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Literature Review

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)

Premise

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

Further Clarifications

  • 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.
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James May 14 '18 at 21:09

18 Answers 18

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The winners are not killed immediately, but after a few months, which they spend in a rather leisurely life: exempted from work, supplied with food and their only task being breeding with a large harem of women (you want the bloodline of the worthy to be preserved, don't you?).

After few months of dedicated service to breeding, with a large number of impregnated women carrying the bloodline of the champ in their wombs, the champ can be sacrificed to the gods.

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    $\begingroup$ Add castration for the losers, you don't want their seed to spread after all. And a ban on playing the game ever again. $\endgroup$ – Robin May 8 '18 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Makes sense as a personal incentive to win the game and is arguably beneficial to the society as well. However, with the sacrifice being delayed this much, there's also much more time for the winners to decide they might not want to follow through. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh May 8 '18 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @RutherRendommeleigh But that's a good point to introduce conflict though, so unless this destabilizes too much, I'd actually advocate keeping this because it has that time to mull the decision over, though you could always just handwave or inject some cultural guilt ("Hesotl and his team all were willing to be sacrificed for the gods? Why are you complaining? You think they weren't scared too?") Stuff like that can have a lot of power. $\endgroup$ – Pleiades May 8 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ As I recall, there were a lot of sacrifices in the Mezoamerican cultures that lived the high life for a year or so leading up to their sacrifice, and there was competition to volunteer to be the sacrifice for that. You know, live fast, die young. $\endgroup$ – Jesse May 8 '18 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @BarafuAlbino It's totally possible that ,y recollections were based on invented nonsense. That said, it's plausible nonsense, so for the first time on the internet, I don't mind spreading it. $\endgroup$ – Jesse May 9 '18 at 21:07
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The simple answer would be to sacrifice the winners and kill the losers making sure they are dishonored afterwards. If they were honorable and the gods favored them, they would have won right? Unless you can hand waive in the martyrdom trait and true believer features into each member of a civilization (who "know" that by sacrificing themselves the family unit/personal life is getting an upgrade by death), you will always get people that cheat/game the system.

Even if the punishment for the loser is something horrible, some people will prefer something horrible to death (whatever that punishment is). Unless you somehow knew what the thing worse than death is for everyone on a personal level WITH the ability to execute said plan, you aren't going to have much luck.

There is terrible moral hazard with cheating in sumo wrestling which is a sport that has been around for quite some time. That cheating is done repeatedly over money and prestige. It is going to be nearly impossible to discourage moral hazard in a life or death scenario.

Make sparing the losers the exception rather than the rule. Maybe the losers only live if an unknown point/injury threshold is reached.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't seem sustainable. After a few matches you'd have killed all your best athletes/warriors. $\endgroup$ – jcm May 9 '18 at 13:19
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With most religions you have a good place to go, heaven, and a bad place, hell. Even then, death might not be the worst outcome. And the sacrifice does not have to be immediate.

So with that we can set some more variable rules for our high stakes and or religious games:

  1. As long as a player has won, he can live (in luxury).
  2. When a player loses a match the result depends on his previous record:
    1. He has won previous matches, he is worthy: sacrifice him! (publicly)
    2. It's his first match. The favour of the god's is not with him. Shame on him and on his line: castrate him and sell as slave!

This will make sure that on the hi-est level of playing every player gives his best.

You will want a different system of lower levels, or non religious game play. You need players that know the game and play well. *Something with this being a zero sum game.


*In Rome most gladiator fights were not to the death: most of the gladiators were slaves and had a very high price to buy and maintain. So only in special events did they fight to the death.

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Judges, the King or the crowd (take your pick), pass judgment at the end of the game if they think that one team didn't play to win.

If they are, in fact, deemed to have not played to win, they and their families are marched -- in a manner appropriate to the culture -- through the streets to the slave market and sold into into servitude much more degrading than most.

