews were an important forum of public intellectual play, their disappearance damages the critical potential of research. The public opposition of paradigms was replaced by the hidden genre of peer reviews, “grey literature”. In this framework, the phenomenon of the so-called protocol article has appeared, which is not based on one’s own research, but describes the intentions and test arrangements of what should be researched in an upcoming project – and gives points, too.

This fosters a particular type of vanity, which, however, always was involved in the academic game but of late has become a widespread practical endeavor: to place one’s name as author on as many texts as possible. The names of “authors” are therefore multiplied, most of the names being non-authors, who have not written any single word of the article, but function as consultants, statisticians, helping students, leaders of the study group, “principal investigators”, directors of the involved institute, managers of research groups or even whole research groups. 10 or 15 authors are not extraordinary, but in biology, one has seen more than 1000 authors, in physics more than 5000 (NN. 2016).

In this bibliographical game, the name of the real writer of the study tends to vanish. Maybe there is a logical connection between the disappearance of the narrative and the marginalization of the author’s name. Anyway, this game favors on the one hand a certain academic authoritarian dependence, as the names of higher-ranking persons are included for marketing the article – and in order to please those authorities. It is difficult to see critical debate develop in this framework. On the other hand, money enters into the game. Among the “authors”, there appear more and more names of those who have organized the funding of the study. This opens up towards a practice where money-givers and financial managers put their names to an academic paper – and colonize the intellectual game under the hegemony of capitalist investment.

None of the two games is just “right” or “wrong”. They are phenomena in the complex cross-field of play, craftsmanship (Højbjerre Larsen, 2016), and the poetry of asking (Eichberg, 2016).

An thus it would be too simple to see those two lines of academic play and game as monolithic alternatives. Inside themselves, they are highly differentiated and sometimes contradictory.

    • The narrative and philosophical games, for instance, may be either critical (as the sports critique of the Danish Gerlev school) or affirmative (as the “Olympic education”). This differentiation is also true for quantitative tests.
    • Some forms of play with ideas are focussing more on asking, while others, as games, have their main focus on the answer and result.
    • Some humanistic games may proceed top-down, starting from certain authoritative quotations and building a patchwork of “high” references (as some Heideggerian forms of “phenomenology of sport” do), while others move bottom-up from phenomena of the life world (as many sport historical and anthropological studies do).
    • Some games may be jokingly experiential, others deeply serious.
    • Some follow more conservative demands of “correct” interpretation, others are experimental.
    • Some narratives may have an existential and universal aspiration (such as showing Olympic sport from Stone Age rock carvings and Greek Olympics to Usain Bolt), others are historical and relativistic (sport as the creation of industrial culture).
    • Some narratives as well as some “evidence-based” measurements are written for or against something (for instance for sport as “best practice”), while others try to approach their field in a “neutral” way.
    • And especially the games of test-knowledge are highly differentiated according to which practical application they aim at (whether top-sport coaching or health-oriented “Sport for all”).

However, the lively crisscross among the academic play and games cannot overshadow the cultural struggle that is going on between the two main types of games in academia.  This is not (or not only) a question of choice: Which game does the individual researcher choose to play? But it gives rise to the question: What plays the player?

Evidently, there is power involved. The connection between the bibliometrical index game and top-down control is evident, and the ranking is in fact used by political powers and university management. New Public Management and the dynamics of top-down funding have been important driving forces for this game. But nor are the narrative philosophic games per se independent of power, though they may include more subversive elements of play.

And yet, the academic game is and remains a form of play – playing with words and/or playing with numbers. Playing in contradictions or playing along one-dimensional scales. And under this aspect, one might detect some laughter in the not-so-funny game of bibliometrics. Andre Geim, Nobel Prize winner of physics in 2010, honored his co-author H.A.M.S. ter Tisha, who was his pet, in a peer-reviewed journal. But also the appearance of 5145 “co-authors”, listed on 24 of 33 pages of an article in Physical Review Letters in 2015 (NN, 2016) reveals– though involuntarily? – the grotesque dimensions of play.

Anyway, play is not innocent. And it is not just one play. There is always a choice – or a pressure: Do we like to play this game – or another one?

Copyright © Henning Eichberg 2017


Eichberg, H. (2016). Questioning Play. London: Routledge.
Højbjerre Larsen, S. H. (2016). What can the parkour craftsmen tell us about expertise and skilled movement? Sport Ethics and Philosophy, 10:3, 295-309.
NN (2016). Why research papers have so many authors.  The Economist, November 26.|d
Wagner, U. (2016). The publishing game. The dubious mission of evaluation research and measuring performance in a cross-disciplinary field. Idrottsforum,


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