views updated May 29 2018


GAMES are analytically distinguished from other forms of contest by being framed as "play" and from other forms of play by their competitive format and the institutionalpublic, systematic, and juralcharacter of their rules. The American anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972, pp. 177193) has described the universal semantic process by which behaviors are framed as play. Conventionalized signals create a "metamessage" that instructs players not to take the behaviors they engage in as denoting what those behaviors would denote in other, nonplay, contexts. In this sense, game actions are "untrue." A nip is not a bite, a bullfight is not a hunt, a checkmate is not a regicide, a soccer match is not a war, a wrestling bout or footrace is not a cosmogony or theogony, regardless of overt similarities in the words, objects, gestures, emotional states, or social categories of persons involved. The framing of contests as play makes them self-referential in several ways, shifting attributed motivation to intrinsic enjoyment and sociability, turning means into ends in themselves, and understanding extrinsic outcomes as "mere" contingencies.

Yet, paradoxically, as Bateson and many other theorists of play have noted, the prior and consensual assertion of untruth, in the sense of disconnection from standard meanings, makes assertions of truthful correspondences between the worlds of nonplay and play possible, likely, and even predominant over a discourse of "set-apartness." Like other play forms, games are about boundaries and the boundaries between boundaries. Games create, in the phrases of the English psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott (1971), a world of "transitional objects," a realm of the "not-not-true." Freedom from denotation makes rich freedom for connotation, for human individuals and groups to re-represent their lives to themselves in "experimental" ways. Alternative or virtual realities, including those asserted by religion, can thus be tested against what the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz termed "the paramount realities of everyday life."

Play in Culture: The Religious Character of Games

Contest and representation are basic aspects of play, argued the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his manifesto Homo Ludens, and they may "unite in such a way that the game 'represents' a contest or else becomes a contest for the best representation of something" (1955, p. 13). The materials of games are drawn from the sociocultural world and at the same time stand in figurative relationsmetaphoric, analogical, symbolicwith it. "The more profound, double sense of 'social game,'" said the German sociologist Georg Simmel, "is not only that the game is played in a society (as its external medium) but that, with its help, people actually 'play' 'society'," including the society of the gods (1950, p. 50). Particularly where enjoyment, competition, and gambling supply strong motivations to attend to the progress and outcome of games, this setting of the empirical world in juxtaposition with "another" world can lead to an interrogation of their relationship sufficient to involve ultimate epistemological questions and functional necessities of human existence. On this general ground, the appearance of game forms in the religious mythologies and cults of various peoples has been explained by writers and scholars, some of whom have gone on to find in the ludic process a mode of transcendence and, therefore, an essential aspect of the religious imagination itself.

Among Western humanists, Huizinga has perhaps been the boldest in this regard. In Homo Ludens, he argued for "the identity of play and ritual" and even claimed, on the authority of Plato, that the sacred can be comprised in the category of play (pp. 1819). "God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness," so Huizinga translated Plato (Laws 7.803), "but man is made God's plaything, and that is the best part of him. What then is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win the contest." Whether Plato really meant to identify "play and holiness" so thoroughly can be disputed. Moreover, as the final clause of Huizinga's reading of Plato suggests, classicists have found reason to doubt that the "for-their-own-sake" character Huizinga believed crucial to "true play and games" was really present or developed in classical Greek ideology.

From the famous stadium games to the isomorphic agonistic ethos and format in other cultural domains, elements that together comprise what historians and sociologists from Jakob Burckhardt (18981902) to Alvin W. Gouldner (1965) have styled the "Greek contest system," functional requirements, inextricably civic and religious, do not appear to have been culturally "bracketed off" as contingencies in the classical world, as they have been in that stream of European thought that Huizinga so well represented. In Greek mythology and theology, in notable contrast to Christianity, the gods themselves played games, chartered the games of human beings, and intervened in them as "co-players." In athletic gamesas the poetry of Pindar makes evocatively plainindividual fate, the polity, and the divine world found a preferential idiom of communication in archaic and classical Greek culture, such that an axis mundi, in the sense discussed by Mircea Eliade, could be created in the person of the victorious athlete.

The Olympic games, the Delphic oracle, and Homeric poetry emerged together in the eighth century bce as pan-Hellenic institutions, just as the segmentary and rivalrous city-state was arising as the dominant form of social organization within the Greek world. Relations among these key institutions are apparent in the traditions of the ancient Olympic games. Homeric theology and hero cults came to inform the charter myths of the games at Olympia, and a famous oracle at Delphi (where crown games were also celebrated) "renewed" the sanction from Zeus, to whose worship the Olympic festival was devoted. The great games gave rise to practices seeking to distinguish Greek from non-Greek (barbaroi were not to compete at Olympia) and to mediate between Greek mythic and human time. Though its significance is much debated, the reckoning of dates according to the formula "in the second year of the Olympiad in which so-and-so won the stade " provided Greece with her main calendar of historical time beyond city-state and regional limitations.

One mythic tradition ascribes the foundation of the Olympic games to Idean Herakles, another to Pelops's victory over King Oenomaus in a chariot race for the latter's daughter Hippodamia ("horse woman"). Here, as in the related story of Atalanta in the Greek corpus and in other Indo-European contexts, comparative mythologists such as James G. Frazer, Georges Dumézil, Eliade, and Bernard Jeu have recognized a repeated pattern associating sacred marriage (hieros gamos ), an implicit theogony (often of newer gods over older ones), the acquisition of transforming technology (fire, the horse, metallurgy, the chariot), the domestication of invader kings ("Dorians" in the Greek case), and the athletic race that embodies, mediates, and "resolves" these generative contests between vigorous and dying god-kings, male and female, earth and heaven, nature and culture, cosmos and history.

Games transform ambiguous, perturbed, or disputed potentials and conditions into certain outcomes, and this is one reason for their widespread association, in myth or in practice, with such ritualized natural and social transitions as seasonal cycles, birth, initiation, marriage, funerals, and warfare. Furthermore, games necessarily incorporate a dialectic between hierarchy and equality, two central organizing principles of human social arrangements and cognitive functioning. From an (at least asserted or presumed) equality before the rules of the game results a ranked hierarchy of outcomes. Societies and theologies differ in the relative valuation placed on hierarchy and equality in human and divine affairs and, thus, differentially emphasize one or the other pole in games. Yet for all known social types, games appear, in the expression of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, to be "good to think with" and, as the present-day Olympic games forcefully illustrate, may permit highly diverse and rivalrous social formations to compete cooperatively. If games have been seen as "the moral equivalent of war," it is because warfare and other means of political and ideological domination, including religion, have their moral dimensions.

Ingomar Weiler (1981) finds the "contest system" not limited to Greece but widespread in the ancient Mediterranean world, and scholars like Huizinga emphasize parallels to the Greek and Roman materials in non-Western warrior-states. In the Hindu Mahābhārata, the world is conceived as a game of dice between Śiva and his queen (8.2368, 8.2381), and a dice match for the kingdom sets off the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pāavas that organizes the epic. "I am the dicing of tricksters," says Ka in the Bhagavadgītā (10.36), and forms of līlā, or sacred play, are widely associated with this god and his worship. According to Marcel Granet (1930), the Chinese cosmic duality of yin and yang replayed important social dualisms; festal, magical competitions of many sorts were both the central agencies for regenerating life in the early "tribal" period and a means by which the later transformation to state institutions was accomplished. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset likewise argued for the "sportive origin of the state" out of primitive institutions of ritual contest involving both cosmological and social sanctions.

The ethnology of nonliterate "primitive" societies provided further rich material for such humanistic speculations. In his elaborate compendium Games of the North American Indians, Stewart Culin observed the common occurrence of game motifs in the origin myths of a wide variety of linguistically and culturally unrelated tribes. The complementarity in rivalry of the "divine twins"associated with oppositions between night and day, winter and summer, east and west, morning and evening stars, consanguinal and affinal kinor of a demiurgic First Man or First Woman with monsters, nature, or each other is a widespread motif. In folklore, culture-creating heroesCoyote, Raven, or Spiderare frequently trickster beings whose fondness for games, as with other supernaturals, is both a source of their power and a means by which they can be manipulated for human moral or material purposes. As to adult human games, which he divided into those of "chance" and those of "dexterity," Culin concluded that "In general, [they] appear to be played ceremonially, as pleasing to the gods, with the object of securing fertility, causing rain, giving and prolonging life, expelling demons, or curing sickness" (Culin, 1975, p. 34).

Theories Regarding the "Desacralization" of Games

This stress on the religious character of games in the cultures of exotic or prestigiously ancestral "others" was generated by and contributed to those broader evolutionist trends of European thought variously styled "rationalization," "modernization," and "secularization." Huizinga and other philosophers of history, while seeking to show the essential unity of humankind in play, nevertheless saw games as becoming progressively "secularized" through "universal cultural history." British classicists, most notably Jane E. Harrison, proposed the view that gameslike such other forms of cultural expression as theater, dance, music, and poetryhad separated from an original religious ritual matrix in the primitive and ancient worlds. Where games were seen to retain magical or religious elements, such as peasant Shrovetide football matches in the "folk cultures" of early modern France and England or the grand sumō tournaments of Shintō Japan or the various martial arts competitions in monastic communities of the Near and Far East, these were interpreted as backward "survivals" of an archaic past in "fossil" social structures still partially attuned in cult to cosmological and agricultural rhythms. Such views fit well with the nineteenth-century development of Western social science, centered around a purported evolutionary passage"of potentially universal significance," as Max Weber put itfrom "traditional" to "modern" societies under the impact of the industrial revolution and modern science. From important means by which communities represented their ultimate concerns to themselves and engaged in imitative worship, games became associated, in such Western eyes, with the sphere of secular leisure, recreation, mass entertainment: "mere games" of undoubted commercial or social value but of little sacred or spiritual significance.

