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Pacing back and forth in the war room, vice president Biden carefully considered his options. The fate of the world was in his balance. Sweat condensed on his brow, and time was running short. He clenched his fist around the handle of the stone, ran forward, and cast it across the ice.

"Sweep, Barack! Sweep like the wind! All our lives depend on it!"

While perhaps the American president and vice president wouldn't have been elected if the fate of the world was placed on a curling match, the match itself would likely contain less bloodshed than a war between hundreds of thousands of men and women armed with assault rifles and bombs. Animals and teen comedies have come to this conclusion as well. Bighorn sheep ram heads instead of murdering for the right to mate, and we've been told time and time again that high school wars should be fought in full padding on the football field. Could this same principle be applied to countries?

The challenge I see is that many countries wouldn't want to abide by the rulebook, and if Putin flips the table and pulls a gun after Poroshenko beats him in the chess match for Crimea, we're back at square A1. (By which I mean the square that contains war, not Putin's rook.)

Could a system be created in which countries settled their differences over a chess board or a tennis court instead of a battle field? What would such a system look like?

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  • $\begingroup$ The only way I can think of making this even remotely plausible is some extreme form of Mutually Assured Destruction making all sides want to avoid war. But even then you have to answer how you deal with enforcing the rules of the sport... $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ I've actually always thought this was the generally idea behind Mario Kart. DK, Bowser, how about instead of killing each other we race go-karts? Hilarity ensues. $\endgroup$
    – Shollus
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ I lost my homeland to the patriots and their under-inflated footballs $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ The novel "Surface Detail" by Ian M Banks has exactly this scenario, it's a war being played out in virtual reality under pre-agreed terms. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ An alternative could be using the same basic idea from No Game No Life. In this fictional world, people solve arguments - and war - with games. Of course, this only works because the story's god made it impossible for people to kill. You'd have to find a good reason for war to be impossible. $\endgroup$
    – Linkyu
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 11:36

13 Answers 13

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Personally, I can think of two ways they could happen, but it would take a long time to get to the point of two 'champions' competing.

To begin we already have the Olympics and while that isn't really a decision maker, it is used by many to be a 'proving' ground, each country testing their best against each other.

However, to actually have national decisions changed buy such, I think wars would have to get closer and closer to games. I can see this happening. First as life saving techniques increase and we get a near god-like life saving tech for all but the most serious wounds, real war might start to resemble Call of duty. Then as tech also increases and we begin to use robots it will start to look more like robot wars.

With fewer and fewer actual humans on the battle front and fewer of them suffering permanent life ending or life altering wounds. It will look more and more like a video game. Eventually loss of life will be rare enough (at least for advanced Western societies) that it will be much closer to a game than a 'modern' war.

I think as long as things 'evolve' along lines like this that it will have a chance to come about. Being a social convention that makes sense to everyone and all abide because it is the 'right' thing to do, it could work and be binding. Some random body just forcing the decisions on countries to abide by the winner of a game just won't work. Unless we start to believe in 'trial by combat' again. As in Celestial favor grants the win.

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    $\begingroup$ A thought based on this: what if our simulation gets to a point where we can play a 'war game' and determine what the likely output of the actual war would be? Not quite a sport, but perhaps for a different society, a sporting match (or series of such matches) could be taken as a representation of martial prowess. I can see a confederation of tribes, for example, pitting their warriors against one another in mock combat. If your side got hosed, it would be better to admit defeat without warfare, since you would probably lose a war. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yes something along those lines $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ That how competition was used before Shaka Zulu came to power, and shown that victor can actually kill the defeated team. Rules are for small regional conflicts which are repeated. In a fight for survival, when parties know that one of the opponent WILL die, you cannot expect any rules. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ @ckersch see the Millennium Challenge 2002 - basically it works great in theory, right up until someone does something that isn't in the games rulebook but works in real life, such as jamming the communications for your robot army - all of a sudden your superior force is now.. useless, and the war did not go as predicted. Or any number of unpredictible situations occurs (and yes, really unpredictable - i.e. not even the smartest computer can predict everything, nor will it ever be able to) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ suggesting wars were bloodier in the past is mockery of the people that die just because armed conflict is running over their land, even ignoring declared wars between countries. Insurrections are also a kind of war, and that is not fought in any way symmetrically but on the backs of civillians. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 11:51
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It cannot. Sports are guided by rules and referees, to be a fair competition.

