In the Beginning...
Games have been around humanity for as long as there have been humans. Games were paradigms before the word became fashionable, representing their cultures' most deeply embedded views and beliefs about the way the world works. Peoples' value systems came to color the games' objectives and rules of play. Our ancestors were extremely imaginative. They tended to imbue everything around them with mystical symbolism. Their minds were much more practiced than ours in seeing analogy, metaphor, and hidden meanings. Much of what they thought we today may consider superstition, fallacy, and misguided foolishness; yet much of what they thought we still practice ... in the games they have bequeathed us. Fate ... luck ... unpredictable turns were seen as controlling events that befell mankind, whether dispensed at the whim of gods or guided by the movements of the stars. Mankind was seen as helpless in the fell clutch of circumstance. The popularity of casinos in our own day speaks to the thrill of seeking to triumph against all odds.
A very early game board based on these ideas was the Egyptian game of Senet. An even older one, the Labyrinth game found on the island of Crete, dated back to the Minoans (ca. 1500 BC). Here is an illustration, derived from the Phaistos Disc and interpreted by antiquities scholar Peter Aleff, that we've made into a large wooden game board.
The Game of the Labyrinth (left), one of the oldest board games known, uses the element of chance as players race for the finish at the center.
The game symbolizes one's passage through the stages of life, and the cycles of birth and rebirth, to arrive at some blessed state at the end. The path is strewn with hardships but also some boons. Here's a close-up view of a few of the hieroglyphs:
Hieroglyphs (right) from the Phaistos Disc, a 3500-year-old artifact from Crete, interpreted as a game board. Some symbols represent constellations in the heavens.
The Labyrinth Game has a direct descendant—The Royal Game of the Goose, or simply the Goose Game, widely popular for 500 years in many countries. You can still play it printed on parchment at a tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Goose is much more accessible as a parlor game than Labyrinth, and it lends itself to being a gambling game as much as family entertainment. Here's an illustration of the Kadon embodiment of Goose, a great attraction at the Maryland Renaissance Festival:
The Game of the Goose, a 15th century creation, progenitor of games we still play today. To win, reach the center with an exact roll of the dice. In another prevalent theme found on ancient game boards, the board plane generally represented a battlefield upon which two or more armies would seek to vanquish one another. (In some respects we haven't advanced much beyond that view. Some people on this planet still believe that the way to settle disputes between nations is to bomb each other to pieces.)
Heroic tales handed down to us from the early bards, like Homer, tell about the fascination peoples have had with battles, the spoils of war, conquests of large parts of the world, and legendary warriors and strategies. War Is Fun?
Our history books are stuffed with a recounting of wars and battles, and every schoolchild is plagued with having to memorize lists of famous dates. The root of every war is the predation of one power over another, whether to compete for mutually desired land, resources, and waterways, or to plunder outright what the other population has built and accumulated. "Filling the coffers" with loot of conquest was a highly praised feat. This belief—that keeping the fruits of violent engagements is a right—is deeply engrained in some cultures to this day. The stereotypical embodiment of such games is the classic chessboard, in all its variations.
It should come as no surprise, then, that games have perpetuated the relational premises of conquest, appropriation, decimation of the enemy population, and even genocide. All these practices have assured to the victors in the past the possession of land and the survival of their own kind against any group deemed a rival. Do we make our games to mirror the conflict scenario of the world, or do we run our world from the principles we absorbed from our games?
In America today we have a somewhat idealized view of life, surrounded as we are by the plenty of modern supermarkets and shopping malls, computer games, the Internet, the green lawns of suburbia, and the high-energy commerce of urban centers. Wars are distant from our shores. Built upon a land of plentiful resources, acquired from the original inhabitants in the usual way, America has nevertheless produced a society that promises to evolve toward a civilization that may yet set aside conquest by force.
Respect for the rights of the individual is the cornerstone of this change. Free enterprise and open markets have made possible innovation on a scale unprecedented in the history of the world. The phenomenal growth of the Internet bespeaks the level of cooperation and collaboration we humans are capable of, when we want to be. Men on the moon? Been there, done that. Travel to Mars? Within our reach.
The Net covers the world in a self-organizing system that has room for everyone, and everything. System ... the antithesis of entropy. System ... the basis for fractal-like growth. System ... the phenomenon played out in the microcosm of games. The spirit of these times is humanity's "can do" approach. Not in our stars, but in ourselves is the power to set goals and reach them. If game boards encapsulate the spirit of their times and continue to teach to each successive generation the values of their ancestors, it's time for a new paradigm.
A New Paradigm
So let's see what kinds of games the 20th century has played, and where we go from here. Bigtime favorites are: Chess (war), Checkers (genocide), Bridge (logic) parlor games (the element of chance and the race to the finish) trivia games (the information superhighway and knowledge industry) fantasy role-playing (creating and experimenting with alternate realities, team missions) word games strategy war games (simulations and reenactments of major world battles) computer and video games (adrenaline rush of combat and monsters, speed and skill, the fighter pilot as super hero) virtual reality (mind and machine in symbiosis) party or team games (social bonding, the tribal instinct) "abstract" games (the lone problem-solver in one-on-one contest).
These are broad categories. If I've left out any of your favorites that are in a category by themselves, by all means e-mail me.