While still very influential, the "modernization" point of view has been criticized as Eurocentric and imperialist. Moreover, social history has shown that in the West itself religion has not regularly and inevitably declined and that the cultural history of forms like games has not followed any simple unilinear pattern. As symbolized by the emperor Theodosius's suppression of the Olympic games as a "pagan rite," early Christianity did indeed oppose itself to Greek (and certainly Roman) traditions of public games, save in the appropriation of athletics as an ascetic metaphor by canonical writers like the apostle Paul. A centuries-long tradition culminating in continental and English "puritanism" did seek to suppress games, gambling, and other forms of folk amusement as "works of the devil" that turned the Christian away from sober religious duty, the social predominance of the churches, and disciplined labor. Through much of the twentieth century, religious leaders and sociologists alike have attributed declining church attendance, where it has occurred, in part to the increasing popularity of sports events and other kinds of mass recreation on the Sabbath.

Yet contrary trends are everywhere in evidence. In the Middle Ages, the church may have turned against the cult of the body in athletic games, but it attached itself to the medieval tournament. In the contemporary palio horse race of Siena, Italy, which dates back to the eleventh century, the cult of the Virgin Mary and priestly blessings of the rival contrade are central features of the ritual contest. In nineteenth-century England, devout Anglican schoolmasters and Christian socialists, like Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, played the central role in elaborating the ideology of "muscular Christianity," that combination of athletic games, virility, fair play, courage, and defense of the weak associated with a new imitatio Christi, on the one side, and with English colonialism, on the other. Many contemporary English soccer clubs are descended from church organizations, and missionaries in the British Empire sought not only to suppress the indigenous games of conquered peoples, particularly those with overt sexual and magical content, but to replace them with cricket, soccer, hockey, and running as "schools of Christian character." Upon decolonization in "new nations"as East African long-distance running, Trobriand and Caribbean cricket, and Indian field hockey indicatethese game forms have often been retained, but transformed to reaccommodate indigenous cultural values or to serve "civil" or "national" religion, whether in the form of an explicit cult of the state or a more diffuse "functional equivalent" of traditional religious institutions. In dialectical concert with enduring ludic forms bent to "nativist" purposesWest African wrestling, Native American running (see Nabokov, 1981), central Asian buzkashi, Japanese sumō, or the Balinese cockfight made famous by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1972)such transformations of imposed forms illustrate the inadequacies of any unilineal or evolutionary theory of world history and the place of games within it. Again in the Judeo-Christian context, home of such theories, present-day developmentsfrom a skiing pope, decorated with the Olympic Order, to the incipient interlock between the directorates of the World Council of Churches and the International Olympic Committee, to the widespread activity of Christian athletes in domestic and foreign missionizingfurther illustrate the labile relations between religion and games. Nor are such relations limited to practical and institutional exigencies. The recent "theology of play" movement in Christian religious circles (see Moltmann, 1972), with its rebellious attempt to reshape the image of the deity and its arguments that in the freedom and joy of games and festivity humans achieve a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, suggests how the potentials for transcendence in play must ever draw religion into a dialogue with ludic form and experience. Even religions whose orthodox or mainstream versions may find less explicit place for play in their theophanies, cults, and ethicsJudaism, Christianity, and Islam, perhaps in contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism, and many tribal religionsmust preoccupy themselves with what comparative religionist David L. Miller (1970, p. 14) calls "the game game," that effort to discover, articulate, and conform to an "ultimate reality" that sets a limit to divine and human manipulation.

Games and Social Life

Dissatisfaction with evolutionist or modernization perspectives has led to closer attention by theorists to the types and internal properties of games. The French sociologist of religion Roger Caillois suggested in Man, Play, and Games (1961) that games can be usefully placed along a continuum from paidia (relatively unstructured, spontaneous, labile forms typified by many children's games) to those of ludus (more conventionalized, jural, and elaborated forms). All true games, however, minimally involve specification of a goal for action, delimitations of space and time, selection of some subset of possibilities in a total action field as relevant and permissible (the "moves" of the game), rules for the initial apportioning of resources and roles and their reapportioning in the course of play, and criteria for evaluating the outcomes (success or failure, winning or losing). By selectively emphasizing features of this core structure of games, a number of classification schemes have been generated to reveal dominant metaphysical assumptions and to model theoretically how individuals and groups "play society."

Like most continental game theorists, Caillois focused on the experiential aspects of game types. Seeking not merely a sociology of games but a "sociology derived from games," Caillois subsumed all games under four categories: agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). This scheme is helpful in parsing the religious functions associated with types of games: cosmological, eschatological, moral contests; divination; imitative magic and ceremonial; altered states of consciousness. But it has generated little insight of a truly comparative nature. Actual games contain combinations of these aspectsall games are in some sense competitive, for exampleand all religions accommodate these functions. The insights of psychoanalysis, which sees in play and games the disguised representation of unconscious conflicts and a compulsion to repeat "primitive" traumas so as to master them, have been limited by inattention to cultural context and to the complexity and variety of game forms. Continental structuralism of the psychological sort associated with Piaget finds an important place for children's games in characterizing mental development, and the anthropological sort associated with Lévi-Strauss (1966, pp. 3033) has revealed much of the symbolic "logic of the concrete" that connects games to myth, ritual, and kinship. Yet in the search for universal structures of mind these theories also overlook social and historical context, and their contributions have been largely methodological.

British and North American social scientists, on the other hand, have largely focused on the strategic and role-playing aspects of games, exploring them from the functional standpoint of social integration, decision making, and value transmission. "Game theory" in the social and information sciences has produced taxonomies of rational calculation and strategic choice among individual actors seeking to maximize their payoffs in the face of uncertainty and limited resources. Critics, however, have found "game theory" to be a fundamental misnomer, since play, under its aspects of intrinsic motivation and Batesonian framing, is missing or unaccounted for in such understandings of social action. "Game theory" has contributed little to the analysis of specifically religious institutions.

Social psychologists have focused on the role playing and socialization features of games to construct fundamental questions about the organization of the self itself. George Herbert Mead pointed to the youngster's ability to play a single position in a baseball game while articulating that role with all of the others on the field as a sign of and a means toward development of a "reflexive self," incorporating the expectations of others in the context of the "generalized other" represented by the total game. Erving Goffman (1967, 1974) still further stressed the aspects of role-playing, mimicry, dissimulation, and the "rules for breaking the rules" in building an explicit theory from the now popular metaphorical utterance, "social life is a game." The human self is seen by Goffman to be endlessly preoccupied with "the arts of impression management," ludic yet ever-watchful to define situations so as to prevent embarrassment to oneself and others. Like formal "game theory," social psychologies built from the model of games have contributed less to the understanding of social institutions per se, including religious ones, than they have to understanding individual and small-group processes of negotiation. At the same time, such theories do implicitly challenge authoritative ontologies and conventional understandings of divine affairs in Western cultures.

While games undoubtedly serve to reproduce or to rebel against dominant social structures and ideologies, they have been seen by recent anthropologists as speculative enterprises as well, means by which human communities discover their dominant values in the first place and formulate alternatives to them. Victor Turnerwho like Huizinga saw cultural life as a process of passage from institutional structure to ludic, "antistructural" recombination, to the incrustations of structure once againextended analysis of religious ritual to understand play forms in this way (1974). Clifford Geertz (1972), who sees the interpretation of experiences as in and of itself a human necessity, argues that the Balinese cockfight is a form of "social metacommentary," a "story the Balinese tell about themselves," a function likewise ascribed to religious ritual. Other anthropologists (Don Handelman and I, for example) find it important to stress the differences between games and ritual as collective hermeneutics. On the Batesonian level of metacommunication, ritual does seem to be framed differently from play. Ritual asserts a priori that all statements within it are true and not untrue and creates a world of "let us believe" rather than of "let us make believe."

Such distinctions make it possible to recognize complex performance types that incorporate both rite and game, like the palio or the Olympics, and depend for their power on moving actors and audiences back and forth from frame to frame. Then too, activities are reframed through the course of a people's history. Alexander Lesser (1978) has shown how the Pawnee hand game passed from a form of amusement to a religious salvation ritual and back again between 1865 and 1930, a process reminiscent of athletics in nineteenth-century England. What is discovered as possible (or impossible) in play and given organized display in games may be asserted by ritual as undeniable. Whether this is the essential relation between games and religion we will not know until greater conceptual clarity and theoretical sophistication are brought to bear on the vast new findings in the ethnology and social history of games, such that a ludic equivalent to Max Weber's comparative "economic ethics of the world religions" is achieved.

See Also

Gambling; Martial Arts; Play; Reflexivity.


The charter discussion of the Greek "agonistic" system is found in Jakob Burckhardt's Griechische Kulturgeschichte, 4 vols. (Berlin, 18981902), translated by Palmer Hilty in abridged form as History of Greek Culture (New York, 1963). On the classical world, see also Alvin W. Gouldner's Enter Plato (New York, 1965). In the soundest scholarly guide to athletic games in the ancient Mediterranean world, Sport bei den Völkern der alten Welt (Darmstadt, 1981), Ingomar Weiler argues against the uniqueness of Greece in this area, a position taken by Johan Huizinga as well. Huizinga's Homo Ludens (Boston, 1955) remains the essential manifesto on the role of play in culture, including relationships between games and religion. Victor Turner extends his discussion of religious ritual to include the role of play in culture in "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow and Ritual," Rice University Studies 60 (Summer 1974): 5392.

Roger Caillois presents a taxonomy of games, intended both to refine Huizinga's insights and to organize cross-cultural material in more useful fashion, in Man, Play, and Games (New York, 1961). Among ethnological compendia on games in "primitive" societies, Stewart Culin's Games of the North American Indians (1907; Washington, D.C., 1975) has been the most widely cited. On running as practiced by Native Americans, see Peter Nabokov's Indian Running (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1981). Anthropological case studies of special value include Alexander Lesser's The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game (Madison, Wis., 1978) and Clifford Geertz's "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cock Fight," Daedalus 101 (1972): 138. On China, see Marcel Granet's Chinese Civilization (London, 1930).

