The Incompleat Gamester
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1. Games as cultural artefacts
by David Parlett

From my introductory chapter to the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of Oriental Games curated by the Asia Society, New York, 2004

It may or may not be true what they say about the devil having all the best tunes, but there can be no doubt that the peoples of Asia have all the best games. What's more, they seem to have had them longer than anyone else, and undoubtedly invented a great many of them.

Who in the west has not been introduced to board games through Parcheesi, or its British equivalent Ludo, and duly passed it on to their own children? And how many are aware that it is a simplified version of a traditional Indian game of skill for two teams of adults? How many know that the game transmitted to the western family home as Chutes and Ladders (aka Snakes and Ladders) derives directly from one devised by Indian sages to teach children the moral value of patience in character-building? Nor is the gaming legacy of India confined to children: the battlefield of modern international Chess remains to this day occupied by forces reflecting the constitution of the classical Indian army of the 6th century CE from which they derive. That piece in the corner that looks like a castle is still called a rook, which is an Indian word for chariot, and the knight now represented by a horse was once in more majestic command of an elephant.

Who doesn't play cards? Thanks to the Chinese, then, for inventing the paper from which they are made, the idea of cards themselves, and the paper money which may have been the inspiration behind them. Other Asian cultures have added to their contribution. Playing-cards reached us through the natural route of India, Persia, and Arabia, and first entered Europe some time after 1350 from the Mameluk dynasty of Egypt. Interestingly, one of the four suits of the Mameluk deck was designated polo-sticks, making a nice reference to the equestrian sport originating in Central Asia and played across southern Asia from Arabia to Japan well before 1000 CE, but unknown to 14th century Europeans. (Which is why the earliest western card-makers converted them into the batons to be found to this day on traditional Italian cards, and the clubs of Spanish ones.)

Or again, take dominoes. They closely resemble playing-cards, being blank on one side and numbered on the other, and in China the two sets of equipment are made of the same material and played in much the same way. A further extension of cards and dominoes resulted in tile games. The most famous of these, Mah-jong, having taken America by storm in the 1920s, reminds us that the contribution of traditional Asian games to the recreational repertoire of the west has not ceased with the passage of time. The last half of the 20th century saw an increasingly global interest in the Japanese game of Go, another invention of the Chinese and known to them as Wei-qi. Wei-qi is probably the oldest ever board-game still current, dating back to at least the sixth century BCE. A Confucian disciple of the second century BCE speaks even then of the game's antiquity and of the existence of masters and disciples in its practice and philosophy.1

So far we have mentioned only games of known oriental priority, but others may be suspected, for of many families of historic games played in both Europe and Asia it is impossible to demonstrate that any originated in Europe and then travelled east. The black-and-white chequered board may be a European invention, and the game of Checkers or Draughts played on such a board has spread to the east and there undergone further development, but the mechanics of the game itself, with its distinctive diagonal moves and leaping captures, derive from the Arabic version (called Alquerque) of a game still played throughout the Orient in a variety of obviously related forms. The western game of Fox & Geese is matched by comparable Indian games involving cattle and tigers, and by Chinese games of generals and mercenaries. Games of the Backgammon type are known from both European and Asian antiquity. Games of alignment, such as Nine Men's Morris and its pencil-and-paper equivalent, Noughts and Crosses (Tic-tac-toe), are common to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands. Even Mancala, generally regarded as the national game of Africa (in any of its myriad forms), has numerous counterparts throughout the Middle East and virtually the whole of southern Asia.

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Games and arts

So there is plenty of scope for an exhibition of material from the Asian world of games and gaming, and its title "The Arts of Contest" is more than apposite. That games are contests is obvious from the fact that they are defined in terms of winning and losing. That they relate to the arts is equally obvious, on reflection, though closer examination will reveal levels at which relationships are rather more subtle.

The most obvious level is that of the visual arts, manifested not only in artistic representations of games and players but also in the design, ornamentation and craftsmanship exhibited in various kinds of gaming equipment and associated furniture. Equally fecund are representations of gaming in literature, from the dicing contest central to the plot of the Mahabharata, through Dostoevsky's Gambler, to that most perceptive study of gamesmanship constituting Yasumari Kawabata's novel The Master of Go. It may be going too far to claim literary merit for a lucidly drafted set of rules for any particular game (though the writing of such rules is an art in itself), but many admirable volumes have been written on the study, appreciation and history of games. Turning to the world of music, we immediately encounter an opera based on Pushkin's The Queen of Spades2 and Sir Arthur Bliss's ballet Checkmate3.

Other aspects of the subject, though equally aesthetic, are less obvious to the extent that they cannot be put on display. There are, for example, what might be called the performing arts of play, from the bodily prowess of the polo player to the mental dexterity of a winning combination at chess. "Poetry in motion" is a phrase often employed by sports commentators. The word "art" also carries with it implications of skill and technique: it is more artistic to win elegantly and efficiently than clumsily and luckily. Bridge-players who take pride in their skill may prefer to win exactly the number of tricks they bid than some higher number, despite an additional score for the excess.

Subtler still are qualities of beauty and artistry inherent in the structures and strategies of games themselves. Wei-qi (Go) takes the basic process of placing alternately black and white stones on the 361 intersections of a squared board and derives wonderful combinations of unfathomable depth from the pure simplicity of the raw material. The structure of Snooker, developed by British army officers in India, is of a subtlety that calls forth from a game of hand-eye co-ordination degrees of strategy comparable to those of Chess. But you have to have played either game, or attempted to do so, to fully appreciate the inherent beauty of the underlying concept. The deepest beauty of a game can only be brought into play - and display - by the process of playing it.4 A successful game embodies properties of order, harmony, balance and fluidity common to all forms of artistic creation - a fact increasingly reflected in the tendency of professional games inventors to be referred to as "designers", or even, in yet more generous circles, as "authors". And the inventors of Chess problems have always been known as " composers".

Further relationships to the arts appear in the vocabulary of the subject. It is not only games that you play, but also musical instruments. To play a game is to perform it, just as you perform not only a piece of music but also a "play". A game has rules equivalent to the score of a piece of music or the script of a play. A play is performed on a stage set apart for the purpose, as a game is played on a field or a board or table equally set apart for its own purposes. And the performance of games is often perceived as dramatic, in their own terms, by players and onlookers alike.

   All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

So Jaques, in As you like it.5 But Shakespeare might with equal validity have written:

   All the world's a game
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their victories and their defeats,
And one man in his time makes many moves.

The close affinities of games to the arts are a major reason for devoting attention to their exploration and study. "The proper study of mankind is man", wrote Alexander Pope, and "Mankind", according to Schiller, "is only fully human when playing games, and only in the playing of games does it achieve its full humanity".6 Appreciating the role of games in civilization is therefore key to an understanding of civilization itself. "It is not absurd", writes Roger Caillois,7

to try diagnosing a civilization in terms of the games that are especially popular there. In fact, if games are cultural factors and images, it follows that to a certain degree a civilization and its content may be characterized by its games. They necessarily reflect its culture pattern and provide useful indications as to the preferences, weakness and strength of a given society at a particular stage of its evolution.
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"But it's only a game..."

And yet it is an observable but anomalous fact that games are, by and large, accorded little serious attention or respect in the western world, where everyday turns of phrase testify to an outmoded view of games not just as trivial in themselves but as models or metaphors for triviality itself. "It's only a game" says the mother separating her children squabbling over whose turn it is to throw dice, or the Bridge-player to her partner irate over the minor misuse of some arcane bidding convention. "This isn't a game" says Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men as he spots two jurors doodling at Noughts & Crosses. (But he was wrong on both counts. Few things are more gamelike than either Noughts & Crosses or juridical contests.) Nor is it only the everyday world that pushes games out of serious consciousness. "In scholarship", notes Sutton-Smith "the denigration of play in intellectual terms is shown by the absence of the key term play from the index of almost every book about the behaviour of human beings".8

The roots of disdain are not too hard to uncover. If anthropologists and social historians ignore games, or dismiss them out of hand, it is at least partly due to a misperception of games as being essentially childish, perhaps resulting from the obvious fact that children have both a greater compulsion to play and far more free time in which to indulge it. It is aggravated by the fact that games themselves do not contribute to the serious business of wealth creation on a national scale or of earning a living on the personal scale. (Apart from professional players; but there is, as we show later, a sense in which they do not really "play".) As such, games conflict with the Protestant Work Ethic that casts its shadow over so many of the values of western society.