War is not fair by design, and you want to get any unfair advantage over the other guys, to kill as many of them as needed to assure your own victory. As the saying goes: point of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his.

To make such sport-like competition be a valid replacement of war, you would have such war-like conflicts to be repeatable, survivable by most of participants, and guided by honor code. So for instance american indians were honor-bound to die gracefully.

And again, rules would be used if conflict is survivable by most participants. If none of your peers who could judge your behavior can survive, having your options be limited by rules does not give you any advantage (unless you strongly believe in payoff in afterlife).

Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention is not signed by 35 countries including USA, China and Russia, because it would limit military options in a conflict.

Even Geneva Conventions (written after the war by victorious alliance obviously without consulting losing side), and still include controversies, like legality of "unlawful enemy combatants" being indefinitely detained.

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  • $\begingroup$ What about the Geneva Conventions? Could those not be considered rules for fair play in war? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel the catch is the rules are pointless without referees. $\endgroup$
    – DA.
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel In sports, you should have referees who can enforce the rules. Impartial referees, not people who are sometimes players, too. Is there any significant conflict in the world where you could realistically expect the U.S., Russia, and China to all be impartial? And that's only three of UNSC members. Also, in sports, you usually have to agree to the rules to be allowed to play. War is often a result of people not liking the current rules. $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ In war, it is the victor who defines what rules were, and how game should be played. If Hitler won WWII, do you think we would be talking about the genocide of Holocaust? Rules are OK until war is really hot. Then, all rules go straight out of the window, and you really do or die. Only making losing acceptable you can allow to follow the rules. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel Showing results for: "Geneva suggestions" (/s). In all seriousness, take a look at the Russian-Ukrainian war and Hamas' jihad against Israel. Even though Russia and Hamas constantly break the laws of war, uninvolved countries haven't really stepped in to enforce the rules. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 23:54
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You mean something League of Legends like?

I'm neither a furtune teller nor an expert politologist, so everything I can give is a bunch of thoughts, more or less sensible... and the first one is that what you mean is a very interesting idea, and I'd love to see it deeply worked out.

The first question seems to be like: how could this be enforced, and how could this develop? And I still think this system could develop, however under certain conditions.

1. How could this develop?

Quite obviously, there should be either a major power enforcing it (like a superpower state, for example the US, or maybe a more powerful version of the United Nations, or maybe even a world government?) or simply waging a war should be a suicidal decision (since everyone hates war so much that waging it means you suddenly get completely isolated with literally everyone against yourself).

The problem is that in the second scenario waging traditional wars would probably be substituted by economic wars (for example buying out other country's businnes, or laying down embargos, or what China now does to the Western world) or cyber wars (the NSA and the likes...) The tournaments option still wouldn't make sense. Granted, countries would be forced not to wage wars, but they yet wouldn't be forced to actually give out that Crimea to Putin for loosing a tennis match...

Now we go to the second option. A powerful entity enforcing it. This would of course require an explanation how could such an entity (a country, the U.N., a world government) reach such a power, but that's a whole different story. The important part is: why would such an entity enforce that system?

2. Why would a super power enforce this system?

  • For moral reasons - "Stop bloodshed!"
  • As a way to channel aggressive desires of ambitious individuals (or somebody's frustration, or something...) that could otherwise challenge world peace or that powerful entity's domination
  • For fun, like the Roman Colloseum

3. Problems

Of course the first problem is that if such an entity reaches such a power that it can enforce this system (and enforce every country to pay for loosing matches), why won't it simply rule the whole world with an iron fist of tyranny? There's no need for Colosseums in the 1984 world! These days massive invigilation of everyone starts to be possible, and this addinotialy bonuses all wanna-be tyrants. Given the NSA thingy it no longer seems absurd for a soft-totalitarian regime to evolve in Europe or the USA.

