(last updated on April 29, 2014)
Sportsmanship: this is a concept that I associate with athletes and team competition, not new media or graphic design. But maybe that’s just what we need.
I was listening to On Point on NPR, listening to a story about a couple of people who were members of competitive marching bands. One of them commented how the experience of good natured competition and sportsmanship shaped his life. They started a musical group called Soul Rebels that fuses New Orleans music with Hip Hop.
So here we have a couple of what might be called band geeks doing cool stuff, shaped by their early influences. This reminded me of my own days as a budding nerd, except that I was never part of a group activity if I could help it. I abhored clubs and committees, thinking them to be authoritarian ego trips on the part of advisors, or well-intentioned-but-ineffective wastes of my time. As an individual, I felt I could accomplish more…or at least be annoyed less. My aspirations did not run very high back then.
Fast forward to grad school: I was loaded with skills, but had no real team experience. For shy artists and programmers, this is a major challenge to face. I’m not sure if everyone has experienced this the same way as I, but I found the whole idea of team to be somewhat abstract and mystifying. With hindsight, I can see the connection between that experience with the feeling of unease I felt during PE; always picked last and always “offsides” no matter the sport. Not being good at sports, I never really experienced sportsmanship and teamwork on a successful level. This is an advantage that jocks have going into business, conditioned responses that help build functioning (if not always successful) teams.
Positive role models are not entirely absent from my nerdly upbringing. The hacker ethic is one example, basically saying that “information should be freely accessible”. The necessary mindset for this requires that you’re helpful to your comrades. I think it is a form of “good sportsmanship”. And the idea of “team” does exist too, in the form of underground hacking, demoscene, crypto, and computer security groups who are out to build a name for themselves. You see the team instinct in game clans and MMORPG guilds too, though these are sometimes just social clubs; sportsmanship exists here on a more individual level (perhaps “chivalry” is more accurate). On the group level, building a level playing field is not in their interest. If you want to be the best team ever, you’re not likely to give away your tools and your tricks.
What does this mean for New Media and Interactive Design?
I think we’ve seen the impulse to form teams in groups like the AIGA, but as individuals I think we lack that team instinct. Maybe it’s difficult to define an appropriate group agenda, given our highly invidualistic tendencies. I think that a general sense of sportsmanship here might go a long way toward making organizations like AIGA into more of a dynamic entity. On an individual level, cultivating sportsmanship leads to improved communication between designers, and also with non-designers. I believe sportsmanship is a pre-requisite for building a good team. And by extension, this is how you build a better society.