In Indian cosmology, play is a top down idea. Passages to play and their premises are embedded at a high level of abstraction and generality. The qualities of play resonate and resound throughout the whole. But more than this, qualities of play are integral to the very operation of the cosmos. To be in play is to reproduce time and again the very premises that inform the existence of this kind of cosmos... Now in cosmologies where premises of play are not embedded at a high level and are not integral to the organization of the cosmos, as in Western society, the phenomenon of play seem to erupt from the bottom. By bottom up play I mean that play often is phrased in opposition to, or as a negation of, the order of things. This is the perception of play as unserious, illusory and ephemeral, but it is also the perception of play as subversive and resisting the order of things. (Handelman, D, "Passages to Play: Paradox and Process", Play and Culture 5(1), 1992, p. 12 Cited in Sutton-Smith, B, The Ambiguity of Play (1997), p.55

Much the same could be held to the account of the arts in general, as it still is in some faith communities. But games are more extreme in this regard than the other arts and are tainted by wider negative associations. They offer a facile association with gambling, which, being a more pernicious activity in the eyes of many, acts as a brush with which the most intellectual and skill-dependent games may find themselves ineluctably tarred. There are those, furthermore, who are keenly conscious of the fact that games are by definition contests, therefore embodiments of conflict, and as such tainted by the whiff of warfare, an activity whose contribution to the advancement of humanity is widely assessed to be in inverse proportion to its universality. The rightful appreciation of games is inhibited by false assumptions and misassociations. Where, then, should a rightful appreciation begin?

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What is a game?

One might begin by asking "What is a game?" But this is a trick question, as the philosopher Wittgenstein was quick to spot and sidestep.9 Obviously, as he points out, a game is any activity to which the word "game" is applied; but a glance at any substantial dictionary will uncover a long list of intuitively but not analytically related usages. They include triviality ("This isn't a game", "Blow this for a game of soldiers"), scheme or intrigue ("So that's your little game!"), pursuit ("The game's afoot, Watson!"), object of pursuit ("Big game hunter"), prostitution ("On the game"), performance of a game ("My game's a bit off today"), target score ("Game is 121 points"). Eric Berne's book Games People Play is a psychological study of "social transactions".10 James Carse's Games Finite and Infinite is an exercise in theology,11 "Game theory" started life as a mathematical model of economic behaviour, and has been extended to a variety of practical and academic studies, but offers little of interest to the players of real games like Faro or football.12 About the only thing these uses have in common is some underlying concept of purposeful activity, except in ironic mode, when with equal facility they come to connote purposeless activity.

It may be more helpful to note that a game is something you play. It is an interesting fact that English uses two unrelated words for the noun and the verb, where most languages use words of identical root: in French on joue à un jeu, in German man spielt ein Spiel, and so on. This becomes particularly illuminating when we note that the noun game can also be used as a verb, when it means specifically to play for money or to take a chance, while play can also be used as a noun, when it has the narrow meaning of a theatrical script or production and a much broader meaning that involves everything to do with games and much more besides.

Essentially, a game is either a particular session of play (French partie, as in "We had a game of tennis yesterday") or a particular species of play (French jeu, as in "Tennis is an international game"). As "play" itself covers more than just "games", a way of clarifying what "games" are might be to explore the meanings of "play" and deduct those to which the term "game" is not normally applied. Even this proves to be a trick question. Mihail Spariosu, noting that there are hundreds of definitions of play of which none seems satisfactory, quotes with approval Susanna Millar's suggestion that "Perhaps play is best used as an adverb; not as a name of a class of activities, nor as distinguished by the accompanying mood, but to describe how and under what conditions an action is performed".13

