Pokolpok is the Mayan term for an ancient ball game that was played throughout Mesoamerica in antiquity. While much about the game (even the rules) has been lost to time, archaeologists have a loose consensus regarding the following:
- the game was played with a solid rubber ball weighing around 4kg
- playing the game was more than an athletic event. It was also seen as a way to settle scores, an alternative to warfare, as well as an act of devotion
- later cultures incorporated human sacrifice into the game
What remains unknown is:
- how exactly the game was played
- how the result of the game was enforced (if not warfare)
- who was sacrificed? The winners or the losers? (the conventional theory is the losers were sacrificed, although there is no hard evidence to support or refute this theory)
I plan to carve a world out of the existing archaeological ambiguity surrounding the game. This world will be based on current archaeology, but will need to fill in the gaps. In particular, the points of "act of devotion" and "human sacrifice" will need to have clear courses of action.
My world will take a different stance on Pokolpok human sacrifice than the conventional understanding. Instead of the losers being sacrificed, as is often reasoned by archaeologists, my Mayan world's Pokolpok will sacrifice the winners. I attempt to justify this with the "act of devotion" principle. Winning the game proves your might and worthiness to be sacrificed -- that the blood of the mighty will adorn the Pokolpok court. In this way, the Mayans will have satiated the gods' demand for "high-grade" blood, and would have curried favor enough for the gods to allow their civilization to continue to prosper, blessing their crops, war generals, etc.
The catch is, presumably, self-preservation is hard-wired into humans, and so there is potential for a moral hazard. It would not be a fitting spectacle to see a team of otherwise physically gifted and skilled players throw the match because of their attachments to the physical world. This could take place for any number of reasons: fear, becoming a new father, etc.
More recently, tennis and badminton players had to be disqualified from the 2014 summer Olympics for not having the "Olympic Spirit." They tried to lose a match on purpose to enter a more favorable bracket. To sum up, history seems to support the idea that humans are not beneath losing if they know they can reap benefits in the long-term; therein lies the moral hazard.
Question: Assuming only the winners of Pokolpok are sacrificed, how can the powers that be in this ancient Mayan world protect against the moral hazard as articulated above? It seems to be a tall order, since players face death if they win, if you punish them for not having the "Pokolpok Spirit" could it be worse than death?
Success Metric: Both teams play their best, even though both teams know the winner will be sacrificed
- Ritual Type: Assume the game is being played for glory only. A game to determine the future of a tribe or territory could reasonably justify the sacrifice of a few brave men. In this situation, the moral hazard is not as pronounced.
- Selection: The Mayan high priests will have a litmus test to select the strongest. While it's possible to volunteer, there is still a selection bias as to who plays. The brutality of the sport is well-known, and only men of great courage and physical prowess seek out Pokolpok. Lastly, there have been documented cases of prisoners of war being forced into Pokolpok, but I'm not sure we need to be this granular. Consider the general case selection to be draft or high profile warriors looking to go out with a bang.
- Mob mentality: While some may find a perverse joy in watching the strong dominate the weak, this world's mob mentality prefer to watch an even match. So two teams of strong men are what the gods and the mob want the most.