David L. Miller's Gods and Games (New York, 1970) is indicative of the Christian "theology of play" movement and contains valuable discussions of the role of games in contemporary existential, linguistic, and mathematical philosophy. Also see Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Play (New York, 1972).

Gregory Bateson's fundamental contribution to understanding play and games as forms of metacommunication is contained in "A Theory of Play and Fantasy," in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York, 1972). Erving Goffman develops the view of social life as a game in several works, including Interaction Ritual (Garden City, N.Y., 1967) and Frame Analysis (New York, 1974). Also see Georg Simmel's discussion on social reality as play in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff (Glencoe, Ill., 1950). On the role of play in human development, see D. W. Winnicott's Playing and Reality (London, 1971). Claude Lévi-Strauss's discussion of the different logics of games and rituals is found in his The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1966). Don Handelman considers related problems in his "Play and Ritual: Complementary Forms of Metacommunication" in It's a Funny Thing, Humour, edited by A. J. Chapman and H. Foot (London, 1977), pp. 135192. Complex performance forms joining games and rites are the subject of my "Olympic Games and the Theory of Spectacle in Modern Societies," in Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle (Philadelphia, 1984), pp. 241280.

John J. MacAloon (1987)


views updated May 18 2018





Children’s Toys. The Greeks were a competitive people and loved to play games. Children had more time for play than adults did, and many of their toys were similar to ones used today: for small children, rattles, animal figurines, dolls, miniature houses, and pull toys such as chariots and carts. As they grew older they played with tops, hoops, balls, and knucklebones (the equivalent of dice). Marbles was a popular game, although the marbles would have been made of stone, bone, or some other material instead of glass. (One story claims that the suitors of Penelope played the game as a way of deciding who would have first claim on marrying her.) There were also other small games of skill, such as trying to throw nuts into a circle or bowl (a juvenile version of kottabos). Surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the Greeks had yo-yos—double disks made of metal or wood, joined by a short cylindrical bar that a string could be wound around. There are even terracotta versions of these, surviving from shrines where they were dedicated by youths: upon reaching adulthood, children would dedicate their toys to a god. In many cases, however, they offered not the toys themselves, but instead terracotta representations of them—perhaps the original toys were lost, they were being used by a younger sibling, or the young person making the dedication was not quite through playing with them.

Modern Equivalents. Among games involving physical activity were versions of leapfrog and hopscotch; playing with seesaws and swings and giving piggyback rides were also common. There are vase paintings showing balancing games—in particular a game played by adolescents which involved balancing on a greased wineskin. Many of the more physical games shade over into training and athletic competition.

Adult Activities. Adult games were often continuations of childhood games, and if they were competitive in nature, the stakes were raised. Ball games were popular from early on: in Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.) the noise of princess Nausicaa playing catch with her attendants awakens the sleeping Odysseus. Balls were made of strips of leather sewn together and could be stuffed with hair or feathers (a hair-stuffed ball would be hard, like a baseball; feathers would be much softer); some balls may have been inflated with air if made from animal bladders. Team sports were not popular among the Greeks, but ball-playing may have been an exception. One relief from sixth-century Athens shows a man throwing a ball to a group of waiting companions in what looks like a throw-in from out of bounds. Another relief shows two men poised to hit at a ball with curved sticks, similar to a hockey face-off (in this case their companions seem to be standing around waiting their turn, rather than participating). A black-figured vase shows pairs of men, one riding on the other’s shoulders, vying for a ball about to be tossed to them by a companion. The Spartans, not surprisingly, found a military use for ball play and invented games in order to improve the physical condition of their youth. As the example from the Odyssey shows, ball games were acceptable forms of exercise and play for women, who were excluded from most other forms of athletic competition except in Sparta.

Board Games. Among nonathletic games, board games were popular: one of them, called pessoi, resembled checkers or chess, with players moving oval pieces around a board (divided into thirty-six squares) and into enemy territory. (In the Odyssey, this game was played by Penelope’s suitors to amuse themselves after dinner.) Games of chance were ubiquitous, and almost anything could be turned into a competition or the occasion for a bet. A game called “Odd and Even” was played with small objects (knucklebones, beans, pebbles, and so forth), and there were many dice games. Dice were made out of knucklebones or terracotta and had numbers on each side; the most common game involved throwing three dice, with three sixes being the best result (called “Aphrodite’s throw,” after the goddess of love), and three ones being the worst (called “The Dog”).

Cockfighting. Animal competitions were also an object for betting. There is evidence for fights among dogs, cats, and weasels, but cockfighting was the most common. Rather than being outlawed (as it is in most modern countries), cockfighting was looked upon with favor: in Athens, an annual competition was organized by the city. Raising and training fighting roosters was an object of much attention, especially for upper-class youths: cockfighting was considered an activity that taught manly courage. Roosters were also appropriate as gifts for a man to give an adolescent lover, as various vase paintings show.

Baths. The more vigorous forms of exercise (running, boxing, wrestling) are best considered not as games, but as part of the daily routine that included spending time at the bath, the gumnasion (exercise area), and the palaistra (wrestling area). Baths were common in Greek cities by the fourth century and filled an obvious need in a time when there was little indoor plumbing, space was limited, and water difficult to transport. The earliest baths consisted of a series of small tubs arranged around the wall of a room: too small to recline in, they would allow the lower half of the body to be submerged, with heated water available to be poured over the bather. It was an extension of the sort of bath found in private houses, which was basically a large washbasin. Soap was unknown, although a variety of cleaning agents were used: carbonate of soda, potassium lye, and certain types of dirt and chalk.

Daily Routine. Baths became an important part of the daily routine. Admission to private baths in Athens was cheap, and standards of hygiene for all classes were fairly high. Having a bath before dinner was standard practice: even Socrates, famous for his negligence in matters of hygiene and fashion, is depicted in Plato’s Symposium (circa 380-360 b.c.e.) as having taken a bath before an important dinner party. Baths were well heated at a time when private homes might not be, and Aristophanes jokes about the poor getting burns from standing too close to the fire in the baths. (Spartans, by contrast, rejected hot baths as unmanly, and taking cold baths became fashionable in Athens among those who admired the Spartan way of life.) Eventually, baths large enough to swim in developed, and bathing could be combined with exercise. (Living close to the sea, most Greeks were good swimmers.)


The position of athletes in the Greek world was an honored one, although there were conflicts about what sort of honors were appropriate, and about the value of athletes compared to other members of society, There was often a strong element of class bias: athletes tended to come from well-off families who had enough leisure time to allow for training and competition, and some sources on athletics express clear pro-aristocratic sentiments. The poet Pindar, who was paid by victorious athletes to write odes celebrating their achievements, often praises the aristocratic values of noble birth and inherited excellence, while at the same time exhibiting ambivalence about the process of training. (True excellence had to be inborn, not acquired, although it could be honed with proper instruction.)

One of the main purposes of athletic training was to produce good soldiers; however, athletic performance was a goal in its own right. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus contrasts pure athletic skill and fighting spirit, and Xenophon reports a conversation in which Socrates argues with a young man who says that he does not need to train because he is a private citizen, not a competitive athlete, Socrates reminds him that as a citizen of the folis (city-state), he has an obligation to keep his body in good shape, ready to serve his city at a moment’s notice, Attacking the class of specialized, professional athletes from another perspective, Xenophanes in Poems (circa 560-circa 478 b.c.e.) complains that athletes get more honor than he does as a poet:

Now, supposing a man were to win the prize for the foot race at Qlympia, there where the precinct of Zeus stands beside the river, at Pisa: or if he wins the five-contests, or the wrestling, or if he endures the pain of boxing and wins, or that new and terrible game they call the paakrattoa, contest of aH holds: why, such a man will obtain honor, in the citizens’ sight, and be given a front seat and be on display at all civic occasions, and he would be given his meals all at the public expense, and be given a gift from the city to take and store for safekeeping. If he won with the chariot, too, all this would be granted to him, and yet he would not deserve it, as I do. Better than brute strength of men, or horses either, is the wisdom that is mine. But custom is careless ia all these matters, and there is no justice in putting strength on a level above wisdom which is sound. For if among the people there is one who is a good boxer, or one who excels in wrestling or ia the five-coatests [pentathlon], or else for speed of his feet, and this is prized beyond other feats of strength that mea display ia athletic games, the city will not, on accouat of this maa, have better government.

Exercise. Most of all, baths became a place to hang out and pass time, as were the gumnasion and palaistra. The huge bath complexes of the Roman world had not yet developed, so exercise was done elsewhere, perhaps followed by a trip to the bath. Exercise was an important and popular leisure-time activity, but one with significance for the welfare of the state. In a world in which warfare was common, and in which any male citizen was a potential soldier, developing strength and agility was of more than theoretical importance. The main exercise area was the gumnasion, which originated as a place for training ephebes (young men) for military service. The name comes from the Greek word gumnos, meaning “naked,” since exercise in the nude was common (although not universal). Athletes covered their bodies with oil before exercise, and then sprinkled themselves with a layer of dust or sand: this was thought to protect them from chills and changes in temperature. Exercise was often done to musical accompaniment on the aulos, a sort of double oboe. Afterward athletes scraped themselves with a curved metal tool known as a strigil (having slaves or fellow athletes assist in applying and removing oil was common). Provision of oil was a major expense in running a gumnasion, and there are jokes about misers collecting the used oil for use at home (presumably for lighting lamps rather than for cooking).

Special Sites. Originally a gumnasion might be just an open space, usually with a spring or other water supply, next to a shrine of a god or hero. It was often situated next to a grove of trees (most famously in the case of the Academy, the gumnasion made famous by Plato and his followers); permanent buildings were added at a later stage, starting in the fifth century. Athletic training might also take place in the palaistra (literally, “wrestling area”), which was typically smaller than a gumnasion and devoted to wrestling and other combat sports. It was easy to idealize the setting: a character in Aristophanes’ Clouds (423-418 b.c.e.) reminisces about the old days, when boys spent their time in athletic training rather than learning clever rhetorical tricks: “Ah, I can see you now, as through an idyl moving—you with some companion of your age, modest and manly like you, strolling by the Academy perhaps, or there among the olives, sprinting side by side together, crowned with white reed, breathing with every breath the ecstasy of Spring returning.”

