Shortly after we invented intelligence, we invented boredom. And shortly after that, we invented games.
I said in the discussion of toys that they’re intended for play, and associated primarily with children because adults aren’t expected (or sometimes allowed) to play in the same way. But that isn’t the same thing as saying we don’t do it at all. Rather, instead of engaging in the imitative or unstructured play characteristic of children, we’re more likely to entertain ourselves with things that involve rules: in other words, games.
For the time being I’m going to skip over athletic games (saving those for next week’s essay), and just look at the sedentary kind. These come in countless different types, but some of the oldest forms for which we have evidence are based on dice, either directly or as a tool in a board game like backgammon. Intriguingly, there’s a sacred dimension to this kind of play: the casting of lots for divinatory purposes is called sortilege, and works on the principle that the gods influence the seemingly random fall of the dice, bones, or other material. The twenty-sided dice occasionally found in the archaeological record may have been used for that kind of purpose; prior to the advent of modern RPGs, the type used for games were usually just the standard six-sided cube.
Amusingly, some our evidence for early board games really is proof that gaming was invented as an antidote to tedium. While fine sets do exist — painted or carved from precious wood or inlaid with beautiful stone — we also find the markings for boards scratched into random surfaces, apparently because somebody had some time to kill. Pits that appear to be for mancala have been found in a Roman bathhouse, and one of the winged bull colossi from Sargon II’s palace in Assyria has the layout for the twenty squares crudely carved into its base. Was a guard bored and slacking off from his duty, or was some petitioner entertaining himself while waiting to be let in? We’ll never know.
On the other hand, certain games could be elevated to the status of high culture. Some board games are considered to be useful practice in strategic thinking, which made them attractive to nobles in the past and intellectuals in the present: in Europe chess was sometimes called the king’s game, and in China weiqi (more commonly called Go in English, after the Japanese name) was — along with painting, calligraphy, and playing a zither-like instrument — one of the four essential arts of a scholarly gentleman.
Card games occupy a weird middle zone in that regard. Prior to the modern craze for competitive poker, they’ve been enjoyed to a far higher degree than they’ve been admired . . . but until we had industrial technology making it cheaper and easier to print cards, a deck was a fairly expensive thing to own. The weird subgenre known as “Elizabethan rogue literature” (which details all the ways sixteenth-century criminals used to cheat and steal from people) has a great deal to say about dice, but relatively little about cards. They were largely an elite pastime, but not an elevated one.
I suspect much of the difference in status has to do with the difference between games of chance and games of skill. There is no randomization in chess or Go, and no hidden information; both players know everything, and must defeat their opponent simply through good strategy. Dice games, on the other hand, are almost always fully random — I only know of one game, a variant of Cee-lo, which includes an element of strategy by allowing players to stake more money in order to reroll some of their dice. Card games can cover the gamut in between: the draw of the cards means there’s an element of randomization, but depending on the game in question there may be chances to strategize, or ways to bluff or leverage information hidden from one’s opponent. Which means (from a certain perspective) that they’re less “pure,” and therefore less worthy of admiration.
When we think of games, dice, cards, and board games may be the most common types that leap to mind, but they’re far from the only sort we’ve invented. “Party game” is a catch-all term for things meant to be played with groups of people, sometimes split into teams, with charades being a venerable example. Some of them are associated primarily with teenagers, like Truth or Dare, and there’s an entire subsection of “kissing games,” which range from tame to thoroughly salacious. Other party games offer ways to display one’s erudition, for example by writing poems or completing unfinished quotations.
And then there’s the category to which I give the unofficial name “they had to make their own fun.” Who first invented bobbing for apples, and why? The Heian-era Japanese court appears to have been particularly rich in these kinds of things, with idle aristocrats scraping desperately for ways to entertain themselves; some games involved seeing who could balance more Go pieces on their fingertip, or comparing iris roots and their accompanying poems to determine whose root was longer and more beautiful. (Was the innuendo as obvious then as it is now? Probably.) They also developed games around comparing incense and guessing at its components, complete with a system of symbols to record which boxes you believe hold the same scent, and which are different.
Games have become a huge industry nowadays, not just because we’ve come to value play of all kinds in adulthood, but also because of the psychological effect they can have. We’ve known for ages that the challenge and unpredictability of games can make them addictive; “gamification” is the art of leveraging that addictive quality for beneficial results. By creating a game-like structure that engages your imagination and provides you with rewards, you can “hack” your brain to encourage good habits or break bad ones. Which moves gaming from a peripheral activity you engage in when you’re bored or avoiding work to something much more integrated with daily life. To the extent that it’s used to squeeze even more productivity out of us, that’s maybe not a great thing . . . but as someone who uses gamification to reward myself for a variety of tasks, I’ve got to say that adding an element of play to my daily life can make a lot of things more enjoyable.