Okay, so as promised I've gone away and done some thinking. And here's what I've come up with thusfar:
First of all, this thread asks if Countdown is worthy of respect as a game, and in its opening post makes reference to
As Gevin has correctly pointed out, I've been arguing two separate points (and that has been confusing things). To simplify things, I'll briefly tackle that initial question first and then close and shut my case on it, so that I can move on to the point that is a greater point of interest to me:
Yes, it is worthy of respect as a game. Perhaps less so than (more) 'proper' games, although examples of such games would have to be given/verified by someone more familiar with them than I, as I know nothing about Scrabble, Chess, or indeed pretty much any other game (as I have somehow ended up devoting far too much of my life to Countdown to really learn any of these other games. I hope to learn the basics of Chess this year, so maybe hope is not yet dead for me.)
Moving on - whilst shamelessly piggybacking Eoin's thread which is enough of a debate in its own right - I raised a point about when does a 'game' become artful?
The core problem with this question is that to determine what is artful we must first determine what is 'art'. And who can really define that?!
Well, given the forum on which this debate is being held, let's say that Susie Dent can! With a little help from her friend Lexico, which defines art as
I'm a reductionist by nature and am going to boil that down to 'creative skill'.
And in those two words we have the heart of the debate. As Gevin realised (and I didn't, hence my being unsteadied by his points): there are two parts to the question of whether or not something can be called 'artistry': creativity
Gavin Chipper wrote: ↑
Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:10 am
a lot of it comes down to co-ordination. Sure, Ronnie O'Sullivan is great at snooker, the best footballers are great at football, but I'm sure there are many people out there who could "think" these games just as well but lack the specific type of co-ordination required to play at the top level. And I think co-ordination itself is actually quite a "base" skill, rather than this great nuanced art. And I doubt it's that Ronnie O'Sullivan sees potential shots that others simply don't (in most cases anyway) - it's more likely that he's just better at hitting them. In something like chess, the top players will see something others simply miss. I'd say that's the more "proper" skill to have.
Now as to which games require sufficient creativity and skill to be defined as art, I'm going to steer clear of Scrabble and Chess for now, as I simply don't know enough about them to comment. I'll just judge Countdown, but by all means if you know enough about Scrabble and/or Chess I'm sure you'll be able to connect the dots if I make any points about Countdown that you believe are also applicable to those games. This is why I used Conor's 30BC run as an example. Because it's the best example of brilliant performance in one of these games that I know of. Of course there will be far better examples (far less strawy men) but sadly I have not learnt of them in my sheltered life to date.
Let's tackle skill (which I think - correct me if I'm wrong - is basically what Gevin was describing when he spoke of 'coordination') first as it's easier. There's obviously skill involved in Countdown. Some people are evidently more skilled at it than others. Exactly what that skill is, how/why it is developed, or even how it works before it manifests itself as a declared word or numbers solution is very unclear. I remember a few folk at Co:Dublin last year asking Conor and I what exactly went on in our heads during a round in the final to lead to us spotting a certain word that they deemed to be a decent spot (I think it was THREATEN or something like that). We both confidently answered that 'it just sort of jumped out at us'. Our interrogators weren't convinced; they didn't believe the brain works that way. We both agreed that it probably doesn't, but neither of us knew how else to describe it.
So Countdown has skill - sure - but it's hard to elaborate much on the nature of that skill when it seems impossible to examine. Maybe it's something really complex and interesting and impressive. I'm not convinced.
It's creativity where Countdown's aspiration to 'art' status really falls flat on its arse to me. Without getting myself stuck on the topic of games that I know nothing about as I did before, the reason Countdown (and other similar games) don't seem artful to me regardless of how much skill it is played with, is that it is very limited in its scope for creativity. The number of possible legal 'moves' that can be undertaken at any one split second of a game is not only finite, but extremely low. This is demonstrated, as Rob has pointed out, by the fact that a computer can be programmed, with relatively little difficulty, to play the game literally 100% perfectly.
Take a letters game of Countdown. How many 'moves' are possible in this round that can still be recognised as playing Countdown (i.e. technically you could get out of the chair, cartwheel across the studio and whistle the tune to Maple Leaf Rag, but then you're not playing Countdown anymore)? Presumably the same as the number of words that could realistically be spotted (valid or otherwise). Presumably a hundred or so at least, maybe several hundred, maybe a thousand. Even if you don't believe that this is a small number of available moves (to me it is), then consider this: how many different effects can be produced from this arsenal of potential moves? Now at very most this is 10. (If a nine is available you could score 0 points, 1 point, ...., or 18 points).
So, in a standard game of Countdown between two players who each have these options available to them, a 30 second passage of play occurs (comprising roughly 7% of the playtime of a game) in which there are a maximum of 100 (10^2) possible outcomes (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, .... 18-18). If any words of length 1 through 9 are unavailable from the selection then obviously the number of possible outcomes decreases. It decreases even more if you ignore the very unlikely possibilities of players declaring a 1 or a 2 (or indeed a 3 or a 4 in most circumstances). And it decreases yet more if you categorise the outcomes further into events with distinct meanings (i.e. players score the same, player A scores 5 more than player B, etc.) Realistically, you're looking at a relatively low two-digit figure once these categories have been accounted for.
By contrast, take a 30 second passage of play in a game such as football (my martial arts examples would work here too, as would snooker - albeit less so). What are the number of possible 'moves' in this passage of play that can still be recognised as playing football? I'm almost as ignorant of mathematics as I am of chess, but I would be surprised if the answer to this question is a number that humans are capable of notating. Even if you apply the rigorous categorisation to football that I applied to Countdown, you're still surely looking at a minimum of tens of thousands of outcomes.
And so I believe that Countdown, as a result of its strict limitations, is far outstripped by more open games such as football in terms of opportunity for creativity, and hence it is naturally far less capable of artistry. I also believe that this idea is applicable to other limited games when compared to other open games, although the degree to which this is true will differ with the nature of the games, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable on most games to speak.
Perhaps I'm giving too much weight to the 'creativity' side of the art definition. Maybe I need to consider skill more. Certainly great artists such as painters and musical composers would be totally unheard of if, despite their mind-blowing imagination, they lacked the technical prowess to paint competently or write music that could be interpreted and performed. I don't know. There's a balance to be struck for sure.
I also definitely agree with Phil that participation numbers can help a game look more impressive, as performers of that game at elite level will be of a far higher percentile in their game than the elite at other games will be, by virtue of a greater sample size. Maybe there's 500 people in the world who would all, if they knew to watch a few episodes of Countdown and maybe deigned to sign-up to Apterous for a week or two, be better at finding Lexico-valid anagrams within a selection of nine English alphabet letters than Conor Travers. There really might be. But it's unlikely that there's 500 people on Earth who are better at football than Lionel Messi. If there were, most of them would know about football (because most people worldwide do) and at least a few dozen of them would be world famous megastars by now.
If any sad bastard is still reading this drivel, there's one more element to art that I think should be considered, but it makes this whole debate interminable as it's so impossible to quantify. For me, art must contain (or rather, channel) beauty. I think this is why, as I alluded to earlier, I find it a difficult concept to define (despite having rolled with the dictionary definition for the duration of this post thusfar). Because who the hell knows what beauty is, really?! One thing we can confidently say of beauty is that it is 'in the eye of the beholder'. In the eyes of this beholder, Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross-field passing, Ronnie O'Sullivan's tactical awareness while break-building (I maintain that the best snooker shot I have ever seen was a simple pot of the yellow he once did in order to respot it elsewhere on the table so that it would be available several shots later), or Vasyl Lomachenko's 'Loma Hop' are beautiful. They inspire in me the same feeling of awe that any great art of traditional media does. As much as PONYTAILS is a great word and this
is a cracking jumper, I don't get that same flutter of numinosity from watching a great Countdown performance.