Virtual Sports

Virtual sports are symbolic representations of embodied, expressive, and ‘‘real world’’ athletic experiences. These sports can involve complete ‘‘out of body’’ practices wherein participants ‘‘play’’ a sport without exerting their bodies in a traditionally athletic way (i.e., a sports video game), or more embodied performances involving physical activity in a simulated sports environment (i.e., athletic movement in a modified sports setting like a cyclists’ wind tunnel). Centrally, virtual sports involve human beings as either real or represented athletes in a technologically enhanced setting. Although certain ludic activities might be considered representations of sport (e.g., ‘‘touch’’ football, ‘‘pick up’’ ice hockey, or go kart racing), virtual sports are those that place either embodied or computer generated athletes in simulated sports spaces.

Virtual sport has, by and large, escaped sociological scrutiny. Nevertheless, three types of virtual sport are ripe for investigation. First, and perhaps most commonly, virtual sports abound in home and arcade video games. Through the advent of home entertainment systems in the 1970s and 1980s such as Atari, Intellivison, Collecovision, and Vectrex, sports video games became a staple of both popular and youth cultures in North America. From the 1980s onward, game players have competed in virtual sports ranging from hockey to basket ball to hunting to skateboarding. Indeed, one of the very first video games commercially marketed in the US, Pong, resembled a crude form of table tennis. Since then, digitally refined and interactively dynamic computer systems such as Sega, Nintendo, Odyssey, Play Station, and X Box have enabled consumers to play practically every mainstream western sport. Sports games presently account for approximately 20 percent of video game sales in North America, the world’s largest gaming market, grossing US$8 billion yearly (Liberman 2003).

Second, virtual sports enthusiasts now have access to physically interactive video games. For example, players may literally ‘‘step into’’ virtual golf courses. A person stands on an Astroturfed tee box holding an electronically sensored golf club, and swings at a virtual ball. A simulated ball instantaneously appears on a large video screen situated several feet in front of the tee box, and flies down the virtual course according to the celerity and spin at which it had been virtually struck. Individuals may play an entire round of golf on the machine, selecting from any number of professional courses. People may also use similar machines (for a cost of US$10–100) to drive virtual race cars, bat against virtual Major League Baseball pitchers, shoot virtual basketballs, ride virtual race horses, or even paddle virtual kayaks.

Third, simulated sports environments may be utilized as training tools for elite athletes. Virtual training machines carefully monitor and strictly control the effort levels of athletes in order to study and help improve their physical abilities. For example, swimmers are often placed in ‘‘current tanks’’ to scientifically evaluate the efficiency of their strokes and pinpoint V02(max) rates. Elite level ice hockey players’ skating strides are technically studied in laboratories by using treadmills with simulated ice surfaces. Professional cyclists straddle stationary racing bikes in wind rooms and ‘‘peddle through’’ virtual rides that appear on video screens in front of them; twisting and turning when they go through turns, and exerting effort when tackling hills.

The ascendance of virtual sport over the past 30 years points to how a host of ‘‘sociogenic’’ (Elias 1994) shifts within western cultures have altered our understandings of embodied athleticism. First, virtual sports are of increasing importance at a time in which both amateur and professional sports are intensely commercialized. Sociologists of sport suggest that, particularly in western nations with state sponsored, rigidly institutionalized and professional sports cultures, the entire sporting experience is fragmented into market commodities, including sport simulations that allow users to become more actively involved fans. As sport is consumed as a popular culture commodity, sports organizations profit by aggressively tapping home entertainment/gaming markets. Many global and national sports organizations license and/or package virtual game experiences for consumers, allowing them to create fantasy leagues and manipulate player performance at the push of a button or thrust of a joystick.

Second, athletic contests are globally promoted as contexts of social ‘‘mimesis’’ (Elias & Dunning 1986) by sports marketers. Audiences are sold virtual sport as symbols of emotionally charged and risky, yet rule bound, scenarios of physically intense competition. Because of the openness of the aggression, struggle, and toughness in sports, they provide a type of ‘‘exciting significance’’ for audiences. Virtual sports games highlight and exaggerate the taken for granted physicality and mimesis inherent in both main stream and alternative sports. Extreme hitting, bloodletting, brutal tackling, and flamboyant injuries, for example, are common in virtual sports games. Rules are broken without penalty, virtual players do not experience the catastrophic effects of rough play, and users receive reward incentives within games for the number of on field hits levied or styles of aggressive play mastered.