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There are some considerations to your premise that affect the conclusion:

how was the result of the game enforced (if not warfare)

We could say the same about a UN vote or the Geneva convention. What binds a country to acting according to the UN vote? What binds a country to following the Geneva convention?

When this country does not follow the predetermined rules, otherwise neutral parties will join the conflict against this country. Breaking the rules escalates the conflict, often to an unwinnable situation.

Avoiding the unwinnable escalation is what binds countries to follow the rules.

The catch is, presumably, self-preservation is hard-wired into humans, and so there is potential for a moral hazard.

South American cultures have seen self-sacrifice; that's not new. If anything, there is a strong association with South American cultures and sacrifice, to a point where suggesting that a culture has developed voluntary self-sacrifice is not all that far-fetched.

Other than South American cultures, you can also see the same happening in suicide cults. Cult members are manipulated into willing drinking the koolaid.

Thirdly, consider the gladiator games in Roman times. While the winners would obviously fight to stay alive; consider what would happen if both of them refuse to fight?
If refusal to fight in the arena would not be punishable by death, every gladiator could effectively guarantee mutual survival by mutual refusal to fight.

Thus it stands to reason that refusal to fight is punishable by death. For your situation, if it is a dishonorable death; then playing the game (and potentially ending up honorably dead) is still better than being guaranteed to die dishonorably.

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.

Just like how you have a referee to make judgment calls; you can have a referee to make judgment calls about those who are not playing the game. If the referee's decision is final, combined with the aforementioned dishonorable death penalty; that seems like a good reason to genuinely play the game.

Question: Assuming only the winners of Pokolpok are sacrificed, how can the powers that be in this ancient Maya world protect against the moral hazard as articulated above?

In other workd, how can you make people willingly do [thing] even though it has negative consequences for them? By making sure that not doing [thing] yields even more negative consequences.

This can be dishonorable death, or threatening the family of the player (similar to how criminals are often portrayed as coming for your family). Or, for example, the fear that your family will think you are dishonorable, therefore not properly burying you and denying you the benefits of the afterlife.

There are many sticks to make the donkey go forward. All you need is a stick that hurts enough to make the donkey want to avoid getting the stick. (After writing that, I'm questioning my own moral alignment #RimworldLife)


Alternatively

It might be interesting to watch South Park S09E05 "The Losing Edge". This is almost exactly your situation.

While it doesn't deal with death; having to play baseball all summer is something the boys are avoiding as if it's a death sentence.
They end up competing to become the loser, which leads to them playing baseball but simply inverting their tactics.

When they win their final game, they are at first overjoyed, believing the season is over and they have the rest of the summer to enjoy - only until they discover, to their horror, that since they finished first in their division, they will have to continue playing in the post-season playoffs. During a 'celebration' meal, the team discusses plans to lose on purpose while making it look like they are trying.

However, South Park realize that the other teams also want out, and have actually trained to lose games. The South Park Cows end up winning again and again against opponents whose efforts at throwing games are more successful, and they eventually get to the state championship game. To their horror, they realize that if they win, their season will start again on the national circuit, meaning they will have to play baseball for the whole summer.

If you know enough of baseball, the following script excerpt shows you how playing to lose the game requires an equal amount of tactics as playing to win the game:

Cartman: [sends the ball back to Stan] Come on, kid, you gotta at least swing at it.
Morgan: No way! I'm striking out!
Kyle: Dude, he's not gonna swing! So just throw balls. That way he'll have to walk to first base. [Stan thinks, then throws the pitch. It goes wide and Cartman catches it]
Umpire: Ball!
Cartman: All right! [throws it back to Stan]
FC Pitcher: Morgan!
Morgan: [looks over] What?
FC Pitcher: You have to swing when it's a ball, otherwise, you're gonna walk to first base. Don't swing, only if it's a strike!
Morgan: [faces the dugout] Well how the Sam Hell am I supposed to know if he's gonna be throwing a strike or a ball?!
FC Pitcher: You just have to guess.
Morgan: Aw, Jesus! [turns around and goes back to bat. Stan looks to Cartman for cues]
Cartman: Ball. Balll. [Stan pitches right down the middle]
Umpire: Steerike two!
Stan: No!
Cartman: That was no strike, that was a terrible pitch! You need some Goddamned lasik surgery!
Randy: Attaway, South Park! They ain't swingin' at nothin'!
Mr. Pratt: Come on Fort Collins! This team can't pitch! [Stan pitches, Morgan hits] There you go, Morgan! Run run run!
Morgan: Aw damnit! [heads to first base]
FC Pitcher: Why the hell did you swing at it?!
Morgan: Well I thought he was gonna throw a ball that time! [Fort Collins is ahead 1-0.]