A Place to be Noticed. The gumnasion was, because of its setting, a favorite place to pass the time. Those who were not actively engaged in exercise could watch those who were—in fact, the gumnasion was famous as a place for adult males to watch and meet attractive young men. The Aristophanes passage quoted in the last paragraph goes on to describe in graphic detail the beauty of bodies that could be developed by regular exercise. Similarly, in Plato’s Symposium (circa 380-360 b.c.e.) Alcibiades describes how his attempt to seduce Socrates involved solo wrestling and training in the gumnasion. It was also a place to talk: to gossip, to discuss business or politics, and to devote oneself to intellectual pursuits. By the fourth century, the gumnasion had become a sort of educational center where the leisured classes could enjoy the natural beauty of the setting while discussing philosophy, rhetoric, and science. Plato and his followers frequented the public gumnasion in the Academy district of Athens; similarly, Aristotle established a school in the gumnasion of the Lyceum. The mixed heritage of the gumnasion is illustrated by the subsequent history of the word and other related terms: in English, the academy and academics are synonyms for education, while the gymnasium is a place for exercise. In Germany, a gymnasium is a secondary school; while French and Italian words are derived (lycêe and liceo, respectively) from Aristotle’s Lyceum.

Gymnastics and Dance. The sorts of exercise practiced for educational purposes by children and youths were continued by adults. These activities included gymnastics and dance, for musical training was an important part of education. Dances in armor, in fact, were an important component of military preparation, and armed dance competitions were an important part of some festivals. There was also training for the athletic events practiced in the major festivals such as the Olympian Games: running, long jump, boxing, wrestling, discus, and javelin.

Panhellenic Competitions. There were four major Panhellenic athletic competitions: the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games. The Olympian Games took place in the sacred precinct of Zeus at Olympia, and they were held in the late summer of every fourth year, starting in 776 b.c.e. (the four-year pattern has been copied for the modern Olympic Games). The Pythian Games, dedicated to Apollo, took place at Delphi where they started out as a musical competition. After a reorganization athletic contests (and other musical contests) were added, and starting in 582 b.c.e. the Pythian Games were held every four years, in late summer of the third year of the Olympiad cycle. The Nemean Games, sacred to Zeus, were held in the city of Nemea (in Argos) every two years: in July of the second and fourth year of every Olympiad. The Isthmian Games (held in April or May near Corinth) were also biennial and were dedicated to Poseidon. Thus, every year would have a major athletic competition, and these international events were taken seriously enough so that warfare would be suspended by truce to allow the competitions to take place. A certain set of basic events was contested at all festivals, although special musical or athletic ones were added to some of them.

Races. Running races were short by modern standards, consisting of sprints and middle distances. The most important race was the stadion, which was the length of one stade (192 meters or 210 yards), the length of the stadium at Olympia and other competition sites. (The English word stadium is derived from the Latin word for this distance.) There also existed a diaulos (twice the length of a stadion) and a dolikhos (“long race”) consisting of twelve laps (about 1.4 miles). A race in armor was added to the major festivals near the end of the sixth century. Despite the legendary run of Phidippides from Marathon to Athens, there was no marathon competition: few people other than messengers would ever have a reason to run long distances. Other competitions, such as nighttime torch races in festivals, were of uncertain distance.

Training. Runners ran naked and barefoot on a surface of hard-packed sand. Unlike modern track races, which go around an oval, Greek races longer than a stadion involved turning around a post—probably one post for each lane instead of one central post (as in a chariot race). Technique as well as speed were important, and there are vases that show runners practicing starts. Most race training must have taken place outside the gumnasion, but the pleasant suburban locations of most gumnasia provided ample opportunity to practice nearby. Running was also one sport in which there was female competition: women were able to compete in the stadion race at the Heraia, a festival honoring Hera.

Combat Sports. Wrestling was extremely popular, both in practice and in the imagination. Various myths tell of heroes defeating their opponents in wrestling: Heracles kills the giant Antaeus in this way, and also the Nemean lion; Theseus outwrestled the robber Cercyon. Vase paintings show scenes from real and mythological wrestling and reveal the techniques involved. There were two styles of wrestling: upright and ground wrestling. In the former, victory was achieved by throwing your opponent three times, with any full-body fall counting toward a win (contrast modern wrestling, where the shoulders must be pinned). Ground wrestling would continue after a fall, and victory here was achieved by getting one’s opponent to admit defeat. Since a fall to the ground was to be avoided at all costs, leg takedowns were extremely risky: neck, arm, and body holds were used instead. The athletes’ habit of using oil on their bodies must have increased the difficulty of grabbing an opponent.

Opponents. Wrestling competitions in major festivals involved head-to-head matches, with opponents drawn by lot; weight divisions were unknown, and all competitors were placed in the same pool. (The same procedure was followed for the other combat sports.) An odd number of opponents would lead to one of them having a first-round bye, and it was considered a mark of special distinction to win the competition without having had a bye. Wrestling was practiced as training by men of all ages: in Plato’s Symposium Alcibiades describes wrestling with Socrates, who would have been in his mid-fifties at the time.

Fisticuffs. Boxing is not quite as widely depicted as wrestling, although it is described in Homer’s Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.). Boxers wore gloves, although these were usually designed to protect the hands rather than to soften the blow. (Softer gloves used for training were an exception to this rule.) Technique was somewhat different from modern-day boxing: it seems that body blows were unknown (either illegal or considered improper), so that all attack and defense concerned the head. Hitting an opponent when he was down, however, was permissible, as vase paintings show. Boxing matches took place in large, open areas rather than a ring, so that cornering an opponent was rarely an option. There were no rounds, and the match ended when one opponent raised his hand to signal submission. Boxing was a slow, cautious affair: the lack of a ring, and the need to defend only the head, must have made most matches games of cat and mouse.

Blood Sport. Pankratwn (Greek pagkration) was a mixture of boxing and wrestling: the name implies that every type of force (pan, or “all” + kratos, or “force”) was allowed, and in fact only biting and gouging were forbidden. (Gouging in this case meant putting one’s fingers into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, or mouth.) As with boxing, victory was achieved by getting your opponent to give in, and here the intentional infliction of pain through armlocks, twisting, and strangling were especially effective techniques. A popular technique for getting a stranglehold was called “the ladder,” which involved climbing onto an opponent’s back. Since there was no penalty for taking a fall, remaining upright did not always confer an advantage—most matches were decided on the ground, often with one or both opponents covered with blood and seriously injured. Because of the danger of the sport, it was considered especially prestigious.

Throwing. The discus throw developed from the throwing of any sort of weight made of stone or metal. Surviving examples of the discus vary tremendously in weight, from about three to eighteen pounds (the modern discus for men’s competitions is two kilograms, or 4.4 pounds). Technique was quite a bit different: rather than spinning in a circle, competitors were able to run forward toward a line before their throw. The sort of body twist used is best illustrated by Myron’s famous statue of the Diskobolos (Discus-thrower). At the major festivals the discus was not a stand-alone event, but was contested only as part of the pentathlon.

Javelin. The javelin throw was an event of obvious practical importance for both war and hunting. The chief difference between the ancient and modern javelin competitions is that the Greeks used a throwing strap. This strap was perhaps a foot or a foot-and-a-half in length, and was wound around the shaft of the javelin, with a loop left at the end. The thrower would hook his fingers through the loop while holding the shaft loosely, then throw, using the loop to whip the javelin forward. The unwinding strap would impart a spinning motion to the javelin, thus increasing the distance and the accuracy (a similar principle applies to bullets, which are given a spinning motion by the rifling in gun barrels). At the four major Panhellenic festivals the javelin was a part of the pentathlon, but at the Panathenaic Games there was a separate, highly prestigious competition for throwing the javelin from horseback.

Jumping. The long jump was another event contested only as part of the pentathlon. It was a running jump, with runners landing in soft sand (they would traditionally dig out their own landing pits) and taking off from a board of wood or stone. The evidence from vase paintings shows that technique was similar to that of modern athletes—for example, keeping the legs well in front of the body while in the air. The chief difference between ancient and modern technique is that the Greeks used weights, called haltêres, to increase the distance of their jump. The weights (made of stone, with handles on top, or cut into semicircular shapes) would be brought forward on approach, and then swung backward on takeoff. Modern experimentation has shown that this practice can increase the length of the jump considerably, although the famous statistic that Phayllus of Croton jumped fifty-five feet is obviously a fiction. Less formal competitions probably included standing jumps, although there is no good evidence for competition in the high jump.

Other Events. Horse and horse-drawn chariot races were extremely prestigious events at the major festivals. As was the case with the longer running events, the course consisted of a series of out-and-back loops, with a 180-degree left-hand turn made around a fixed post. Unlike running courses, however, horse-race courses were longer (about six hundred yards) and were furnished with a single post at each end (rather than a post for each lane); thus, fighting for position and making a tight turn were matters requiring great skill and daring. Racing was a dangerous sport, yet the glory was given not to the rider or charioteer, but to the person who owned (and perhaps trained) the horses. Equestrian events were the province of those who had substantial financial resources, and winning a prize in the major festivals could be a boost to a political career: the Athenian Alcibiades was famous for his chariot victories, as were the tyrants who ruled the wealthy Greek cities of Sicily.

