“Culture Games”

Have you ever thought about how terribly thin the line is between playing and fighting, between games and conflicts, between sports and battles? This blurry area was in part what inspired author Suzanne Collins to write The Hunger Games. In case you haven't heard of it, the book has been adapted to film and is now showing at a theatre near you. The story raises the question, is this art imitating life, or life imitating art?

When it comes to these kinds of cultural puzzles, frequent IM contributor Bill Drake is our go-to guy to clarify and educate. In this piece, Bill explores what he refers to as "Culture Games," analyzing the origins of American and British sports, how they impacted aspects of their cultures, and finally how this applies to current business practices.

On the surface, this may perhaps seem far-fetched, but with Bill's knowledge base, his analysis is at least thought-provoking (for history buffs and sports fans alike). And certainly, no more far-fetched than sixteen year-olds battling to the death in a televised, government-sponsored spectacle.

Culture Games

Professional football coach Vince Lombardi said it for the Americans: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." For the English, a comparable lesson derived from sports would be: "It matters not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game."

While it may not be an exact science, researchers have found a consistent relationship between the games societies play and how teams work in their social, economic and business organizations.

Here we will briefly analyze the development of American and British sports, and how the differences between the two are reflected in their cultures and business environments. As we will see, Americans formed their ideas about effective strategies for teamwork in a totally different context from the British.


The origins of British games lie in the English countryside, where centuries ago, traditional rivalries had become embodied in annual games involving all able-bodied men and boys in competing villages. These games usually involved a ball of some sort, which regularly disappeared under mounds of males punching, kicking, and biting each other, and the playing field was the entire countryside between villages. Back and forth the male populations of the villages would surge all day, until one "team" or the other was victorious and all were exhausted.

In these encounters, deaths were few but severe injury was common. There were as many coaches as players, mostly wives and girlfriends and older fellows shouting encouragement and tactics from high spots in the countryside from which the action could be viewed. Groups of men would form, assign themselves a mission, and then dash off only to reform again within minutes, in pursuit of some totally different objective. Levels of field command would arise spontaneously, as would the overall plan in an evolving, fluid game covering many miles of ground and many challenging situations. From these free-flowing village rivalries, the game of rugby, with its amorphous scrums and huge playing field, likely evolved.


Across the Atlantic, Americans developed their approach to teamwork in an essentially hostile environment where the slightest lapse of attention to established rules or coordination with others could easily spell death.

On the American frontier, the adversary was never an opponent bound by common rules of behavior in conflict, but was always someone (i.e., the native American Indian) whose standards and ethics were unknown and therefore unpredictable. As a consequence, American teamwork evolved under an imperative to develop a plan of attack, which depended totally upon each person doing exactly as planned in the face of an unpredictable but potentially lethal outcome. Spontaneous individual contributions deviating from the plan have always been celebrated in American myth, but have rarely met with great approval in either frontier or corporate councils.

In early America, it was not village against village where, no matter how violent the piles of men fighting for the ball, the opponent was still someone whose family had lived just down the road from yours for over a thousand years. Rather, on the frontier the enemy was a civilization whose way of life you and your sort threatened to annihilate, and who responded in kind. It was battle, to the death, winner take all, no holds barred, no quarter given, may the better man win and the devil take the hindmost.


The spirit of the American frontier was transferred onto the American playing field. In the American game, winning was everything, because defeat meant death on the harsh frontier and style without victory was meaningless. In the English environment, style was important because substance was rarely, if ever, threatened. A culture of emphasis on style over substance developed as a result.

The vastly different origins of American and British team mentality led to the games that are played regularly on today's football and rugby fields. With these historical origins in mind, let's briefly examine some of the key cultural differences that are embodied in how American football and British rugby are played.

How the ball is moved:

  • American football concentrates exclusively on moving forward toward the goal, which dominates play
  • British rugby is more interested in playing the game all over the field, the goal is only part of the play

Degree of coordination:

  • Americans like planned, synchronized, smoothly executed plays
  • Brits like rough and tumble, spontaneous play

Timing, scheduling, and flow of game:

  • The American approach reflects concern for control, limits, and penalties
  • The British approach emphasizes organic development, letting things evolve naturally

The nature of leadership:

  • Americans emphasize authority, planning, control, and management
  • American football teams go into a huddle, where a coach or quarterback calls the play
  • Brits emphasize spontaneity, surprise and style
  • British players communicate and develop strategy among themselves as the game unfolds

How expertise is judged:

  • Americans believe there is a body of expertise independent of individuals, which can and should be systematized
  • Brits believe knowledge cannot be systematized and resides only in individuals with experience and perspective

The role of strategy:

  • Americans believe that with careful preparation, contingencies can be identified and effective counter-strategies planned
  • Brits believe that if everyone understands the broad plan, individual initiative will fill in the blanks as events demand


Taking this analysis a step further, the different strategies and approaches noted above have become incorporated into the culture and business environment of these two countries (partly because both the British and US games grew popular in the elite university student environment - precisely the place from which a nation's political, business and social leadership arises.)

The upshot of these differences is that when Americans and Brits come together on a mutual project, their differing ideas and assumptions about how teams work can result in:

  • Clashes between British experience-based and American rule-based decision-making
  • Conflicts between the British preference to just "let things work out" and the American emphasis on minute planning and strategizing
  • Issues regarding "who's in charge?", with Americans asserting that competence and expertise be in charge, while Brits insist that experience and maturity rule
  • Struggles between the American "get to the point" approach versus the roundabout British style, so that decisions don't get made "on time"

Clearly, even cultures with a common heritage can have radically different sets of cultural values. Even in straightforward business situations, this can make working together difficult, if not impossible, unless the differences are identified, acknowledged and dealt with.

For example, before an American sets out to "improve" the way his British counterparts are doing things, taking the time to understand why things are the way they are will mean that the British are likely to be much more receptive to suggestions for change that acknowledge the value of the existing situation (and propose building on it, rather than throwing it out for something 'better'). And remember, when a Brit murmurs quietly, "That simply isn't done," it means no, absolutely not, never, ain't gonna happen, no way Jose.


While this analysis focused on American football compared to British rugby, it can easily be applied to other countries, cultures, and sports. If you find this analytical approach appealing, challenge yourself with a few questions just for fun, like:

What differences can you think of between American football and baseball and the dominant sports of other cultures with whom Americans do business, such as European or Latin American soccer, or Australian football?

What are some of the business-related lessons we might learn from examining differences between Japanese and American baseball? (Hint: in Japan the sacrifice bunt generates as much excitement among the fans as a home run!) If you are an American on a business team with Brits, what are some of the key cultural differences in the underlying assumptions about how the team should operate?

What are some things that are positive virtues in American business culture that might be seen as liabilities by the British, and vice versa?

With that said, let the games begin!

This article was inspired in part by a chapter in Bill Drake's book, "Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in the UK."

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