I strongly suggest watching the episode if you haven't seen it. Even if you don't like South Park, this particular episode is so very relevant for your current question.

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Drugs.

'Stuff them' with psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, whatever...
(I'm not an expert that can tell you which specific drug to use).

Put them in the arena after you have sufficiently aroused the audience for the spectacle(s) to come. That should bring them in a winning/fighting mood disregarding the later consequences.

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    $\begingroup$ Or make all your players sit down and talk about the cool moving patterns in the grass, stonework, etc. $\endgroup$ – ivanivan May 8 '18 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ Chocolate was offered as a drug to sacrificial victims who got cold feet, or so I recall from my visit to Mexico's National Anthropology Museum. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor May 8 '18 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Ayahuasca is not the kind of thing you'll be particularly active on. $\endgroup$ – forest May 9 '18 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen Maybe we could sober up both teams cold turkey then allow the winning team to get a fix of the drug (and then be sacrificed). It then becomes a tale of self-destruction in many senses of the term. $\endgroup$ – Arash Howaida May 14 '18 at 15:17
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The dishonor of throwing a game would be a fate worse than death.

The catch is, presumably, self-preservation is hard-wired into humans

And this is where your assumption is incorrect. Humans are complex animals, to the point when altruism can easily overpower self-preservation. Take the culture of Japan for example, throughout all of history. Ritual suicide to preserve honor was common. Even in WWII, many officers chose suicide to correct the dishonor of failing their entire great nation. This shows that a people's culture can easily allow them to make decisions that result in their own deaths. Japan was not the first and will not be the last culture to prioritize individual and collective honor above all else, even life.

Intentionally losing a game just to preserve your own life is an incredibly cowardly thing to do. Living with the knowledge that you've done that and offended not only your own people and your family, but the gods themselves, is a fate worse than death. Anyone who is so selfish as to do something so dishonorable would not be fit for sacrifice anyway. The gods wouldn't want someone like them.

Finally, their family may be greatly rewarded if they go win the game and voluntarily go to the sacrifice. There are countless examples in modern times and throughout history where people willingly lose their own life to benefit their family. In modern times, it's really not uncommon for people to take their own lives in a staged accident so their family can reap the benefits of fraudulent life insurance payouts. This point is the key reason why your assumption that self-preservation is the overriding factor is incorrect. It is preserving one's own family, our own genetics, which is what drives us, even if that tends to mean that we avoid a meaningless death at all costs. Evolution has hard-wired us to perform fatally altruistic acts if it overwhelmingly benefits our family.

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    $\begingroup$ "Anyone who is so selfish as to do something so dishonorable would not be fit for sacrifice anyway." - that and everything else. Though it seems any culture doing human sacrifices didn't exist for too long it appears. $\endgroup$ – akostadinov May 10 '18 at 14:02
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Bring the families into it.

Present the sacrifice as something noble and honourable. Maybe have a 'year and a day living like a king'.

But also let them know that their families will be treated as ... well, the families of the Chosen One should be. E.g. they'll be socially and financially secure, well fed and looked after. Their children will get the best education, etc. They will want for nothing. The duties of a parent and provider are fulfilled.

I think you'd find a reasonable number of people who are prepared to risk their lives for that sort of prize.

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  • $\begingroup$ Usually, "risk your life" means "you might die, except in the good case". In this situation, it's the other way around. $\endgroup$ – Erik May 8 '18 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, true. But imagine I came to you now, and said - here's a couple of million for your family, and you'll have a year of living a life of luxury. There's just one catch - you'll die after that year. Now you might be a person who goes 'nah, I'm good'. But there's plenty of people who see another 40+ years of struggling to stay afloat financially, or who really want a better life for their children than they can give them - who would be prepared to take that trade. $\endgroup$ – Sobrique May 9 '18 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I meant the wording is strange as it is now. These aren't people "risking their lives"; they're more like people "willing to die". I agree that you can probably find people willing to do this. $\endgroup$ – Erik May 9 '18 at 8:32
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Combine will of the Player with the Will of the Gods

Winner is sacrificed but only if gods say so.

When a winner is declared, a referee takes out a coin (or similar) and flips it 3 times. If the coin comes up heads all 3 times then the winner is sacrificed. If not, the winner is richly rewarded.

By tweaking the numbers you encourage virtually anyone to play - whether they are risk averse or not. Young or old. For example, I'm not much of a risk taker, but if the rule was that that coin needs to land heads 100x, I would play this game all the time without much concern. After all I take greater risk crossing the street to work each day.

You can also slowly make the odds worse once you've got them hooked. For kids start with 30x (~1 in 1000000000 chance of dying) even their own parents will let them play for some sweets. With teenagers bring it down to 10x (~1 in 1000 chance of dying) They will definitely want to play for a chance to mate with an attractive girl. For professional players at the very pinnacle of their long career make it 1x (1 in 2 chance of dying). If the pro dies nothing is lost because new blood is needed anyway and by now the rewards that need to be given to the pro are putting too much strain on the community.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome to WorldBuilding! When you have a chance, please take the tour and visit our help center page. Looking forward to seeing more of your answers! $\endgroup$ – bendl May 9 '18 at 15:14
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In the ancient pagan religion death after apotheosis meant a honored place in heaven, as a daemon-like being, from what I understood from mediterranean paganism (and I see no reason not to borrow from it). If the players belived in that and that the game was the a critical part of the process of apotheosis they would play very hard and give their best because they would want to be sacrificed to spend eternity (or a long enough time before some kind of reincarnation) near the gods.

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The most brutally honest answer would be to look at how suicide bombers are recruited and led to accomplish their mission. They too are often driven by religious or ideological considerations (the first modern suicide bombers were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, so the motivation was ideological, not religious), but, being people, they can have second thoughts as well.

The main motivator is they are told and given positive proof their families will receive a large bounty once the mission has been accomplished. They aver the examples of previous suicide bombers (it is relatively easy to determine if the family was paid off), and if added incentives are needed, the family could get a "signing bonus" ahead of time once the person has volunteered.

So players are recruited for the match, and their families are given some sort of incentive. All players (indeed everyone in the region) knows the winners of previous matches had their families taken care of in great style, (and if anyone did renege, their families would also pay the price).

So both a very real carrot and a very large stick are deployed to ensure the match goes as it should.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the only answer based on actual facts. I actually wanted to write something very similar. Religion + the future of your family can make people willingly throw away their lives. Combine it with dishonour for the losers as outlined in other answers, and you have a working recipe. $\endgroup$ – Tom May 11 '18 at 10:33
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The Officials Would Catch You Throwing the Match

While it would be anachronistic to project modern sports statistics back onto an ancient civilization, and of course they didn’t have replays or stopwatches, there might be some way to keep records of how good a player is. People play and practice a lot of Pokolpok without lethal stakes. Enter only the really good players into the lottery for the reverse death match. If any of them look like they’re taking a dive, or they perform much worse than they’ve shown they’re capable of, they (or their families) get dishonored and punished in some way other than becoming sacrifices. Since these are good Pokolpok players, a lifetime ban seems like an obvious place to start, but it could go up to A Fate Worse Than Death. (Enslavement? Castration?) People who have survived this could show up to warn the next group of contestants not to even think about it.