Team Competition. Team sports were absent from the major festivals, although some of the surviving visual evidence suggests that team-based ball games existed outside of the context of formal competition. The Greeks were a highly competitive people, and it is significant that they held competitions not only in athletics, but in drama, music, poetry, and public speaking. However, that competition was almost always on an individual basis, and it has been said that warfare was the only team sport they really enjoyed. Fair play was something given far less emphasis than in present-day society: the idea of being a “good winner” or a “good loser” was foreign to the Greeks. Pindar, writing odes to honor victors in wrestling competitions, takes delight in contrasting their victorious homecoming with the unhappy returns of their defeated opponents, who “slink along back alleyways, shunning enemy eyes and nursing pain, the bite of defeat.” Pindar’s attitudes were consistent with conventional Greek morality, in which it was considered normal to help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies: taking delight in the suffering of a foe was nothing to be ashamed of.

Cheating. The lack of sportsmanship is also evident in the prevalence of cheating at the games. Strict rules, oaths to the gods, and careful observation by referees were necessary measures to ensure fair competition. Even so, controversies arose, which was not surprising considering the occasionally high stakes. In addition to glory (which was especially important in the highly competitive male Greek society), there were sometimes substantial financial rewards. Amateurism was unknown in the ancient world: although the four major festivals gave out only crowns of olive, celery, or laurel, victorious athletes often received prizes, either from the festival organizers (at the Panathenaia, the award took the form of large, decorated jars full of olive oil) or from the grateful citizens of their native cities. At Athens, for example, victorious athletes were entitled to receive free meals for life in the public dining room known as the prutaneion (where meals were also given to visiting dignitaries). Xenophanes, writing in the sixth century b.c.e., was the first person in the Western tradition to complain that athletes received too much attention while philosophers and intellectuals received too little.


An extremely important activity for women in ancient Greece was weaving. It was the most visible of women’s contributions to the economic health of the oikos (household), but in addition acquired tremendous symbolic importance. Weaving became a metaphor for skill, craftiness, and ultimately for storytelling; the English word text derives from a Latin word meaning “something woven,” and storytelling today is referred to as “spinning a yarn.” These associations go all the way back to the earliest days of Greek literature, as the following passages from Homer illustrate. In the first, from Book Three of the Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), Iris (messenger of the gods) has come to fetch Helen from her home:

She came on Helen in the chamber; she was weaving a great web, a red folding robe, and working into it the numerous struggles of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaians, struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.

Here Helen, the boldest and most self-aware of Greek heroines, is weaving a decorative tapestry, and one which tells a story: in fact, the same story Homer himself is telling, that of the Trojan War being fought for possession of Helen.

The second passage, from the Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), shows the craft of Penelope. Her husband Odysseus has been away from home for twenty years, and various suitors have begun to demand that she leave her house and remarry. She uses weaving as a ruse to evade them, as one of the suitors complains:

She set up a great loom in her palace, and set to weaving a web of threads long and fine. Then she said to us: “Young men, my suitors now that the great Odysseus has perished, wait, though you are eager to marry me, until 1 finish this web, so that my weaving will not be useless and wasted. This is a shroud for the hero Laertes [her father-in-law], for when the destructive doom of death which lays men low shall take him, lest any Achaian woman in this neighborhood hold it against me that a man of many conquests lies with no sheet to wind him.” So she spoke, and the proud heart in us was persuaded. Thereafter in the daytime she would weave at her great loom, but in the night she would have torches set by, and undo it. So for three years she was secret in her design, convincing the Achaians, but when the fourth year came with the seasons returning, one of her women, who knew the whole of the story, told us, and we found her in the act of undoing her glorious weaving. So, against her will and by force, she had to finish it.


Moses I. Finley and H.W. Picket, The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years (London: Chatto &Windus, 1976).

Robert Flaceliere, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles, translated by Peter Green (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

E. Norman Gardiner, Athletics of the Ancient World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930).

Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

David C. Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics (Chicago: Ares, 1984).


views updated May 23 2018


Jews, like all other peoples, have played games from earliest times. There are ample references to games in the Bible. Guessing games were played in biblical days (Judg. 14: 12ff.; i Kings 10:1–3). Jews were also acquainted with sports and military games such as horseback riding, racing, and archery (i Sam. 20:20–21; Jer. 12:5; Ps. 19:6). Twelve young men from Benjamin waged a fencing contest with twelve of David's followers (ii Sam. 2:14ff.). Children played at home and in the streets (Zech. 8:5). During the Second Temple period, games of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman origin were introduced into Israel. Jews rarely originated games, usually adopting them from their neighbors. There are many reports on the mass games held on the nights of Sukkot during the Feast of Water Drawing. The leaders of the people, such as Hillel the Elder and Simeon b. Gamaliel, took an active part in the proceedings. The levites played and danced on the steps, and platforms were erected from which the people could view the scene. Here men and women mixed together, although in later times they were separated at social functions. The national leaders set the tone by engaging in acrobatic exercises, in dancing and juggling with eight burning torches, knives, or eggs (Suk. 5:1–4; Tosef. Suk. 4:1–5). The custom of holding youth festivals in the vineyards was observed as late as the Second Temple period (Ta'an. 4:8). Traces of it are still found in the traditions observed by some communities, such as Caucasia and Yemen, on the conclusion of the Day of Atonement.

The paraphernalia of games in ancient times included nuts, fruits, eggs, balls, bones, and stones. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'an. 4:8, 69a) states "Tur-Shimon <?> was destroyed because its inhabitants played ball" (on the Sabbath, see Korban ha-Edah, ad loc.). Certain games with nuts and apples were played by women on the Sabbath (Er. 104a). Other games mentioned in the Talmud are akin to modern dominoes, checkers, and chess. There was betting (on pigeon races, called "Mafriḥei Yonim") and *gambling with dice. Persons who engaged in these pursuits were not regarded as trustworthy witnesses (San. 3:3). Weddings were another occasion for joyous play. To fulfill the commandment of helping the bridal pair to rejoice, the sages would leave their studies and perform juggling tricks, pour oil and wine, and dance with the bride on their shoulders (Ket. 17a). Holding live fowl in their hands, they would dance before the bride or clap their hands and stamp their feet (Git. 57a). The tradition of merrymaking in honor of the bride and groom developed further in the Middle Ages with the Marshalek, a professional comedian who would amuse the wedding party by telling jokes, extemporaneously composing songs, and putting on various acts. Weddings were a time for the abandonment of restraint, when public entertainment was permitted. A "guard" of men wearing extravagant uniforms, some of them mounted on horses, accompanied the bridal parade, dancing women beat cymbals, and children raced along with burning torches. Bearded old men danced and clapped their hands, or sang songs and prayers.

Under the new medieval environment in which the Jews found themselves, the form of entertainment likewise changed. The carnival made its way into the Jewish quarter, and on *Purim especially there would be masquerades, death dances, stage shows, and street parades. Purim was the only season of the year during which Jewish communities, in all times and places, observed unlimited rejoicing. The period of merrymaking began on the first of Adar, when wandering musicians appeared in the Jewish quarter. People donned Purim costumes and danced in the streets, and stage shows were performed with the story of Esther and Ahasuerus as their theme. Young men on horseback amused the public by trying to push one another off their mounts. Children made stuffed dolls and burnt Haman in effigy. Shots were fired, and the sound of the "grager" (noisemaker) filled the air. Jews in Italy held sports tournaments in which boys fought on foot throwing nuts, while their fathers rode on horses, and, amidst a background of horns and bugles blowing, attacked a model of Haman with wooden staves, later burning it on a mock funeral pyre. In some communities, such as Hebron, Yemen, and Baghdad, Ḥanukkah was observed in a similar manner, though on a smaller scale, as was Simḥat Torah and the second day of Shavuot. In the yeshivot, the great occasion for play was Purim. Preparations would start right after Ḥanukkah, and the usual theme for the play was "The Sale of Joseph" or "David and Goliath." Young artisans would also put on Purim plays, their favorite theme being the Esther story. In Sephardi communities, the play would be a parody based on the life of Esther, Haman's wedding to Zeresh, Haman's funeral, etc. In Iraq and other communities, a Haman figure would be put up on Purim to serve as a target for young and old alike. The games played at home were *cards, *chess, dominoes, and checkers. Card playing was sharply condemned, and the rabbis often excluded card players from religious functions and social life. Yet the habit persisted. The 14th century *Kalonymus b. Kalonymus in his Even Bohan sharply criticized those card players who reduced their opponents to utter despair. Maimonides compared such persons who gamble to robbers (Yad, Gezelah ve-Avedah 6:7). A synod in Forli, Italy, enacted a ruling in 1416 that the Jewish community must refrain from playing dice, cards, and other games of chance, except on fast days and in time of illness, in order to relieve the distress. Similar measures were taken in Bologna and Hamburg. The numerical value of the letters making up karten (Yid. for cards) was found to be the same as that of "Satan," and hence a pious Jew should keep away from them. The 17th century Ḥavvot Ya'ir of Jair Ḥayyim *Bacharach permitted card playing without money on Ḥanukkah, Purim, and *hol ha-mo'ed (p. 126). On Christmas eve, playing for money was tolerated. Leone Modena was plagued by his obsessive love for card playing. The rabbis of Venice issued a ruling in 1628 ex-communicating any member of a congregation who played cards, and there were many instances of oaths taken by individuals who wanted to avoid all games of chance. In the course of time, Yiddish terms were introduced into the card games: a six became a "vover" (the letter "vav" having the numerical value of six), a seven a "zayner," a nine a "teser"; hearts became "lev" and trumps were "yom tov" (holiday). The card deck was called the small "Shas" (the Talmud) or the "Tillim'l" (the Book of Psalms), etc. Chess, on the other hand, was a respected pastime, although some rabbis disapproved of the game. There was a legend ascribing its invention to King Solomon. Rashi observed that chess drives boredom away and causes the player to contemplate (Ket. 61b). Poets and philosophers set down the rules of the game, and R. Abraham *Ibn Ezra composed a poem on it, as did Bonsenior ibn Yahia in the 15th century (both translated into Latin by Thomas Hyde in De Ludis Orientalium, Oxford, 1694). There were rabbis who excelled in the game of chess. One legend has it that R. Simeon, the chief rabbi of Mainz (11th century), played chess with the pope and recognized in him his long lost son. The Magen Avraham of Abraham Abele b. Hayyim ha-Levi *Gombiner (17th century) tells of people who had special silver chess sets for use on the Sabbath. Here, too, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were introduced into the game. Checkers was also a popular game. Yeshivah students would draw a checkerboard on the blank inside cover of the Talmud volume and make their own black and white pieces of wood. Rabbi Nahum of Stefanesti found in the game an allegory of life: you take one step in order to gain two. You must not take two steps at once. You may only go up; once you have reached the top, you may go wherever you like (A.Y. Sperling, Ta'amei ha-Minhagim (1957), 367).