The underlying connotation of play is repeated movement or activity, a sense reinforced by the image of sunlight playing over the waves, or fingers over a keyboard.14 In addition, and more essentially, it implies voluntary activity or freedom of movement, as for example in the play of a wheel or piston in a machine - that is, the area in which that component has a limited freedom to operate.15 The freedom and voluntary nature of play means that, by definition, it does not serve a conscious utilitarian function in the individual playing, unlike other human activities such as eating, reproducing, keeping warm, finding shelter, and so on. You engage in play, not because you have to but because you want to. Play is a self-validating, self-actualizing activity.16

Just as "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music".17 so might it be said that all human activities aspire to the condition of play. Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens (Man the Player), goes further, arguing that all major manifestations of civilized culture have their roots in the urge to play.18 Play is a universal human activity, and therefore presumably has some sort of survival value to the human species; nevertheless, adds Huizinga, the need for play is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need. The same thought is more pithily expressed by theologian James Carse:

Whoever must play, cannot [really] play.19

Play therefore belongs to the superior field of activities which define us as spiritual beings, together with religion and the arts. Huizinga goes so far as to characterize art as a form of play in itself - music is playing with sounds, painting is playing with paint, poetry is playing with words, and so on. (Which is not to say, nor does he assert, that they are nothing but play.) He traces the civilizing function of play on, for example, warfare, as expressed in the ethical rules and ceremonials of the tournament and the duel. Turning to law, he notes that jeopardy derives from jeu parti, meaning (literally) an evenly balanced game, and -

That an affinity may exist between law and play becomes obvious to us as soon as we realize how much the actual practice of the law, in other words a lawsuit, properly resembles a contest whatever the ideal foundations of the law may be.20

Courts of another kind figure in the civilizing influence of play on human relationships. "Andrew the Chaplain", a 12th-century troubadour, outlines in The Art of Courtly Love the rules of the game of love and reports cases and decisions in the courts of love attributed to Marie de France (Countess of Champagne) and Eleanor of Aquitaine.21 An English-language "love-child" is in German ein Spielkind, a "play-child" and few agony aunt columns of the present day will not, at some time or another, find some excuse to get round to the business of "foreplay".

Huizinga characterizes all play as either a contest for something or a representation of something, thus subsuming under one head both the playing of games and the performance of plays, in the loosest sense of the words. Others have since argued that Huizinga does not go far enough. A wider-ranging analysis by Roger Caillois recognizes four classes of play, covering not only contests of skill (agon) and struggles with chance (alea), but also drama, representation and ceremonial (mimicry or ilinx) and transcendent, ecstatic or out-of-body experiences such as Ferris wheels, switchbacks and the whirling of (ilinx or dervishes vertigo).22 Where Huizinga maintains that "In acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter"23 Eigen and Winkler assert:

The history of play goes back to the beginnings of time. [...] The energy released in the "big bang" set everything in motion, set matter whirling in a maelstrom of activity that would never cease. The forces of order sought to bring this process under control, to tame chance. The result was not the rigid order of a crystal but the order of life. [...] Chance and rules are the elements that underlie games and play. Play began among the elementary particles, atoms, and molecules, and now our brain cells carry it on. Human beings did not invent play....24

As play implies freedom of movement, so freedom implies unpredictability of destination. An electron performs a quantum leap when it jumps suddenly (playfully?) from one atomic orbit to another without passing through the putative space between. You can determine the speed of a particle or its position, but not both at once - hence Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and Einstein's horrified refusal to believe that God "plays dice" with the universe.25 And the brains of both are the result of evolutionary development caused by random genetic mutations with unpredictable results. The mind boggles! Does nothing ever happen in the universe that cannot be characterized as some form of play?

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Objections overruled

It might be objected that not all play is purely voluntary or non-utilitarian. For example, a professional footballer plays to earn a living - hence, because he must play, he does not really play. Carse's dictum stands up. He is not so much playing for his own enjoyment as performing for the enjoyment of the onlookers who ultimately pay him. In other words, professional football, or any other professional game, is essentially a branch of the entertainment industry. It is a failing of urban, industrial civilization that too many people pay to have other people play games for them instead of doing it themselves, just as they buy ready-prepared meals rather than raw ingredients with which to do their own cooking. We live increasingly in a vicarious society.

