Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Anthropologically, games are fascinating.

Games are a universal feature of human cultures, and serve us in functions as diverse as recreation, fortune telling, and selecting leaders. 

Some games are simple, while others are mind bogglingly complex. Some games use no props or pieces at all, while others command complex economies that exist only to produce the necessary bits and pieces. Many games are community property, passed down from generation to generation, while at the same time there are entire industries devoted to inventing, manufacturing and marketing new games. Games can serve simply to pass time engaged with others, or even alone, while some games are played in deadly earnest and taken seriously as reflections of the unseen forces of the universe.

The one thing that is common to all games is this: they represent a transcendence beyond our physical limitations to allow us to exercise and compete directly on a mental level.[1]

Games, in my opinion, are one of the key things that make us human - or perhaps more accurately they are a sign of the things that make us unique as a species.

And, philosophy aside, games are fascinating in and of themselves. [2]

Like everyone else, I started playing pretty much as soon as I could interact with the world around me, of course. But not much of the sort of play babies engage in could rightly be called games. The play is mostly physical, mainly aimed pretty directly at developing a variety of critical skills like being able to control limbs and perform precise manipulations with fingers, tongue and lips. Soon, this play transforms into something more social - a kind of rudimentary "tag" or wrestling, where as much as anything the goal is communication with parents and siblings. These aren't really games either, but something I think could be classified as games emerge naturally and much earlier than we would imagine:

If you watch children playing [3], you will notice that at some point even children who aren't yet verbal will begin imposing rules on their play: toy animals need to be set up all facing the same direction, certain types of play must take place in defined spaces (even though the space in question isn't actually necessary to achieve whatever the goal is), certain actions are repeated, sometimes in elaborate sequences that are triggered by specific events.

As they get more verbal, children begin formalizing and communicating rules for their play ("the red squares on the carpet are lava, so you can't step on them") and when several children play together regularly you'll notice that they build up a handful of fairly formal play scenarios each of which has a corpus of agreed-upon rules.[4]
Seeing this sort of thing emerge quite naturally in children's play, it becomes completely unsurprising to see how ubiquitous truly formal games are in all societies and at all ages.

But of course the level of formalism we see in children's play is very different from what we see in "real" games.[5]
The games humans play, even the simplest ones, have strict sets of rules that may evolve over the generations, but are remarkably well conserved in many cases. Some games change radically over time, but the games that stay with us either start out fairly stable or quickly mutate into a more stable form. [6]

Do you remember the first formal games you were introduced to?

I would actually be willing to bet that most of us don't - formal gaming creeps into our lives at a remarkably early age.

For myself, I recall participating in formal game play as early as 3 or 4 years old - my earliest game-related memory is of sitting at a formica table playing a rather strange game that involved assembling plastic pieces to build an insect.  I have no idea what it was called.  I also observed game play of course, as cribbage, canasta and a plethora of other social card games were a part of nearly every gathering at some point.

Later on, I played snap and similar games with older relatives, and was introduced to snakes and ladders, draughts and chess.

More complex board games entered my life with my introduction to Risk and Monopoly at 8, and that was the beginning of the end. I have continued to be interested in games since those early days, and have delved into some of the most complex game rules ever - entire systems for simulating fictional worlds at various levels of detail.

Matching games, sequence building games, dynamic games of logic and strategy. I have played at least a few games from every category I'm aware of, and yet the scope of games I have never heard of - let alone played! - remains huge.

Games serve all sorts of purposes in our communities, from providing structure[7] for socialization to measuring the threads of fate.[8]  Games provide scope for play and for self-development, and they also form the basis for socialization, even when we're not playing them: while not many people will discuss the latest chess tournament with their neighbour on the bus, some do and no doubt you can think of times when you've discussed games with others.

Games are part of what makes us human, I'm convinced of that.  But more than that, games are one of the things that build our human relationships.  Despite the worry that computers and ever-insular ways of living will kill "real" games entirely [9], I don't think they're going anywhere any time soon.

If nothing else, just look at the top 10 apps being installed on smart phones everywhere: even if most of them are solitaire versions, nearly all of them are games!

1. Obviously, things like soccer and even track and field can be considered games, but for the present essay I am thining in terms of two categories - sports, which formalize physical competition and as such are not really that different from the sort of play that other animals engage in, and games which may simulate physical competition, but which by nature minimize the importance of physical strength and endurance in favour of mental acuity and reflexes. This may be an arbitrary division of recreational activities, but an in my opinion an important distinction.

2. Surely our ability to be fascinated by the abstract rules that govern games is in itself a sign of what makes us human?

3. Here I'm going to distinguish between play in general and games (and sports) as a specific case of human play, invoking a kind of Levi-Straussian taxonomy of concepts to help clarify matters.

4. In fact, children's play has been studied extensively by the social sciences - for an example of the anthropological study of play, see Schwartzman, Helen (1978) Transformations: The anthropology of children's play. Plenum Press (New York).

5. I'm uncomfortable with the dismissal of "child culture" as somehow unworthy. I'm speaking here about the complexity and persistence of the framework of games - the structure of children's play can be as sophisticated as the formal games we normally recognise as such, but are unlikely to be as complex and typically have quite fluid "rules" which I think sets it apart from what I'm referring to as games.

6. The metaphor inevitably evokes evolution, but of course it's important to keep in mind that this is not Darwinian - games mutate and combine and reform in all manner of ways probably more Lamarckian than anything else.

7. And excuses! 

8. While the purpose isn't play, there are senses in which things like the Tarot, the I Ching, rune casting, etc. can be considered games in the sense that they use formalized rules and set pieces to produce a given end.

9. There's apparently some dispute over whether things like Halo or Donkey Kong truly qualify as games by a strict definition.

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