The world of children in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities was a world of games. For every holiday the Jewish child prepared special toys, made from whatever material was available, with the assistance of the rabbi in the ḥeder or of older children. The Jewish child was said to be a jack-of-all-trades: on Passover he makes holes in the maẓẓot, on Shavuot he becomes a gardener, on Lag ba-Omer he is a soldier, on Sukkot a builder, on Ḥanukkah he pours lead, on Purim he is a gunsmith, and for Rosh Ha-Shanah he trains as a trumpeter (to blow the shofar). For Ḥanukkah the boys would prepare a "dreydel" (a four-sided top), either carving it out of wood or pouring lead into a form. This game is still popular and has also been adopted by Yemeni and Sephardi children. It came upon the Jewish scene in the early Middle Ages, and the four sides of the dreydel were marked with the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, He, Shin (standing for Yiddish words Nimm, Gib, Halb, Shtell meaning take, give, half, and put). Soon, however, the letters were interpreted as standing for the Hebrew Nes Gadol Hayah Sham ("a great miracle happened there"). In modern Israel the last word was changed to Po, so as to read "a great miracle happened here." Dreydel spinning was one form of Ḥanukkah gambling. Older children made their own Yiddish cards known as "Lamed-Alef-niks" or "Kvitlakh." For Purim, noise-making toys, "gragers" or boxes, to drown the sound of Haman's name in the synagogue reading of the Book of Esther, masks, costumes, and Haman dolls were made by young folk. Passover games were played with walnuts. For Lag ba-Omer the equipment was bows and arrows, and the children spent the day in the woods, engaging in various warlike operations under the command of the "Lag ba-Omer general." On Shavuot girls decorated the windows with paper roses, and the boys brought field flowers and ivy from the forest and adorned the doors, windows, and lamps. There was also a custom of piercing eggs, emptying them of their contents, drawing a string through the empty shells, gluing feathers to them, and hanging them up in the open to swing in the wind like birds. On the eve of the Ninth of Av children armed themselves with wooden swords and played as soldiers fighting the Turks for possession of Ereẓ Israel. The "Rabbi" game in which boys mimicked their teachers was popular between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, when children were free from punishment. Even adults enjoyed this game on Purim. Throughout the year in their spare time children played war games (often based on biblical themes), cops and robbers, hide-and-go-seek, "Simple Simon," etc. More sedate games were played with buttons, pocketknives, heads or tails, paper cutouts, and drawing on walls.

Concerning adults, there are records of Jews dueling. In Spain, some enjoyed wearing arms, considering themselves knights, and using stately names. In Provence, Jews used trained falcons in hawking while riding horses. Occasionally, they joined Christian friends in hunting, although they could not eat the game killed that way because of the *dietary laws (see Cruelty to *Animals and *Hunting). All ages enjoyed a variety of word games, often based on biblical verses. A "samekh-pe" game, relating to finding open or closed lines in the Pentateuch, was popular. The "Moses" game was played by children who would turn to pages of the Bible and compete with each other to be the first to locate the Hebrew letters of Moses' name among the last letters on the page. Letter games with *Gematria, i.e., in which corresponding words and phrases were searched for with each having the same numerical value, were enjoyed, e.g., the identical numerical value of the Hebrew phrases for "blessed is Mordecai" and "cursed be Haman." Riddles were a form of amusement, and early examples were found in the series of moral riddles in the 13th chapter of Proverbs. *Eḥad mi Yode'a, a song from the Passover seder, is an illustration. Hebrew *acrostics were popular, combined with arithmetical puzzles. Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote several of these, some expressly for Ḥanukkah. Judah Ha levi also composed poetic riddles. In the 13th century riddles about general folk legends like "Solomon and Marcom" were also known to Jews. Yet at this time the most common games involving words were table riddles, such as found abundantly in the Hebrew romances of Al-Ḥarizi and Joseph Zabara. The Talmud reported an example of such a riddle from Adda the fisherman: "Broil the fish with his brother (salt), plunge it into its father (water), eat it with its son (sauce), and drink after it its father (water)" (mk 11a). Jewish gatherings in later times were often enlivened by witty puzzles. *Kabbalah also had a part in such wordplay, as when children would direct some invocation to the angel *Sandalfon at the start of their games. There were formal occasions for performances by teenagers at the end of the school term or the conclusion of a tractate of the Talmud (see *Siyyum) on the 15th of Shevat, etc. In Ashkenazi communities, Shabbat Nahamu (the Sabbath following the Ninth of Av) would be marked by a festive meal and children's show. Sephardi children in the old city of Jerusalem, Hebron, Baghdad, etc. would mark the last day of Ḥanukkah with a play, "Miranda di Ḥanukkah." In Tripoli, Tunis, and Salonika, on the sixth or seventh day of Ḥanukkah, a celebration would be held for girls who had reached the age of twelve. Also on Ḥanukkah, Sephardi children would play "Caricas di Sol" ("Face of Salt"), or act as soldiers fighting the Greeks. This was also the custom among the children of Yemen, who wore blue clothes for the occasion. Jewish children in Persia marked Ḥanukkah by playing various games of chance known as "Kab," "Kemar," and "Tachte-ner" (a kind of checkers, known as "Shesh-Besh" in Arabic). Yemeni children played with fruit stones (now played in Israel with apricot stones). Their Ḥanukkah top ("Duame") was made of nutshells; the Purim "grager" was called "Khirye." Other games were "Umey" (blindman's buff), "Kez Almakez" ("horses," or jumping over one another's bent backs), etc. In Tripoli the young men had the custom of holding donkey races on the Ninth of Av, for on that day the Messiah was expected to come, riding on a donkey. On Shavuot they would pour water on the passers-by (also customary in other eastern communities). The last day of Passover was the occasion for a *"Maimuna" carnival, when young and old would pelt one another with flowers and vegetable leaves. In all communities, girls had their own games, such as playing ball, dolls, "cat-and-mouse," "golden bridges," etc. They also played an elaborate form of "bride-and-groom," accompanied by songs. Rarely did boys and girls join in games together, although girls would also engage in games usually reserved for boys. After World War i, various forms of modern sports and gymnastics were introduced into the Jewish communities, taking the place of the traditional forms of entertainment. Some of the old games, however, still survive and are handed down by children from one generation to the next.


J.J. Schudt, Juedische Merckwuerdigkeiten, 2 (1714), 312; 3 (1714), 202; A. Berliner, Aus dem inneren Leben der deutschen Juden im Mittelalter (1871); M. Steinschneider, Schach bei den Juden (1873); M. Guedemann, Geschichte des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der abendlaendischen Juden, 3 vols. (1880–88); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ed. by C. Roth (1932), 397–422; I. Rivkind, Der Kamf kegen Azartshpiln bay Yidn (1946); Y. Stern, Kheyder un Bes-Medresh (1950); C. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance (1959), 28–30; M. Molho, Literatura sefardita de Oriente (1960), 177–82; Y ahadut Luv (1960), 367–99; Y. Kafih, Halikhot Teiman (1961), passim; J. Yehoshua, Yaldut bi-Yrushalayim ha-Yeshanah (1965).

[Yom-Tov Lewinski]


views updated May 17 2018


Most of slave life was taken up with long hours of unpaid labor. But slaves were given time for leisure and recreation. Almost all masters observed Sunday as a day of rest, and slaves were left to themselves. Saturday was usually a partial work day, with Saturday evening a time for gathering and dancing. The Christmas holidays, from December 25 to January 1, were usually observed as a period of no work, for field workers at least. Other holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Easter Monday, and the Fourth of July, might also be observed, depending on the master's practice. Work was usually suspended on rainy days, when fieldwork was impossible. Impromptu holidays might also be declared by masters after planting was done, during slow periods of the agricultural cycle, and in association with weddings, birthdays, and funerals of the master's family.

Slaves created other opportunities for recreation on their own initiative. Illicit nighttime gatherings, for worship and for parties, were a regular part of slave life. Though they might be broken up by slave patrols, they usually went undetected. Or a rest from fieldwork might be accomplished more openly: If a master (or a member of his family) just retuned from a journey, part of the day might be taken up with polite welcomes and spontaneous performance of song and dance—in master's honor. More risky options were pretending to be sick, or simple truancy, leaving the plantation without permission.

During periods of leisure, slaves spent most of their time in parties with music and dancing, in worship services, hunting and fishing, lounging, storytelling, drinking, and courting. However, a variety of games were also enjoyed. Slave codes in the South usually outlawed certain activities, such as cards or dice, gambling, or playing any game of chance for money—indicating that such games were popular pastimes among slaves. Dominos have been unearthed in archeological excavations of Thomas Jefferson's slave quarters at Monticello. Some scholars have suggested that competitive games of physical exertion and prowess reflect societies in which hard work and individual effort are rewarded. Slaves may have favored games of chance in their peculiar situation, where work did not bring personal reward—and success, even survival, was often contingent on a variety of uncontrollable factors.