So this ruling entity should either - be ruled by a man or group moral enough not to go in this direction AND strong enough to ward off any cabals, lobbys etc; or - limited by a strict constitution and strong democratic structures; or - strong enough not to be easily overthrown, but still weak enough to have to thing twice before opressing everybody on Earth.

And then. Would it really enforce peace? Yes, countries woulnd't be able to wage traditional wars... BUT what about riots? People would not necessarily be content with sudden changes of their nationality, so social unrest could develop in disputed lands.

4. Moral issues

Would it really have to be just a tennis match? Consider the following scenario: a super mercenary guild emerges. Most armies of the world belong of this guild, so it is the guild who enforces the system. Wouldn't it probably boil down to bloody battles, just controlled enough not to escalate out of the arena? Such a system would, of course, be plain immoral.

And then. Imperialism would still be Imperialism, even in the Football match scenario. Countries would be probably obligated to accept challenges. So nothing changes - the stronger takes the weaker's property.

The system is possible I think, you just have to have a super power that enforces it. I've mentioned problems, but these are only problems IMHO, not blockers.

Sorry for the messy nature of this post, but I've been in a hurry. I'll clean it up and expand it tomorrow.

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  • $\begingroup$ The biggest problem I see is that this world governing superpower could also solve these conflicts in court and enforce the decision that it sees just. The parties are just as likely to comply or even more since often a compromise can be found. Maybe country A has a just claim over a part of the area it demands from country B so instead of handing over all the demanded area they are made to just hand over the area which was found to belong to country A. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 14:54
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Native Americans would do just this (sometimes). Rival tribes would gather for days at a time and and play lacrosse to to decide which tribe would get a the land they were fighting over (as an example). I personally don't think this would ever become popular because I think humans as a species love violence. Sorry, it is what it is...

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The only way this would work is if there were enough other people willing to oversee and enforce the rules to keep it safe. For example the Geneva convention works because most countries have signed up to it, and they are willing to help enforce it by taking action against people who break it.

So if you had a situation with enough smaller countries that all sign a treaty agreeing to settle their disputes this way then it might work. If a country lost the game and then refused to honor their side of the bargain then all the other countries in the world would immediately start punitive sanctions and maybe escalate towards genuine conflict.

The problem though is keeping people honest, getting everyone to sign up to it in the first place, and making sure that no single country grows strong enough (or convinces enough friends) to say "screw you guys, I'm doing it the old fashioned way".

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  • $\begingroup$ In fact there is no such "enforcing group" for the Geneva convention. What mostly upholds it is fear of retaliation (by the current enemy or the next one), and that is mostly a treaty of bare minimums that forbids only the most criminal behavior (you cannot shot unarmed, captured soldiers but you may bomb unarmed civilians in enemy territories). $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 22:56
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Rule Keeper

While there is clearly a need to enforce both the rules and the admissions of the victor, having a superpower be the authority just poses all sorts of problems. One potential solution is a more technological system. Instead of having something about war keep people in their place, have a punishment to cheating be built in. Maybe after every conflict, if the loser hasn't met some pre-determined conditions, the computer automatically detonates a bomb in their capital, or reduces food supply, or some punishment. If the computer in charge is sufficiently safe, you have an absolutely neutral judge, strictly bound by logic.

Of course, setting this up in the first place would be the biggest challenge. Each nation would have to willing plant harmful measures, ensure that the other nations also followed through, and ensure that the computer is actually fair and secure.

War needs a cost

However, war should still have a high cost to a country. If not in life, then in something else, otherwise whichever country was the best at some arbitrary game would essentially rule the world.