The thread that runs through all the game categories listed here, the timeless thread from the beginning of mankind, is the symbolic struggle for survival, to prevail against obstacles or opposing forces.
As long as the opponent is seen as a threat or a rival, the game action will be confrontational, aggressive, predatory. The context is zero-sum: one player's win has to be at the expense of the other, whether in goods captured or opponents eliminated.
Where's the fun in that? In the recognition that it's not for real, that in the safe make-believe microcosm of a game board one can lose and live to play another day. The participants are essentially benevolent, with the possible exception of those that just want to see "the opponent's ego crumble."
Games of chance tend to equalize the advantage of greater skill, sparing the loser's ego. Even games of strategy may mix in elements of luck, as in backgammon, to keep the results unpredictable and sharpen players' adaptive abilities.
Party games that depend on the combined skills/knowledge of a team date back at least to medieval times. They provide plenty of camaraderie and laughs, and, unless some players are ferociously competitive, the process of play is more important than who wins. Such games tend to have skill and luck equally blended. Their new popularity in the late 20th century reflects a return to group solidarity and collaboration, to say nothing of an eternal fascination with data, trivial or otherwise. While there is still the sense of having to prove that "our team is better than your team," such games are a step away from straight predation.
In fantasy role-playing games, teams of heroic characters pit themselves against mythical creatures in campaigns of great imagination. The players' strengths, abilities, and hit points are still dialed up by chance but the characters can grow and gain powers through a lifetime of achievement. Dare we say the popularity of this genre has to do with the ascendancy of the individual and the voluntary nature of collaboration? The enemy is alien, the forces of darkness rather than one's own kind. A small paradigm shift, perhaps, but still a shift.
What about abstract strategy board games? Do we see progress toward a non-predatory, non-hostile persuasion there? Many of the currently prevalent abstract games (Abalone, Pente, Othello, Terrace, Go, etc.) still involve removal or appropriation of opponent pieces. A good number of abstract games are based on positional alignment, in rows or other target configurations, or on racing across the board to occupy the opponent's starting spaces. Alignment or connection games, from Tic Tac Toe to Trax, Hex, Connect-4, Megallo, and Game of Y, to name a few, are not overtly predatory as long as no capturing takes place. They do require interfering detrimentally with the opponent's actions. A special kind of connection game, of joining paths by color, is Kaliko (shown below), where players score points for forming long paths. It has a small element of chance— the luck of the draw of tiles from the bag. Non-predatory, non-aggressive, each play calls on a player's ingenuity and visualization while building a beautiful array of intersecting paths.
The goal of getting to the other side first (symbolic of migrations) is best illustrated by Chinese Checkers. No capturing, no chance elements, just the strategy of jumping over conveniently located pieces. It's non-predatory, not even a territorial acquisition game, since each player relinquishes the starting territory to the incoming player. A unique variation on this theme is Octiles, where the board on which the pieces move changes with every turn. The board consists of octagonal tiles with paths that link pairs of sides of a tile, forming roads that connect to the rest of the board. There is no capturing, no dice, and only partial blocking strategy. How do you block someone when the board keeps moving?
So how do we achieve a game that has all these qualities: a goal worth striving for, no capturing, no dice, no detrimental effect on the opponent, and where other players are more partners than adversaries, more help than hindrance?
Arthur Blumberg's invention, The Power of Two, comes close to fulfilling all these ingredients. The object is to be the first to bring all of one's own pieces onto the board, by moving one's piece next to another piece already on the board. The proximity of the two begets a new one. Since one's own parenting pieces lose a "half life" in the process (they can partake in only two births before being retired from the board and having to be born again), it is to one's advantage to involve opponent pieces in the couplings as much as possible. Opponent pieces remain unscathed thereby.
OK, so we're almost there. But we'd like to see a game that can take the next step... the paradigm we want is that people accomplish more by collaboration and cooperation, by pooling their capabilities without being devoured in the process. Encourage investment rather than expropriation. Protect all players' individuality while letting them be part of a communal effort.
What makes a player feel good about a game? The pleasure is in the fulfilling of a purpose. Can we devise a constructive purpose that provides the same thrill as plunder and destruction on a game board? Some years ago I designed the game Lemma, whose purpose is simply the creation of rules for the game. The rules must be non-contradictory and, unlike Nomic, are enacted on the board. Subject to a half dozen inviolable meta-rules, this game can be almost anything the players want it to become. It is open-ended. An implicit goal is to see how long it can be kept going. All survivors are winners.
Lemma is an open-ended game the players create by making up non-contradictory rules and enacting examples of the rules on the board.
Are we there yet? Not quite. Lemma players can still introduce capturing and conquest, though these apply only to the elements on the board, not to the persons of the other players. Also, some game players are nonplussed by a game with no rules—how to even begin. What is this, anarchy? No, the intention was to demonstrate the dynamics of a self-organizing system, the same dynamics evident in the functioning of the Internet, the final frontier of human connected-ness.
What games can we create to embody the new paradigm, what will best represent the worldview, the hopes and dreams of humanity, to move us past predation into the 21st century? What concepts shall they encompass that could survive for the next 3500 years? Your suggestions are invited. The best ones will become candidates for production and marketing in 2001.
- Kate Jones