Slaves engaged in verbal games of wit and humor. Some scholars suggest that the game of joking insults known as "the dozens" or "signifying" reaches back to slavery times, and may even have African roots. Slaves also enjoyed challenging one another with riddles:

     Slick as a mole, black as coal,
     Got a great long tale like a thunder hole.
     [A skillet.]
     Crooked as a rainbow, teeth like a cat.
     Guess all of your life but you can't guess dat.
     [A blackberry bush.] (Webber 1978, p. 182)

Male slaves engaged in various athletic games, including foot races, wrestling, boxing, and other sports. Such athletic competitions were sometimes performed for the amusement of masters, but they were not without roots in slave culture. Some African traditions of wrestling and fighting may have been secretly preserved among male slaves in South Carolina, for example, as capoiera survived in Brazil. Other forms of sport were played by slave men. A report on the recreations of a black regiment during the Civil War, on Thanksgiving Day 1864, lists pole climbing, foot racing, sack racing, wheelbarrow racing, jig dancing, turkey shooting, and pig chasing. As baseball became a popular sport among whites in the nineteenth century, slaves also played the game, though without equipment and without knowledge of official rules. A stick might serve as a bat, and a ball of yarn covered by a sock could become a ball. Simply hitting the ball as far as possible was one version of the game.

Slave children on many plantations were not required to work much until they were at least eleven or twelve (there were exceptions: for example, some slave children were rented out to perform household tasks for small landowners and urbanites). During their childhood years, though, many remained relatively free to roam and play. Frederick Douglass remembered his early years in slavery in almost idyllic terms: "The first seven or eight years of the slave-boy's life are about as full of sweet content as those of the most favored and petted white children of the slaveholder" (Douglass 1855, p. 40).

The most enjoyable amusement of slave children was roaming the fields and woods of their home plantation and surrounding areas while their parents worked. They could wade in streams, swim, chase rabbits, explore, fish, and gather nuts, roots, and berries. They also played games. Slave children had limited access to toys and balls, but marbles were popular. "De best game us had was marbles," Tom Hawkins, a former slave from South Carolina recalled, "and us played wid homemade clay marbles most of the time" (Webber 1978, pp. 180-181). Charlie Davenport also remembered improvising equipment to play traditional games, as a slave child on a Mississippi plantation: "Us tho' owed horse shoes, jumped poles, walked on stilts, an' played marbles" (Wiggins 1980, p. 24).

Slave children usually played games that required only their bodies or a minimum of equipment: hide and seek, tag, I spy, hop skotch, goose and gander, house, skeeting (sliding over a frozen lake), jump rope, hen and hawk, blind man's bluff, and so forth. Children played a wide variety of cooperative "ring games" that often included joining hands in a circle, chanting rhymes, dancing, performing, or spinning around. One popular ring game was Little Sally Walker, which imitated adult courting behavior. With a designated "Sally" in the middle of a circle, acting out the words, the children chanted:

     Little Sally Walker,
     Sitting in a saucer,
     Crying for the old man
     To come for a dollar.
     Ride, Sally, Ride.
     Put your hands on your hips,
     And let your backbone slip.
     Oh, shake it to the East.
     Oh, shake it to the West.
     Shake it to the one that you love the best.
     (Holland 2002, p. 99)

If they could obtain a ball, or improvise one, slave children enjoyed playing simple ball games. Some children played a version of dodge ball called Sheep Meat. A yarn ball was thrown, and whoever was hit was out until the next game. Anti-Over or Once Over was another ball game children played. In one form, a group of children would throw the ball over a cabin to children on the other side. Whoever caught the ball would then run around the cabin and try to hit someone from the other team with it.

Slave children engaged in elaborate imitative play, staging church services, baptisms, funerals, weddings, and grand meetings—even slave auctions. Through these games, they could imitate the activities of adult slaves, and occasionally even masters. Benny Dillard, who had lived as a child on a Georgia plantation, remembered, "The best game of all was to play like it was big meeting time … We would have make-believe preachin' and baptizin'. When we started playing like we were baptizing them we throwed all we could catch right in the creek, clothes and all, and dunked them" (Wiggins 1980, pp. 25-26). Anna Woods from Arkansas recalled:

Yes, ma'am, we children played. I remember that the grown folks used to have church—out behind the old shed. They'd shout and they'd sing. We children didn't know what it all meant. But every Monday morning we'd get up and make a play house in an old wagon bed—and we'd shout and sing too. We didn't know what it meant, or what we was suppose to be doing. We just aped our elders (Holland, p. 103).


The games played by children in the slave quarters naturally reflected the realities of daily life. Children acted out in play not only the happy experiences of church gatherings and parties, but also more frightening events that they may have seen or heard about. Such play may have helped slave children to conceptualize their world, to cope emotionally with unpleasant realities, and to prepare themselves for their future lives as slaves.

One game played by slave children was some form of bogeyman. In one form, a child would assume the role of an evil spirit and attempt to frighten other children at night. In another form, a child would become the bogeyman and attempt to catch other children as they screamed, ran, and attempted to hide. Whomever got caught would be the bogeyman, until he or she caught someone else.

Hide the Switch was another game that slave children played repeatedly. One child would hide a switch made from a tree branch. When someone found the switch, the other children would yell and scatter, while the finder tried to hit them with it. Such games were as popular among the girls as they were among the boys. They acted out one of the primary fears associated with slave daily life—beatings—and perhaps prepared slave children for future realities. Julia Banks, who had been enslaved in Texas, recalled that the slave children would "get switches and whip one another. You know after you was hit several times it didn't hurt much" (Rawick 1972–1979, Vol. 4, part 1, p. 97).


Rawick, George P., ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

Any serious analysis of slave children's games can reveal a great deal about the realities of daily life in slavery. But this requires some decoding by contemporary historians.

The award-winning television series on the history of the English language, The Story of English (MacNeil-Lehrer Productions/BBC, 1986), includes a segment on the contributions of black people to American speech. The camera recorded a performance of Shoot Turkey, a slave children's game, as an illustration of the influence of plantation dialects. The recording has appeared many times on television and in classrooms on videotape.

Janey Hunter, a Gullah woman who, according to the narrator could boast of 100 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, led some of these youngsters in a round of Shoot Turkey. She chanted the lyrics to the song and kept time by clapping her hands. Several of her grandchildren formed a line and crouched down in a squat, each child putting both hands on the shoulders of the child in front. The song took the form of a call and response, with Hunter starting off:

    Hunter: Get ready. Let's go!
    Children: Shoot, Turkey! Shoot! Shoot!
    (Repeated four times in unison)
    Hunter: Hon-ey!
    Children: Ma'am!
    Hunter: D'you went to the weddin'?
    Children: Yes, ma'am.
    Hunter: D'you get any wine?
    Children: Yes, ma'am.
    Hunter: How good that wine?
    Children: Good, good!
    Hunter: You ras-cal!
    Children: Shoot, Turkey! Shoot! Shoot!
    (Repeated four times in unison)

During the singing of the chorus Shoot Turkey, the children hopped along, frog-like, in a circle, in time to the music. During the rest of the song, they remained still. The narrator made no comment on the game, except to say that Hunter was passing on the traditions of the plantation to the next generations. But there is more.

This music and rhymes of Shoot Turkey (sometimes called Shoo Turkey) had been recorded earlier in variant forms in audio recordings made in the mid-1960s on John's Island, South Carolina (part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). The television documentary segment may have been the first video recording of the game, however. In the earlier recordings, the song could have several verses, including one beginning with "D'you get any caee?" as well as verses for turkey, rabbit, and wine.

At first glance, this would appear to be a simple ring game, with nonsense verse and random movement, which could have no other purpose than the amusement of children. However, placed in the context of slavery and slave daily life—a context in which cake, wine, and turkey would normally be unavailable to slaves—the game takes on new meanings.

As the exclamation "You rascal!" suggests, the game is transgressive. One might decode it in the early twenty-first century as a game that celebrates stealing food—a normal part of slave life, and an activity in which slaves are known to have taken great pleasure. "The wedding" seems to be an ironic reference to the master's house and/or his meals. The children crouch and creep, as if hiding from view. And the exchange of call and response is quite humorous when understood to be a sarcastic reference to stealing the luxury foods usually reserved for whites.

The game Shoot Turkey provides a window into slave life, demonstrating that (with a little coding) slave children's games could take on multiple meanings and be used to serious purpose—among other things, expressing solidarity among slaves, satirizing masters, and flaunting their transgressions in full view of uncomprehending whites. The game could be used to socialize children into the realities of slave life, and perhaps to even teach them the skills that they would need as adults to avoid detections when finding a little cake or wine in the kitchen.


Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, 1855.

Holland, Jearold Winston. Black Recreation: A Historical Perspective. Chicago: Burnham Publishers, 2002.

Southern Folklife Collection. Guy and Candie Carawan Collection. Field Recordings from Johns Island, South Carolina. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The Story of English. "Black on White." MacNeil-Lehrer Productions/BBC, 1986.

Webber, Thomas L. Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831–1865. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.

Wiggins, David K. "The Play of Slave Children in the Plantation Communities of the Old South, 1820–1960." Journal of Sport History 7, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 21-39.

                                      Anthony A. Lee


views updated May 21 2018


The video game entertainment industry is a multi-billion dollar international enterprise that has seen many technological advancements since its inception in the early 1960s. From primitive home entertainment systems wired by simple integrated circuitry to the digitally advanced games of the twenty-first century, the industry has been the proving grounds for some very influential scientific minds. The evolution of games technology has resulted in improvements in the quality of computer graphics for business and educational application as well, and aided design efforts in virtual reality (VR) software and the construction of artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

Earliest Games

German-American inventor Ralph Baer (1922), also known as the "Thomas Edison" of the video game, created the first video game console in 1966. While working for a company called Sanders Associates, he was commissioned to design a portable game for military training exercises based on strategy and reflex skills. Much of the early investment capital for projects at Sanders and in the collegiate think tanks came from the Pentagon. Baer believed the applications he was pursuing for the military would eventually have value in home entertainment.

