Issues To Ponder

Board from UR

There is considerable difficulty in determining the origin of many games. This page offers some reasons why this is so.

The main issue seems to be - are most games just modifications of a couple of games from the very distant past which have evolved and have been diffused throughout the world over time? Or are most games individual creative productions which were invented in different parts of the world at different periods in time.

One reason that determining the origin of games is difficult is because games have been around a long time, and people didn't bother to maintain records about something as inconsequential as games. Although there are ancient tomb paintings depicting game playing, or remnants of ancient game equipment (such as the board from Ur of Chaldee pictured on the left), no one specifically maintained information about when or where a game was "invented' or from which culture it was "borrowed". Such record keeping is a product of the late middle ages and onward.

In examining the origins of anything in society, one knows that a thing is either a spontaneous invention of someone, someplace - or the thing is a modified copy of the original that shows up in some other place. That's easy to see because a chair is a chair, or a can opener is a can opener, and this is also true with regard to certain intellectual concepts in mathematics or physics, for example. With games - this is not always the case. Nowadays, when one identifies something as a game as opposed to something else in society, they recognize that a game is a special device or behavior used for recreative purposes. It is taken for granted that games have been perpetuated by civilization to amuse and to entertain. Nonetheless, some people may have also consciously used games for other purposes, such as education or treatment of illness.

This has probably been the case since people first began playing games, and may help to explain why in the 19th and early 20th centuries so much of scholarly study of game origins concerned their use in religious rites and practices of certain cultures. In examining anything, one may arbitrarily concentrate on the physical aspects of the thing, or how it might have been used. In the case of a chair or a can opener - its design is limited by its function. Since games may be assigned different functions in society, they may have been consciously modified. This has confused investigation in the past. (For example, in our time those 52 pieces of blank white plastic with little bumps on them are in reality a deck of Braille playing cards designed for use of sightless persons.)

Lewis Chess Pieces

In a physical sense, there are two types of games - those that require special equipment and/or settings - and those that don't. Examples of the former would be roulette or tennis; while examples of the latter would be 20 questions or charades. Tracing the origins of games that don't require physical equipment is even more difficult. At times, it is possible to trace connections among games even though they may look and seem very different. A case in point is a standard European Chess set and a Japanese Shogi set. Although they have different boards and playing pieces - one of the pieces in each set features the same unique move. In the West it's called the knight's move - one forward and one to the side, or one to the side and one forward. Or another example would be in decks of playing cards from many different cultures - all decks of cards are divided into suits and sequences. Similarities such as these have led a number of scholars to conclude that many games have a singular origin and were diffused to different cultures over time by traders, travelers, and soldiers.

Because of these and certain other reasons, for the most part - theories about the origins and early geographical distribution of games are just theories which may never be verified!

To read about the theories of the geographical distribution of games, CLICK on the Game Diffusion item in the left menu above.

Last update December 21, 2009