It might be objected that play is not mere fun but serves a practical purpose in honing your physical or mental skills in order that they may serve you better in real life. This is true; but it is still play if, as is often the case, your primary motivation for doing so is actually for the sheer enjoyment or fun of it. If not, then you are not really playing but consciously exercising. It is true that play may have utilitarian by-products. The modern science of cryptography, which is nowadays of such personal, national and international importance, has profited from the discoveries of recreational mathematicians who just loved playing about with prime numbers, being intrigued by their oddity and playful unpredictability. (Do mathematicians play with numbers, or numbers with mathematicians?)

Research and experimentation may be initiated for utilitarian and business purposes, as it controversially is in the realm of pharmaceuticals, but the history of science is littered with discoveries - from penicillin down - that have been made quite by accident in the course of just playing about with intriguing phenomena. Perhaps we should add to Huizinga's description of play as either a contest for something or a representation of something the idea of its being an experiment with something. Scientific experimentation is virtually indistinguishable from play if conducted purely speculatively, with the desire to increase one's knowledge, to "see what happens if you do this instead of that" - in brief, for the fun of it - rather than when it is restricted to the goal-directed quest for a specific end product.

Scientific research as play is embodied in Robert Abbott's celebrated card game Eleusis.26 One player secretly proposes a rule by which one card is to follow another, and the others endeavour to discover what it is by each in turn attempting to add a card to a sequence and being told by the rule-maker whether it can or cannot be legally played. A simple, sample rule is "If the previous card is numerically even, play a red suit; if odd, play a black". The rule has been likened to a law of nature and the players to scientists whose success at divining it depends upon the creative skills of observation, experimentation and induction. (The rule-maker, it has to be said, is more often likened to God than to a Big Bang.)

If a game is either a period or a species of play, we can immediately deduct from various uses of the word " game" listed above those which do not imply free will or freedom from functionality. The "game" that Holmes asserts to be "afoot" is the practical one of detecting a criminal. The "games people play", as described by Berne, are socio-psychological ploys designed to achieve a real-life advantage. The "infinite game" explored by Carse is that of life itself. But all these, and many others, are metaphorical uses of the word. Real games are played for fun: their goals and purposes are self-validating - that is, intrinsic to the fact of play itself rather than to those of everyday subsistence. Goal-directed activities may be called games in a metaphorical sense, but perhaps only to play down the element of danger, or to play up the unpredictability of outcome. What makes a game "real" rather than metaphorical is when the players agree that they are in fact playing a game and not using a gamelike procedure in pursuit of practical, functional ends. Real play comes to an end when its players report back to the real world.

Real games may be structured or unstructured. Unstructured play is something that players drift into and out of ad lib, making a game as such ephemeral and unrepeatable. Typical of unstructured play are children's schoolyard games, like cops and robbers, which are more in the nature of cooperative play-acting than contest. Contest may be present, as implied by the very premise of cops and robbers, but this is (paradoxically) only played or pretend contest, not the real contest of competitive play. Caillois, following Huizinga, categorizes unstructured or informal games as paidia, from the Greek for "children's game", as opposed to ludus, from the Latin for game in the sense of contest.27 (It also means school, originally a training school for gladiators. Even in English we speak of a "school" of card-players.) Informal or unstructured games occupy an area of overlap between "plays" in the theatrical sense, which involve role-play without competition but are highly structured, and formal games, which resemble dramatic plays in being structured, but differ from them (and from informal games) by being competitive. The overlaps may be tabulated as follows:

plays are:
paidia are:
ludi are:

The unpredictable outcome of games contrasts with the endings of plays, which are predictable to the extent that they are scripted. Playwrights and directors may encourage a degree of ad libbing in theatrical productions, but once a play has entered the repertoire no one can be in any doubt as to who "wins" - by surviving, marrying, escaping, whatever - in the end. Theatrical plays and informal games also share the essence of representationalism. The informal play of children is largely based on role-playing, while theatrical plays, in the sense of being "about" the events and experiences of real life, cannot fail to be representational so long as they use words intelligibly strung together. Formal games (ludi) I will argue below, are basically abstract (think Draughts/Checkers) even where they purport to be fully representational (Monopoly. See also What's it all about?).

Other features of play in general also apply to games in particular, so let us now turn to other defining features of a game.

Continued (part 2)

Copyright 2004-