Depending on the rules, it might be relatively easy to keep a tally of successful plays, or of blatant errors. They might specifically take a look at decisive plays, or the final ten or so plays of the game, to see whether a player inexplicably started to play worse. (For fun: do the rounds of the game follow the Mayan calendar cycles?)

The exact statistics the scribes would be looking at would be secret, to prevent gaming them.

The Gods Punish Cheaters

This is a religious ceremony where the participants might swear a formally-binding oath to play fairly and to the best of their ability. The culture might have a strong tradition that breaking that oath angers the gods. And who on earth would trust a known perjuring cheating criminal again?

The oath Olympic athletes take today is a revival of an ancient tradition, and originally the Greeks literally believed that Zeus would strike egregious perjurers down with lightning. Socrates was convicted of corrupting the youth in part for telling them that wasn’t true, which Athenians feared would destroy society, although Aristophanes could get away with satirizing both sides of that debate and pointing out all the politicians who were still alive. This is from a different culture, but it’s an example of how societies try to force people to keep their religious obligations.

(On a side note, one of the closest real-world precedents I can think of for this form of athletic death-before-dishonor is that all Spartans had to be banned from boxing. The rules of the sport in ancient Greece said that a match could only end when one of the contestants conceded or was incapacitated. Since the Spartans thought it was shameful to ever surrender, Spartan boxers kept forcing their opponents to seriously or even fatally injure them, until all Spartans were banned from competing. So, sometimes, athletes did willingly get themselves killed to avoid dishonor.)

The Players are Volunteers

There are many examples in the history of sports of athletes throwing a match, but also plenty of religious martyrdom. You only need a few true believers to volunteer out of genuine belief. Just don’t give them a lot of time to change their minds. The characters’ different reasons for volunteering might be a good way to develop them: even if they’re not religious fanatics, you might have one who likes the idea of going out in a blaze of glory, instead of sliding into decline. One might think he’s clever enough to beat the system. One might not really accept his own mortality and just act like everything will be fine.

A well-known example of a book where people volunteer for a deathmatch despite thinking the entire system is corrupt is The Hunger Games (and not just the main character: it’s very easy to take a more sympathetic view of the “career” tributes than the first-person narrator who’s afraid they’re going to kill her does).

The Players Don’t Know Who’s Winning

It’s harder to throw the match without being obvious about it if you don’t know how many points you need. One possible system is that both teams are split in half, two matches are played simultaneously at different locations, and the scores are added together later to determine who won. Sort of like combining soccer (football’s) aggregate-goal rule and the practice of playing the final matches in each group simultaneously. There’s no technology that allows instant secret communication between the venues unless the characters get incredibly clever and have a lot of accomplices.

We don’t know what the scoring system was, so maybe it’s opaque and partly subjective, like how modern boxers don’t know how the judges scored each round.

The Rules have Gotchas

Hearts is a card game where you normally want to avoid certain cards, but if you manage to collect them all instead, you can “shoot the moon” and win. If you’re making up fictitious rules, maybe there’s some unpredictable play that reverses a blowout. Even if both teams want to lose, they can’t risk letting themselves get completely blown out, or they might be giving the other team a chance to force them to shoot the moon—and suddenly, they need to play well again.

The Game is Played Backwards

There are a few infamous soccer games where arcane tiebreakers have led to one team trying to score an own goal while the other tries desperately to defend the goal they’re supposed to be attacking. Maybe the rules of the game mean that playing for the low score instead of the high score takes skill, and is still a gods-pleasing spectacle, while being totally the opposite of what everybody is used to seeing and doing. It might be the only time Bizarro-Pokolpok is ever allowed to be played, lest the sacred be profaned. Although you’d want them to have a chance to practice it if you want to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

The Match is an Exhibition

You can have an entertaining match that’s not competitive. The participants might not be playing to win, but to put on a good show with a lot of trick shots and showboating that wouldn’t normally be considered proper, but tomorrow they might die.

