Games and Play Research Paper

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Cultural anthropologists in the twenty-first century still rely on a 1959 definition of games as recreational activities that are organized and follow agreed-upon rules of play, involve competition with two or more sides, and use criteria for determining who wins. Games involving strategy, chance, and physical prowess remain popular, but electronics and computers have affected the social aspects of games and play.

Games are universal, or very nearly so, in the cultural inventories of known societies, past and present. In their classic article “Games in Culture,” the anthropologists John M. Roberts, Malcolm J. Arth, and John J. Bush (Roberts et al. 1959, 597) defined games as recreational activities “characterized by: (1) organized play, (2) competition, (3) two or more sides, (4) criteria for determining the winner, and (5) agreed-upon rules.” This definition has been particularly influential in anthropology and in the cross-cultural study of games even though it excludes some activities that are commonly referred to as games, including mother-infant activities such as patty-cake, or play activities such as top spinning or making string figures. Roberts and his colleagues referred to such noncompetitive play activities as “amusements.” Roberts and his colleagues also provided an extremely useful classification system for games. This system is based on the factor that is most critical in determining who wins and who loses. They indicated that:

—Some outcomes are determined primarily by the physical abilities of the players, some by a series of moves, each of which represents a player’s choice among alternatives, and others either by non-rational guesses or by reliance on the operation of some mechanical chance device, such as a die; some are determined by combinations of these patterns. All of these ways of determining outcomes are widely distributed among the societies of the world, and it is therefore possible to offer the following general classification of games: (1) physical skill, (2) strategy, and (3) chance. (Roberts et al. 1959, 597)

While others have developed alternate definitions of games and game classification systems, none of these has proven to be particularly useful in crosscultural research on games and cultural correlates of game types.

The Origins and Evolution of Games

Archeologists and antiquarians have found numerous examples and large varieties of ancient artifacts of game play, such as balls, hoops, marbles, dice, game boards, board game pieces, and playing cards, in sites around the world. Possibly the earliest known game board with pieces was found in an excavation of a predynastic cemetery at El-Mahasna in Upper Egypt in 1909. Alquerque, the ancestor of draughts (checkers in the United States) was played as early as 600 BCE in Egypt.

Early Athletic Games

The development of sporting games, including track and field, wrestling, boxing, and archery, among the ancient Greeks and Romans is well known from archeological, artistic, and narrative sources. Various forms of art, such as painting and sculpture, from around the world often depict game play. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) described games and other pastimes in Lydia (in the west of present-day Turkey) and Egypt while the Roman historian Tacitus (55–120 CE) described dice games as played among Germanic tribes.

The Mesoamerican ball game is one of the best-known ancient games of physical skill. The game and its play are depicted artistically in frescoes, stone carvings, on painted pottery, and in clay figurines of players found in Mexico and Central America. The oldest known ball court, at the archeological site of Paso de la Armada in the state of Chiapas in western Mexico, dates to approximately 1400 BCE. The ball court at Chichen Itza, the largest in Mesoamerica, was built between 900 and 1100 CE. Simplified versions of the game are still played in northwestern Mexico, principally in the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Durango.

Early Games of Strategy

While the precise origins of games of strategy (such as chess or wei qi in China; also known as pa-dok in Korea and Go in Japan and the West) are either unknown or contested, some aspects of their histories are relatively clear. Wei qi means “surrounding game” or “surrounding chess” and has as its goal the capture of territory on the playing board by the placement of markers. While some claim that the game was invented in China more than 4,000 years ago, others suggest that the game originated in Central Asia and diffused through Nepal and Tibet to China. The game is mentioned in the writings of the philosopher Mencius from around 400 BCE, and writings specifically about it date to the Tang dynasty (618–907). Wei qi diffused to Japan in 754 as a gift from the emperor of China to the emperor of Japan.