Third, the booming popularity of virtual sports games should be contextualized against what postmodern sociologists like Baudrillard (1983) refer to as the ‘‘simulation’’ of social reality. Virtual sports games, for instance, create hyper representations of embodied athleticism and transform social constructions of ‘‘real’’ sport for users. The games not only mimic what actually occurs in sport, they now partially define what audiences expect from embodied sports. Virtual games may also be more accessible forms of sport for many users, as one can play dozens of sports regardless of physical fitness level. Furthermore, one is granted an unprecedented agency to mold the contours and parameters of an athletic contest at whim (i.e., players involved, physical settings, length of competitions, speed of games, and rule structures). Comparatively, for athletes who are ‘‘plugged into’’ virtual sports machines, simulated sports fields allow for incredible physical exertion without many of the physical dangers inherent in competition. Therefore, performance evaluating or rehabilitating sports machines generate simulated contexts of performance so that athletes may become ‘‘swifter, higher, and stronger’’ during competition.

Fourth, virtual sports underscore how machines and bodies cybernetically intersect in western cultures. Donna Haraway (1991) noted, some time ago, that the postmodern era is one in which corporeality is increasingly breeched by technology. For Haraway and others, it is difficult to conceive of any social activity, including a full gamut of sports performances, that has evaded technological improvement, innovation, control, and monitoring. When individuals are able to kick a soccer ball, catch a baseball, throw a javelin, or perform a ski jump by tapping a computer button or moving the body expressively in a ‘‘sports like motion’’ in front of video sensors, one cannot overlook how athleticism is deeply tied to computer technology.

Fifth, the prominence of virtual sports reflects emergent cultural preferences for stationary, home based digital entertainment. Virtual sports participation through video game play jibes with athletically inactive North American lifestyles. Virtual sports fit nicely into the social ‘‘sit down’’ lifestyles widely attributed to long school or work days, poor dietary practices, and exposure to computers as everyday tools. Troublingly, at a time when physical passivity in the leisure sphere and overall obesity rates are on the rise in North America, and as physical education programs are disappearing from educational curricula at all institutional levels, virtual games are a primary form of sports participation for ‘‘growing’’ populations of North Americans (Clocksin et al. 2002).

Extant theoretical deconstructions of virtual sports are narrow in both scope and content. The bulk of the limited empirical research on virtual sports addresses how exposure to aggressive sports games is correlated with aggressive interpersonal behaviors (Bensley & Van Eenwyk 2001). Virtual sports are especially targeted in the contemporary moral panic about youth deviance and the consumption of violent video games. Using a blend of social psychological, behavioral, and sociobiological theories, researchers argue that virtual sports games desensitize users to extreme violence and confound users’ understanding of real world aggression. Yet despite nearly three decades of concentrated empirical research on youth violence and video game play, there is no consensus among social scientists that virtual sports play a causal role in any category of criminal or otherwise assaultive behavior.

Second, political economists study virtual sports as vacuous cultural commodities. Authors including Postigo (2003) weave a pastiche of Marxist, cultural studies, and post industrial theories to evidence how virtual sports have little use value but great exchange value among youth groups. Virtual sports alienate users from embodied athletic experiences and diminish the socially interactive aspects of competitive sport. As critics of virtual sport, political economists contend that athletes, teams, and leagues utilize video games as vehicles for crassly soliciting fan investment into athletics. Furthermore, they argue, virtual sports like video games discourage the first hand experience of athleticism in sport, and motivate individuals to participate passively via video interface.