If you have the best chess player, and all conflicts are decided by chess, then you can request anything from anyone, any simply declare war, beat them and force them to acquiesce.

Instead, add an economic cost. Say, every move in the chess game costs a billion dollars. Then, if it's extremely important, you can still wage war, but it's not something to be taken on trivially, and something you can't often repeat. Since economic power is usually the most important factor in a war anyways, this won't horribly shake up the modern geo-political landscape.

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  • $\begingroup$ "an absolutely neutral judge, strictly bound by logic" - I'm guessing you're not a programmer :D Very good point about the need for a cost to war, though. Though I think that we may have more complex costs even now, than merely the military ones. For example, given that the military costs are negligible (or already going to be spent), why does the US not demand that Mexico (or any other country) join the US? I suspect: non-military costs. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @DewiMorgan Haha fair enough, I do program so maybe I'm just idealistic. Neutral is debatable, I would say computers are still bound by logic, question is just if it's the correct logic. You bring up a good second point though, other costs already exist. One issue though is that threat of collusion today adds a cost, so whatever game it was, there would have to be a way for multiple smaller countries to team up and be a stronger threat. $\endgroup$
    – Cain
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you about logic, though a program implies a programmer... who may not be absolutely neutral, so may encode biases. And I just discovered this joyful list of AIs doing the "right thing" the wrong way: docs.google.com/spreadsheets/u/1/d/e/… :D $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ As for the costs, and the tangled complexity around all that, all I can say is I'm glad I'm not in politics, it gives me a headache just to think about the metagaming that could be involved there. Maybe we should let an AI decide it... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 20:23
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The way I see it, turning wars into games might be possible only in two situations (which are rather similar if you think about it):

1) The world is divided by an overwhelmingly huge superpower and a bunch of lesser countries small and weak enough to pose no threat to the superpower. Since these lesser countries can't put aside their differences, and since superpower doesn't want any bloodshed, they agree to some kind of war sport with superpower acting as a referee.

2) The world is the way our world is, but these crazy conspiracy theories are actually true and all governments are controlled by crab lizard people/masons/these creatures from "They Live"/etc. This controlling superpower doesn't want it's cattle/slaves/lesser pet creatures/(whatever they think of us) to go to waste, hence the global "make sport, not war" program promoted by all governments.

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The population has to be so invested in the game that the practical disputes they're fighting for take second place. The disappointment of the game being cancelled has to be greater than the pain felt from the other side winning the war.

Then and only then can war be replaced by sports.

Additional conditions that make this viable:

  • Countries set up an effective enforcement mechanism beforehand.
  • Some larger power encourages it.
  • It's understood that there will be a rematch in the future.
  • Populistic governments use the bread and circuses as a distraction.
  • Profitable industries surrounding the games lobby for their continuation.

How could this get started? One option is that politicians choose to settle some minor international dispute through a game as a novelty, and this proves unexpectedly popular, escalating into a way to resolve ever larger conflicts.

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It can't

If someone lost at sport, they're just as likely to resort to war instead with a surprise attack.

The only way it could work is some overarching power enforcing the rules to prevent bad sportsmanship.

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It won't

At its root, "war" is when two countries are unable to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement on a dispute, and the dispute is of such importance that one or both can't let the matter lie, causing them to attempt to force a unilaterally satisfactory "agreement" through force of arms.

Unfortunately, this means that neither side is going to be willing to resolve it through a fair contest, since that represents an unacceptable risk of loss. Both want to maximize their chance of winning. Thus, unless someone forces it on them, they aren't going to accept the outcome of such a contest.

While there have been various attempts to regulate war over the years (most notably the Geneva Checklist Suggestions Convention), they aren't very well enforced. Uninvolved countries don't want to deal with the public relations fallout that comes from getting your own people killed in someone else's war. As a result, they mostly function as a way for the victor to express its anger against the defeated. Insofar as the laws of war are followed nowadays, it's mostly on the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction ("if you use napalm, I'll use napalm, and now it's stuck to both our kids.")