Chess probably is a descendant of shaturanga, a four-player game from India that involved battle between armies that included infantry, cavalry, elephants, and boats, commanded by a raja (king). In a later version, called shatranj, the four armies were collapsed to two, much like modern chess. Shatranj diffused to Persia from India in the sixth century and reached the Arab kingdoms, Greece, and Medina by about 650. It probably was brought to Europe during the Crusades and became popular in southern Europe by the end of the fifteenth century. Thereafter it rapidly spread throughout the continent.

Mancala (also called wari or variants thereof), the third major game of pure strategy found in the preindustrial world, is widespread in Africa. It might have evolved there from an accounting system that used boards similar to those used in the game. Mancala boards carved into temple roofs in Memphis, Thebes, and Luxor indicate that the game existed in Egypt prior to 1400 BCE.

Early Games of Chance

Games of chance are based either on the use of a randomization device, such as a die, shuffled playing cards or a roulette wheel, or on non-rational guessing. Early dice included “knucklebones” (usually bones from the ankles of sheep or pigs) that were marked on several sides, but numerous other materials, including antler, pebbles, walnut shells, peach or plum stones, pottery disks, walrus ivory, and beaver or woodchuck teeth, were used as well. Greek and Roman dice were most often made of bone or ivory but amber, marble, porcelain, and other materials were also used. Cubical dice are common, but dice of pyramidal, rectangular, pentahedral, and octahedral shapes also existed.

Playing cards were probably invented in China, perhaps as early as 1000, and may have been based on Chinese dominoes, a game played more like card games than the positional form of modern dominoes. From China, playing cards apparently diffused westward, arriving in Egypt by the twelfth or thirteenth century and Europe by the 1570s. Card games arrived in England around 1520, and the oldest surviving deck of cards from England dates to about 1590. Ordinances directed at regulating card-game playing passed in various parts of Europe in the late fourteenth century indicate both their rapid spread and the alarm that their appearance created among civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The primary concern with cards, as well as dice, was with their use in gambling games, and prohibitions aimed at gambling have waxed and waned since the end of the fourteenth century. For example, Napoleon legalized casinos in France in 1806, but they were outlawed in 1837. In the American colonies, the Puritans of New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania generally prohibited gambling, while areas colonized by other English settlers usually viewed it as a harmless pastime. Now, gambling is common worldwide except in those areas where cultural prohibitions still hold sway, such as in Muslim societies and most of China.

Guessing games of chance are also common worldwide. Native North Americans played numerous versions of the moccasin game, for example, in which the object was to guess the location of objects hidden under moccasins. “Rock, paper, scissors” is a modern example of a guessing game.

Games as Models

Roberts and his colleagues claimed that games model important real-world activities with greater or lesser degrees of verisimilitude. Chess, for example, is transparently a game of war between two armies, replete with ranks. Wei qi is more abstract but still a game of war. Risk is a relatively recent (first published in 1959) war game played on a stylized world map that, unlike chess and wei qi, involves chance as well as strategy. While there is no evidence to indicate that board games, such as chess or wei qi, were used for training purposes, other competitive events, including the knightly tournaments in medieval Europe and the Afghan horsemanship game, buzkashi, provided excellent training for warfare. Monopoly, a model of real estate transactions that also involves strategy and chance, became a popular board game during the Great Depression of the 1930s even though an all but identical game had been patented in the United States in 1903.

Games of chance are commonly held to be models of divination designed to seek supernatural guidance about, or assistance in dealing with, the unpredictable forces of nature that govern human existence. In his monograph Chess and Playing Cards, Stuart Culin, the great America game ethnographer, claimed that dice developed from efforts to divine the future by the throwing of arrows (or sticks, straws, or reeds) on the ground and interpreting the result while reciting magical incantations. The “casting of lots,” mentioned in the Bible, was a form of divination based on the interpretation of thrown sticks. Craps players around the world commonly recite “prayers,” saying things such as “Come on, seven!” or “Baby needs a new pair of shoes,” or put their essence on the dice by rubbing them between their hands or blowing on them in the hope of controlling the outcome of the game.

