New Worlds: Games

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

The Patreon logo and the text "This post is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon. To join their ranks, click here!"



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Games — 13 Comments

  1. There’s another dimension you didn’t touch on (perhaps you’re saving it for next week’s post?): who has leisure and when? Playing games at all implies that the player has time during which they can’t or don’t need to perform productive labour. While I believe most people in history had at least some free time, thinking about who and when is interesting.

    For example, farmers probably weren’t playing many games during the harvest season, but how about the winter? What about places in the far north with really long winter nights? I know that modern Iceland has some wonderful traditions such as Jolabokaflod (Yule Book Flood) where people receive books as gifts on Christmas Eve and then stay up all night reading them. What did they do before the invention of artificial lighting? They can’t all have been playing, ahem, kissing games all winter long!

    And there’s a gender dimension too. Prior to the invention of the spinning wheel, at least in Europe, hand-spinning took up almost all of the time in which women weren’t doing other things. Even aristocratic women were expected to participate in textile production of various kinds. So far as I know, there was no equivalent time-sink for men, so I would expect game-playing to be very gendered.

    Sorry for the over-long comment, you interested me.

    • No need to apologize! It’s a topic I haven’t attemmpted to hit directly, but it gets touched on in the discussion of more concrete things — for example, whittling during the long winter months came up when I talked about sculpture and carving last year, and the time demands of textile production came up when talking about clothing back in (I think) the second year of this Patreon. And I do intend to talk about lighting at some point, and what it means when you can’t just have inexpensive illumination at the flick of a switch. All these things are interconnected!

  2. 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.

    There’s modern Yatzee and similar games where you keep score and try to roll different combinations and get a multiplier, so there’s a fair amount of strategising involved. I’ve also recently played a game (‘Shut the box’) where you roll dice and use them to check off numbers from 1 to 9 with multiple rules for how you can split up your rolls and what the penalties are for having numbers left over; while there’s not a whole lot of strategy vs. luck, it’s not a pure game of chance.

    • I meant to go back and revise the online post to reflect those — the copy of the manuscript being prepped for publication has that. But Cee-lo is the only non-proprietary game I can think of which includes strategy; all the other examples are modern. (With maybe an exception for “shut the box”: looking at Wikipedia, it seems like we’re not sure whether that one is centuries old, or quite recent.)

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Games - Swan Tower

  4. One of the many things that fascinated me during my years as a teacher was watching kids invent games on the playground, especially when it was too hot for basketball, etc, but they still had to be outside in the blazing sun, or they had free time on their hands but couldn’t run free.

    I could always pick out the incipient writers in how they invented story games and got kids to act them out. Competition games were an obvious choice, but there were also surprise games, or funny games: word games akin to Madlibs, or variations on truth or dare. Substituting ridiculous words in movie titles, etc etc.

    Group dynamics tended to shape patterns in game design–competitive alphas invented games that forced people out to watch. More inclusive alphas would tend toward games like Telephone, that included everyone, but produced an entertaining result.

    • I honestly don’t remember a lot of what I did on the playground, except that a friend (I can’t recall which one) and I tried to invent a kind of “choreography” for the swings. Given that we were not Cirque du Soleil performers, I don’t think we managed to come up with anything very impressive, though.

    • I can’t resist quoting Claus von Bulow (as quoted in Reversal of Fortune, one of the creepiest non-creature/not-marketed-as-horror movies out there): “Many people think [backgammon] is a matter of luck. It’s actually a matter of nerve.”

      There is also the issue of games for themselves and games as gambling devices. Backgammon, for example, has some gambling aspects, but not nearly as much as most nonsolitaire card games.

  5. Liar’s Dice is another skill-based dice game, though there’s no skill in manipulating the dice after the roll, just in bidding and collecting information from the bets. You can also play a flush-less form of poker with dice, bidding on straights and full houses and such.

    • Ah! I think that’s what gets played in the second Pirates of the Caribbean film — I’d have to re-watch it to be sure. But it never made sense to me before because the movie doesn’t provide enough information to know what’s going on; they don’t explain the rules, there are only two players, and one of them deliberately loses the game, so that makes it hard to suss out the mechanics. 😛