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MAD

Mutually assured destruction.

Every country has nukes and bioweapons. Any war has a an almost inescapable chance of spiraling out of control. Any leader knows there is a high likelihood of their own death if they start a military conflict, the reach of the weapons is just too broad and their movements are too easy to track to at least the city level to risk escalation.

With real war off the table a proxy is all they have so someone preposes using a war game, maybe a huge vr game. Perhaps each side using it a a simulation for a real conflict. The hard part is getting the game to matter, for that you need the populace to buy in, elect or remove leaders based on the game. hopefully your game is the most popular game ever. Hopefully you get politicians to latch on to this proxy to solve conflict. you still have problems with arbitration and rules you need your own UN negotiating rules.

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  • $\begingroup$ With everyone having nukes, how would you enforce the result of the game on the loser? They would still just say: Come at me and we are both gone from the map, or leave me alone. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ Also usually the goal of the war is also aligned with the interest of the force majority of a country, so the people have little chance to force the loss of the game on their own government. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ @datacube the same way we enforce stuff now economic sanctions, since armed conflict is off the table they either play ball or live in isolation. flimsy true, but its the only justification that fits in the real world. And just like in the real world some nations may decline ot participate to their detriment. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ that would be the "world government" situation from other answers. And unless that "world government" is ruled by a game crazed dictator they would instead resort to solve this in court and enforce their "just decision" rather than a tennis match. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ @datacube or you have something like the UN $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 23:24
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Not realistically possible.

Q: When do countries wage war?
A: When one country wants something from another country that it is not willing to hand over, the two countries can't find a compromise to make it happen in a way both are satisfied AND the demanding country is ready and able to use violence to get what it wants.

That last part is the important one. "ready and able to use violence". When that condition is met, no loss of a sports match will be accepted.

Q: And when "the world" would make them accept the result by force?
A: Then the demanding country is obviously not in a position to wage that war at all against "the world" that opposes the war, so there would be no war in the first place to be replaced with a sports match. The enforcing powers would rather decide the matter in the court and give the demanding country what they see justified and nothing more.

Q: But maybe there is no single power that enforces that behaviour. What if every country has so many nukes, that they can't afford a war, since it would always end in mutual destruction?
A: Then you would not solve anything with the sports match.

  • Country A demands area X from country B because it thinks it belongs to them
  • Country B refuses
  • Country A declares war.
  • Country B says: "if you take it by force, I'll blow us both from the map"
  • The sports match happens and Country A wins
  • Country A demands area X from country B because it is "we won the match"
  • Country B says: "if you take it, I'll blow us both from the map"
  • A: "but... but we won the match."
  • B: "good for you, now you have to claims to that area. And I ignore both. My nukes are still ready if you try something funny"
  • A: "... but we won..."
  • B: "rematch? We can add a third claim."

Q: But if I still really really want that to happen?
A: It's your story. Make it happen. Put a game crazed dicator in power of the whole world, that doesn't care for a just solution and only wants to see the countries pulling together the best players they can get their hands on and all the background play (bribing referees, assassinating MVPs...) followed by riots of the loser side which he brings to a bloody end. All for his regal amusement.

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Another answer: Yes, there was a time for sport-like wars: knight wars in the times of chivalry.

War was like a full-contact martial art, the knight defeated in the battle was honor-bound to go to the castle (after arranging his business in his home castle) of the victor to be imprisoned (but not in jail: sharing the feast with the winner) until the ransom for his freedom was paid.

Of course, the courtesy was only for the noble-blooded: peasants, and their villages were destroyed. Knights considered themselves equal, and they were mostly relatives - it was like fighting over inheritance in our times.

Such times lasted while armor was expensive, training necessary to fight in it was time-consuming, and the protection it offered was substantial. Time for chivalry was over when gunpowder democratized the killing: any peasant with little training and a musket could kill a noble knight.

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