Games of physical skill commonly model either warfare or hunting. Examples include ancient sports such as wrestling, boxing, and spear or javelin throwing as well as the activities of medieval tournaments and fairs, such as jousting, the melee, and competitions with bows and arrows. Modern sports such as soccer, rugby, and American football bring two opposing armies onto a field of battle while target shooting and trap shooting model hunting. Soccer, or association football, is the world’s most popular participatory and spectator sport. While the modern version was born in nineteenth-century Britain, precursors were played as early as the eighth century. Often known as “mob football,” these games involved an indeterminate number of players (sometimes whole villages pitted against each other), and rules were vague. The origins of mob football are uncertain but its play was associated with Shrove Tuesday. This game modeled combat closely enough to include numerous injuries and often fatalities. According to an ancient document from Workington, England, Shrovetide football players could use any means other than murder and manslaughter to get the ball to the goal. Because of the violence that it engendered, Edward II banned Shrovetide football in 1314, but it is still played in some areas, such as Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

Recent Developments in Games

New games in traditional formats are continually being developed and marketed by game manufacturers but the most radical development in the recent history of games is their mating to the computer. In 1971, Atari marketed the first commercially successful arcade video game, Pong, a two-person game in which an electronic ball was batted back and forth on a video screen by two paddles controlled by the players. Other arcade games such as Tank (1974), Asteroids (1978), and Pac-Man (1980) soon followed. Odyssey, marketed by Magnavox in 1972, was the first home video game. In 1975, Atari introduced a home version of Pong, and dedicated video game consoles from other companies were on the market soon after. Arcade games were introduced to personal computers in the late 1970s.

Contests between computers (and programs) and master players for classic games such as chess and wei qi have captured public interest in recent years. In 1997, an IBM computer named Deep Blue defeated reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, two games to one (with three draws), and chess programs for personal computers can now play very strong games. However, to date, no computer has been able to defeat good human players at wei qi.

The Future of Games

New games are continually being invented, while older ones may either be modified or disappear. Watching others play games—spectatorship—is growing, as well. While games of physical skill, such as soccer, baseball, or tennis, draw the most spectators, championships in games of strategy, such as chess, and games of strategy with chance, such as poker, attract many viewers as well. The first casino (from the Italian word “casini,” meaning “little house”) opened in Venice in 1626, but the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco quickly became the world’s most glamorous gambling establishment after its opening in 1863. Each of the thirteen American colonies established lotteries and proceeds aided various public works, including the establishment of libraries, churches, and universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but all forms of gambling were illegal in the United States by 1910. The state of Nevada again legalized gambling in 1931 and the first state lottery was established by New Hampshire in 1963. As of 2009 only two states (Hawaii and Utah) do not have some form of state authorized gambling. The legalization of gambling in much of the world has led to increased participation in games of strategy with chance (such as blackjack, poker, baccarat) and games of pure chance (such as craps, roulette, and lotteries). Casino gaming and lotteries, while providing governments with a new source of revenue, outlets for recreational gamblers, and economic development in areas supported by casinos, also have negative aspects. Gambling addictions are now more common, and the need for policing, access roads, parking, and waste disposal strains local resources. So, while some forms of game playing, such as card games in the home, may be declining because the social gatherings that supported them in the past are themselves declining, more people are participating in and watching games being played outside the home, and that trend is likely to continue in the future.

While traditional board games and card games may be waning in popularity, computer-based home video games, as well as online games, constitute a huge growth industry and one of the most rapidly expanding forms of entertainment worldwide. (A recent survey indicates that young people in the eight-to-eighteen-year-old range spend an average of 7.38 hours per day, or nearly 53 hours per week, exposed to “entertainment media” including television, music/ audio, computers, video games, print, and movies—a significant number of hours that limits other forms of play.) Home use of video games, as well as the increased popularity of Internet game parlors, has led to a steep decline in the popularity of arcades and arcade games. As video and Internet games are most often played alone, either against the game program or distant opponents, they have resulted in less social play than takes place in traditional card or board games and even in arcade video games. Whether such games model the real world of today, as Roberts and his colleagues suggested in the late 1950s, is a question worth pondering.


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