Tuesday, 15 January 2013

How long have we been Gaming?

All animals play, it's one of those little things that binds all creatures together along with helping documentary filmmakers earn a living. After all there are few things in the world cuter then baby elephants play fighting.

They've obviously been playing Call of Duty...
Humans, however, are the only ones who make games. We take the physical and combine it with the mental, and this is actually kind of important. 

As raw animals, human beings have very little to recommend us. We're weak, have no claws and (despite my best efforts) are so far unable to shoot lasers from our eyes. Compare that to the sabre-toothed and multi-clawed monsters roaming around prehistory and we should rightly have been scraped off the bottom of some other animals evolutionary footprint.

Luckily for us we had our brains, and the mental capacity that lets us create games also let us come up with new and exciting ways to disembowel a leaping tiger.

Eat pointy science, Bear!Source

Relying on brainpower meant that anything which could help it develop, or hone it, was a bonus and so, as civilization started to dawn we immediately see Games start to appear right alongside.

There's your boardgames, such as the Egyptian Senet and the Royal Game of Ur from ancient Babylon. Other, more familiar, items also sprout up at around this time. For example, the oldest pair of six-sided dice in the world is from Iran and date from around 2000-3000BC

Want something really mind-blowing? How about a Roman d20:

Maxima Plaga!Source

No, I don't know what the symbols on it mean. Kind of looks like a Critical Failure would summon Cthulu doesn't it?

Anyway, the really interesting things with Games is that alot of the time they show us alot about the culture who play them. Want a great example? Well, Tafl (or Hnefatafl) is a Viking board game which was widely played in North-West Europe for most of the Early-Medieval period.

In it a King and his huscarls are arranged in a cross to represent a hall while the opposing force are blocking each end. This arrangement is meant to represent a hall-burning. Literally where one group would shut another in their hall and burn it down around them. Why? Because Vikings. 

What's interesting is that all the pieces, King or Attacker, have the same moves available to them. Everyone is only as good as the spaces allow. To my mind, this is a good representation of the culture, at least among warriors, in the Viking Age. Even the King was only as good to you as the men he killed or glory he won.

+1 to KingshipSource

Compare this to a game like Chess, brought from the Muslim Emir-doms in the East and adopted in Fuedal Europe and we can see a representation of the rigid class-structures at work. Each piece has its role to play and of them all the pawn (or peon) is most numerous while simultaneously the most restricted.

So what do our Games say about us as a culture? Well, taken out of context they might show that we have a fundamental misunderstanding about what a plumber is supposed to do. Or indeed that we see military action as the job of one growling, guttural man.

Taken as a whole though, I think they can stand as a testament to what we've achieved. We've built a world where we can build incredibly complex and beautiful worlds, for nothing more then entertainment.

There's something decadent in that, but compare it to rolling dice between outbreaks of plague. Or using pieces to plan burning someone out of house and home and there's also something kind of beautiful in there.

Until next time, let us say Skål! and drink together.

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