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I don't, admittedly, know much about the Mayans, but this seems more like a religion question than a Mesoamerica question to me.

With human sacrifice being used as an aspect of devotion here, sacrificing the winners makes a bunch of sense. People would probably hear stuff like "the gods demand the best." In regards to the: "wouldn't the survival aspect prevent people from doing their best," you have to consider the people competing.

The two teams are (presumably) both followers of the god/gods/beings that the winners would be sacrificed to, yes? If they grew up in the culture, they may regard winning as the only sure way to not get sent to the Mayan equivalent to Hell. They may have been raised to believe that their purpose in life is to win. Even if the players aren't particularly devout, they may view their death as a way to prevent a world end scenario (WES) and ensure that their families get to live until the next WES/Pokolpok game.

Speaking of families, rather than punishing the players, officials could threaten the players' families if they purposefully lose. Of course, banishment and shunning are also things to keep in mind.

Also, it could be that losing means that one has to play more, so they'd just be delaying the inevitable.

And all of that is assuming that everyone knows that the winners are being sacrificed. There are a host of reasons why people go missing, you know, and cover-ups and conspiracies are things that sometimes happen.

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  • $\begingroup$ Delaying the inevitable is the definition of all life. That single point is not valid. $\endgroup$ – Oxy May 8 '18 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ "Delaying the inevitable" as in they'll either win and die soon, or they'll be made to play until they win and get sacrificed anyway $\endgroup$ – Not the letter A May 8 '18 at 8:31
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The Powers That Be could just lie to the players about a paradise that they ant their family could go to, like the victors village in hunger games.

did you see Ferdinand? the bulls were convinced they fought for glory, and the winners got to go someplace better, and were thus eager to compete.

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If the matches are (only) used to decide on big wars/disputes/etc the winning side will want to win 'for their country' and be lauded as heroes, later to be sacrified.

It may not be unlike a very high-risk military operation that assasinates an enemy leader which deflates a conflict for example.

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I believe the most natural solution requires constructing a whole ethical paradigm for it.

Dominating attitude towards life and death in the society, which should be built into education, should be this: I am only afraid to die in case I feel I can do something more valuable (in terms of either altruism but also might be in terms of hedonism) than I achieved before; life is only valuable as a possibility of progress combined with achievements; survival instinct in itself has to be controlled in the same way as, say, sex drive or hunger.

It is not difficult to convincingly describe a society with such moral ideology. After that, if you have an ultimate act of any kind, i. e. an activity resulting in a unique achievement which only happens once in a lifetime and cannot be surpassed, there indeed is no point in continuing life. You have already done the best thing in your life and cannot do anything better, continuing life is next to absurd, in fact, it would be increasingly boring and perplexing, to live knowing that you already did what you were born for.

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Sacrifice one winner, exile one loser and his family.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello, BigK, and welcome to Worldbuilding SE! This is an interesting answer, but perhaps you could expand on your idea. One-line answers are usually not extensive enough to convey everything a great answer should. You can use the edit button under your post to edit it if you wish to improve on your answer. If you have time, please visit the help center and take the tour to learn more about how we work on this site. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon May 10 '18 at 15:01
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Let the both teams be sacrificed!

Let's say, there is a 'bad' God, that demands blood, and if he (or she) doesn't get the fair share, all hell breaks loose (literally!). Now, you wouldn't normally want to be sacrificed to that kind of being, when you know that by winning the game you will be sacrificed to one of the 'good' God(s).

That might be an incentive enough to play a good game.

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  • $\begingroup$ the question specifically stated that only the winners get sacrified. It was even written in bold. $\endgroup$ – Tom May 11 '18 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom Yeah, right... Somehow I managed to miss that, thanks. That's not the end of the world, though - may be even better: just maime the loosing team's members - cut off a finger and/or an arm, so the God(s) are still satisfied (happy, even?). That way, the loosing team will be "tainted", but maybe will have the chance to redeem themselves in the next game. $\endgroup$ – senemedar May 13 '18 at 10:06

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