Third, sociologists of sport employ post modernist theories to examine the impacts of computer technology on athlete training, performance, and rehabilitation. Sociologists including Debra Shogan (1999) study athletes’ bodies as fragmented, technologically invaded, and subject to penetration/improvement at the hands of therapists, doctors, and trainers. Athletes, as the subjects and targets of medical knowledge bases, are strategically crafted into cybernetic entities that resemble carefully engineered machines rather than embodied agents. Virtual sport machines used in athletic training or in recreational leisure pursuits blur the boundaries between ‘‘natural’’ human performance and artificially engineered, hyperreal athletics. The postmodern athlete is one whose performance is carefully mapped, dissected, analyzed, predicted, and monitored by a full spectrum of computer systems.

Existing research on virtual sports explores only a small range of data collection techniques and strategies. Social experiments, self report surveys, content analysis, and to a lesser extent interviewing, are the main methods structuring empirical investigations of virtual sports and their cultural significance. Dominant research questions tend to focus on popular sports video games played, the impact of virtual sports on fan communities, and the significance of virtual sports for improving real world athletic performance.

Future research on virtual sports should encourage methodological diversity. At present, the population of virtual sports enthusiasts is not well defined, nor is the social significance of virtual sports across cultural lifestyles sufficiently probed. This is largely due to the methodological targeting of certain populations of ‘‘home system’’ game players (typically, young males from the middle class), online players (a similar population as home system players), or elite level athletes. We must determine, in the broadest sense, what groups participate in virtual sport, which have access to virtual sport, and how they are intersubjectively defined as socially meaningful. In particular, questions pertaining to users’ interpretive constructions of virtual sports should be pursued via qualitative methods. More exploratory and in depth ethnographic methods (i.e., participant observation, visual ethnography, or auto ethnography) might be tapped with greater fervor in this process.

Substantively, future research should venture beyond ‘‘game play aggression’’ hypotheses and cyborg case studies. Dominant approaches to the study of virtual sports highlight the solitary, anti social, and disembodied natures of game play for participants. Resultantly, we know very little about the socially integrative function of virtual sports or their creative insertion into everyday group practices. Particular attention might be given to online, multi user, ‘‘real time’’ sports gaming. Through the advent of online MUDs (Multi User Domains), MOOs (MUD Object Oriented systems), and other forms of computer mediated communication (CMC), virtual sports enthusiasts cooperatively interact within digital game worlds. Online virtual sport spaces are relationship building and socially organizing contexts wherein individuals socially interface through shared games. Sport specific online leagues form through the efforts of hundreds or even thousands of participants scattered across the world. As part of studying ongoing globalization processes in sports worlds, sociologists might inspect how the innovation of online, virtual sports cultures erodes traditional time/space social barriers.

Future research on virtual sport should also examine potential ethical problems accompanying the increased reliance on computer technologies in athletics. For example, sociologists should question: Are virtual sport technologies available to all elite athletes, and if not, is this a source of stratification among them? Are unfair advantages created for athletes who access the premier virtual training and rehabilitation technologies? Does the adoption of virtual sport in training stress the science of athletic performance over its humanistic elements? Does video game play discourage rigorous physical activity and athleticism? Are youth cultures persuaded to consume sport in commodity form, and not as athletes? What role does virtual sport hold in the thickening of westerners’ waistlines? Do online virtual sports actually facilitate community building and social interchange in ways embodied sports involvements do not?


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations. Semiotext(e), New York.
  2. Bensley, L. & Van Eenwyk, J. (2001) Video Games and Real Life Aggression: Review of the Literature. Journal of Adolescent Health 29(4): 244-57.
  3. Clocksin, B., Watson, D., & Ransdell, L. (2002) Understanding Youth Obesity and Media Use: Implications for Future Intervention Programs. Quest 54(4): 259-74.
  4. Elias, N. (1994) The Civilizing Process. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Elias, N. & Dunning, E. (1986) The Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Press, New York.
  7. Liberman, N. (2003) Sports Video Games Still Scoring Big. Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal 6(11): 7-13.
  8. Postigo, H. (2003) From Pong to Planet Quake: Post- Industrial Transitions from Leisure to Work. Information, Communication and Society 6(4): 593-607.
  9. Shogan, D. (1999) The Making of High Performance Athletes: Discipline, Diversity and Ethics. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Sport.