Winter has come; and thoughts turn to footy; and for +one it is the design of the game that is of interest.
First point: we’re talking ‘FOOTY’, as in AFL and AFLW. The Australian game. Aerial ping pong. Not football, aka soccer, the world game, where more happens in the stands than on the field. Not Rugbys, League and Union; the former described as a game for gentlemen, played by thugs; and the latter as a game for thugs, played by gentlemen.
Second point: Footy is a better design than those other codes. It has a simple set of rules; extremely hard to master. It’s expansive, with more players on a bigger field. It’s accommodating, played on differing irregularly shaped fields, (or paddocks for kick to kick). It’s inclusive, with a role for players of all sizes and shapes. It’s athletically diverse, with different movements and actions for every part of the body.
It's mechanically complicated: the drop punt, the ‘worm burner’, the overhead mark, the hand punch pass, the tackle but not the ‘push in the back’. And the ball is pointedly asymmetrical in shape, with unpredictable changes in flight, injecting luck into a game of skill. And there’s no offside. It’s mind challenging: sweetly elegant and brutally hard at the same time.
Much has been written about the origins of footy and much is contested. Some say it comes from the indigenous game of Marn Grook (or marngrook) meaning ball or game in the language of the Woiwurung people from the eastern area of what is now Melbourne. Others say it evolved from Rugby, and others from Gaelic football. Black or white.
That seems a suitable argument to examine in National Reconciliation Week, which we celebrated in last week’s column by praising Luritja man Harold Thomas’ 1971 design for the Aboriginal Flag, and now with a consideration of whether the footy is indigenous based. Black armband vs white.
In the early 19th century settlers throughout the area of Victoria and southern NSW saw aborigines playing variations of a game with a ball made from stuffed possum skins, with up to a hundred people at a time on a vast expanse of ill-defined ground, without a winner, but a celebration of those who could jump the highest.
Footy as we know it today was first drafted in ‘ten rules’ by the Melbourne Football Club in 1859. The rules were drawn up by a committee of 7 chaired by Tom Wills. The rules are clearly those of the current game, with the exception of the handball, and were modified over the next seven years to the point that it is the modern game.
Much of the academic debate centres on finding historical connections between the indigenous game and its codified counterpart. Some say there are derivations, looking for textual linkages, others say there is no causal relationship because there is a lack of evidence.
Let’s try a different approach: what would be reasonable to expect to be in the mind of the designers of the game? And how did that shape the rules, and hence the design of the game? As far as we know, no one has looked at the question from the design point of view.
We could start with a modern-day counterpart: how do the designers of computer games work? Two characteristics are evident in ‘gamer’ studios in Melbourne, the home of gaming design in Australia: precedent and collaboration. Most games rely on some extension of existing or postulated ‘worlds’, and it takes a huge, interdependent crew, to create a viable interactive game.
Likewise, Footy. In most accounts Tom Wills, the 1859 rules chair, is cited as the driving force in designing the game. In 1842 he moved to Victoria’s Western District where he was reputedly the only white child playing a version of Marn Grook with the Djab Wurrung children, whose language he spoke fluently. In the 1850’s he attended Rugby School in England before returning to Australia.
When working in collaboration with the committee, who were seeking a way to keep cricketers fit in winter with a game that had less requirement for officialdom by abandoning the offside rule, Wills would have remembered the lessons of Marn Grook. But he and other committee members would also adapt Rugby and Gaelic football. Footy is an amalgam of precedents, made by a cooperative.
Undoubtedly the rules are designed by the collective memory of the participating committee. So why is there no direct reference to Marn Grook by Wills? Racism. If you were trying to introduce a new idea in the mid 19th century, the last thing you would do is suggest that it had any relationship to, then reviled, indigenous culture.
Marn Grook influenced Footy, no doubt. But its glory is hidden by racism, the same evil that bedevils the sport to this day. Think St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar lifting his jersey to show his dark skin in response to racial vilification by Collingwood’s supporters in 1993. Or Collingwood president Eddie McGuire’s vilification of Adam Goodes in 2013. Why do you think so many AFL fans say they support their club this weekend, and whoever is playing Collingwood?
But things do get better. More indigenous players playing. Since 2002 the Sydney Swans and Essendon Bombers playing for the Marngrook Trophy. Since 2007 the Marngrook Footy Show on NITV, and the GO Foundation making significant changes for indigenous youth.
This weekend watch out for Eddie Betts, Cyril Rioli, Patrick Ryder, Mathew Stokes, Steven Motlop, Brendan Matera and Lewis Jetta in the west, or brilliant Travis Varcoe playing for Collingwood. Buddy’s pulled a hammy, so no show for the Swans. When AFLW returns watch Ally Anderson, Cassie Davidson, Alicia Janz, Aliesha Newman and Ruth Wallace to name but a few.
The best designed thing in Footy? The exhortation to not stop, but to “play on”.
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected]