Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Eton Wall Game, Making a Mystery of the Commonplace

I am taking keyboard in hand today to write about a rather off beat subject, the Eton Wall Game. I want to start by saying that the title of this little post is not meant to put down the Eton Wall Game, but to explain it. Not the rules of the game, those I barely understand, in fact I am not sure you could understand the published rules (here) without looking at the wall and field where it is played and seeing a game or having it described by a player, and that is the point of this post.

From my own experience and from what friends from various back grounds have told me of their own childhood, it is safe to say that young people adopt, mix, and create games that fit their specific circumstances. Tag, soccer, baseball, rugby, American football, when they are played by actual boys (and girls to) on a particular playing field, have their rules adopted to the circumstances of the playing field and of the players. These adoptions are often so extensive as to make the game very different often nearly non understandable to outsiders.

This, it is obvious, is what the Eton Wall Game is all about, a rugby-soccer type game played on a particular field, at a particular school, in Berkshire, the United Kingdom. To prove this point the goals are at one end of the sport’s only playing field, a door and at the other end a tree. (more details here) There is nothing weird about this, on the contrary it is wonderful that the boys at Eton have cared enough about themselves and their school to perpetuate a tradition of play over more than two hundred years and to write down the rules.

However to read some articles about the Wall Game you would think it was either a) something special that only those superior beings who go to Eton could play or b) something foolish that only the under brained off spring of those with more money than sense would play, and in either case mysterious and non understandable. It is neither, it is one of probably 50,000 (or more) different games played on specific lots or fields around the world by a limited number of specific children.

What is interesting about the Eton Wall Game is that by the fame of the school, it draws ones attention to a commonplace phenomenon. It is at once an example of Hayekian spontaneous order (the boys didn’t set out to start a great tradition, they just wanted to have fun) and of Burke’s particularism (it would be pointless to try and make the Wall Game a widespread game with a fixed type of playing field like soccer) It reminds us both that social order does not have to be externally imposed and that general principals however true and important must develop in their own organic way in each specific context.

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