Even earlier, MIT student Steve Russell brought widespread attention to the ability of computers to play games with his "SpaceWar," which was first played in the labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a mainframe computer . The 1960 game was a precursor to the much later "Asteroids" that captured the hearts and imaginations of many gaming enthusiasts. "SpaceWar" was later adapted from a mainframe computer game to a stand-alone console, under the name of "Computer Space," but the game met with little commercial success. Other MIT techies invented the first joysticks to replace the original games' simple control knobs.

Video Games Go Public

The 1970s saw the most significant developments in bringing video games into the attention and the homes of the American public. Nolan Bushnell, a former employee of Ampeg of Sunnyvale, California, teamed up with design engineer Al Alcom to found the company Atari. Bushnell and Alcom designed the first "Pong" game, which was a form of computerized table tennis, and introduced it to Andy Capp's bar in Sunnyvale. After the first night of public use, people lined up at ten the next morning to play this novel bar game. The video game craze was about to grip the public's attention.

Further popularizing the game craze in the eyes of Americans was the 1972 release of Magnavox's "Odyssey" that was introduced during a television broadcast hosted by the "Chairman of the Board," Frank Sinatra. These first games were quite simple compared to later technologies. Early games were based on analog systems using large-scale integrated (LSI) circuits. These game designs offered two-dimensional graphics with a restricted range of motion for participants and often-predictable responses from the computer.

The mid-1970s saw significant improvement in games and especially graphics technology with the introduction of customized microchips. Midway's 1975 game "Gunfight" was the first to utilize a microprocessor. Using an 8080 CPU (central processing unit), the game featured graphic and audio effects that had not been possible before. The simultaneous demand for higher resolution screens and increased depth of field was met by companies like Activision, using the new F8 microchips that were supplied by Fairchild Camera and Instrument.

Violence and Video Games

In 1976 Exidy's "Death Race" video game entered the market. Fashioned after a popular movie at the time, it was one of the games that first sparked public controversy aimed at violent video games. Considering the history of military involvement in early research funding, it is not unusual that the focus of video game design teams resulted in games with highly competitive strategies, a strong emphasis on physical conflict, and action and adventure settings. Many movies of the time period also reflected scenarios depicting violence and adventure: Jaws haunted the imaginations of beach-loving moviegoers, while Star Wars refreshed popular interest in the exploration and domination of outer space.

Video game violence has not been restricted by public moral outpourings. Games like "Mortal Kombat" continue to win audiences of all ages. Some observers argue that the ability to vent potentially violent aggressions in an electronic setting relieves the pressure to commit public demonstrations of violence. Other critics argue that these games provide a training ground for potentially violent youthful offenders. The 1999 Columbine School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, and other gun-related incidents in public schools throughout the United States are cited as occurrences where the perpetrators had demonstrated a history of fascination with violent games.

Many companies now offer Internet gaming services, which allow up to a few people to thousands of players to play a game simultaneously. Among the most popular applications for these multi-player games are interactive games in which a group of characters, activated by users who may be located geographically anywhere in the world, explore a virtual world to collaborate or kill one another. Regardless of the controversies, graphically sophisticated action video games of all kinds continue to be popular.

Japanese Contributions

No mention of video game technology would be complete without discussion of the Japanese market and its major contributions from the 1980s into the twenty-first century. The year 1980 saw the introduction of the "Pac-Man" game, which was invented by Toru Iwatami and associates for Namco, Ltd. Iwatami, who had tired of much of the violence depicted in video games, decided to develop a comical game that he felt everyone could enjoy.

"Pac-Man" became one of the largest selling arcade games ever, with more than 100,000 units sold in the United States alone, surpassing the then-monumental 70,000 unit record of "Asteroids" and the extremely popular "Space Invaders." Heavy use of the coin-operated "Pac-Man" was blamed for a severe coin shortage in the Japanese economy. The merchandising of "Pac-Man" T-shirts, posters, toys, and spin-off games ("Ms. Pac-Man" and others) would start another trend in home entertainment sales.

While "Pac-Man" and other arcade games grew in popularity during the early 1980s, there was a marked decrease in the sales of video games for home use. Most theories point to Atari's near dominance of the market with its 4-bit VCS console and what the public saw as limited graphical variation in game software available for home units. Nintendo's 1985 introduction of the 8-bit microprocessor dramatically changed the home video game market forever. The Japanese company became the dominant force in gaming technology with its proprietary console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and such popular games as "Donkey Kong" and "Mario Bros." The advent of 16-bit technology, most successfully marketed in Sega's "Genesis" console, allowed for a much more sophisticated graphics processing system with as many as 63 times more onscreen colors and the use of anti-aliasing and screen flipping techniques. This also brought competition to Nintendo's market dominance.

Advanced systems design furthered the competition between Nintendo and Sega and improved the market for video game sales across the globe. The 1990s saw the advent of 32-bit systems and the Nintendo 64 with turbo 3-D graphics, as well as popular hand-held video game units like Nintendo's "GameBoy." Strong competition from Sega's continuing developments and the Sony PlayStation have chipped away at Nintendo's former market position as the leader of the home video game market, but the Japanese influence on the industry remains considerable.

From Video Games to Corporate Giants

The video game industry has nurtured designers and entrepreneurs who have gone on to make major contributions to the computer industry as a whole. Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak were employees of Atari before leaving to start a small company that grew into a huge corporationApple Computer, Inc. While at Atari, Jobs and Wozniak created a game called "Blockbuster." Their game design knowledge and experience would prove influential in their personal computer designs.

Another major player in today's computer marketplace had its roots in video game technology. In 1979 a company called Control Video Corp. offered a service called "Gameline" via the telephone network. Consumers accessed their service using a 1200-baud modem to receive features including e-mail, news, banking, and financial management information. CVC became Quantum Computer Services in 1985 and in 1989, the company changed its name to America Online.

Simulation Game Technology

One of the most profoundly powerful gaming metaphors to emerge in the 1990s was the use of simulation technology that allows gamers to explore "what if" scenarios. The field was kicked off by Maxis with the game "SimCity," and was refined with various classics such as Microprose's "Transport Tycoon" and Art Dink's "A-Train."

This technology helps people understand and work within complex systems. Although many enjoy the products as entertainment, simulation games are used for education in schools and corporations. Maxis launched a spin-off to apply this technology to business systems. Chevron created "SimRefinery" to simulate the management of a large refinery operation. Another game called "SimHealth," which was commissioned by the Markle foundation, demonstrates some of the tradeoffs of different health care policies.

A number of war games have also been built around this kind of simulation technology. Some of the earliest hits have been "Warcraft" and "Command and Conquer," which both allow multiple players to create and control production facilities and armies of soldiers that can be directed in real time. These games introduce an element of non-linearity in which players must be able to focus on multiple things simultaneously.

Gaming technology such as this has deep implications for the way decisions are made in our modern society. We can expect to see electronic information systems monitoring the flow of goods and services in the global economy as well as potentially determining strategies that humans will adapt for their environment.

see also Artificial Intelligence; Game Controllers; Internet; Simulation; Telecommunications.

George Lawton


Burnham, Van. Supercade: A Visual History of the Video Game Age, 19711984. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Kent, Steve L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon and BeyondThe Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed Our World. Roseville, CA: Prima, 2001.

Internet Resources

"Classic Gaming." Game Spy Industries. <> "

The History of Nintendo." Game Spot web site. <>


views updated May 23 2018


Throughout the Civil War years, card and board games, gambling, and multiple sports were among the favorite activities for ordinary Americans as well as for Union and Confederate soldiers. These activities offered physical and mental breaks from the intense realities of war for both civilians and soldiers (Varhola 1999, p. 96). Examining Americans' interests in games during the 1860s allows glimpses into the recreation and social details of daily life during the Civil War.

Games Move from Cities to Camps

In American homes, apartments, boardinghouses, and tenements, people welcomed both familiar and new forms of recreation during the difficult years of the war. Games were widespread and played in cities, on rural farms or shipboards, or at soldiers' campsites. For Northerners and Southerners, card and board games were popular forms of entertainment. Euchre, seven-up, twenty-one, poker, checkers, cribbage, dice, and backgammon, were among the favorites. Soldiers, for instance, could pass the time at camps carrying on conversations about life back home or share insights about the enemy while also engaged in contests of skill (Sutherland 1989, p. 13). Multiple efforts were made to enliven the hours, even a little, during the long days and nights at camp.

The Civil War created the need for portable entertainment. Shortly after the war started in 1861, Milton Bradley (1836–1911), a printer who worked out of Springfield, Massachusetts, developed a small kit called Games for Soldiers. This set included several popular games, such as checkers and backgammon, and it was designed to fit in a soldier's knapsack for easy transport between camps (Adams and Edmonds 1977, p. 373). Many organizations in the Northeast purchased the kits to donate to the Union soldiers, helping Milton Bradley to turn his enterprise into an established company, both financially and in terms of popularity. The methods of mass printing available in the 1860s allowed a wide circulation of such products as games advertised with war themes. These themes were extended to multiple markets, including children's games. Some games were explanatory and educational, while others appealed more to the public's natural interest in and preoccupation with the war (Marten 1998, p. 16).

Manufactured card decks with military images and patriotic symbols were common; playing cards used by soldiers and ordinary Americans often had military or political figures and flags. The Union Playing Card Company manufactured such cards used by soldiers in the North, while a card company in the South had images of Confederate generals on the face cards. Regardless of the deck type, soldiers frequently participated in "throwing the papers" (a vernacular phrase for playing cards), including poker and gambling. Although gambling was widespread, particularly among soldiers, many people considered it sinful, and soldiers often eliminated evidence of their participation before leaving to fight (Varhola 1999, p. 98). There are reports of card games played for high stakes as well; in some cases, cheaters as well as unpopular officers were marked for assassination (Sutherland 1989, p. 13).

Aside from the manufactured games, soldiers created their own game pieces, including dice, out of available materials. Such handmade designs took on creative shapes and construction. Dice could be imperfectly carved out of wood and used to play craps or to play out simple bets. One game called for placing bets on the numbers that would appear when dice were thrown from a cup (Sutherland 1989, p. 13). Although the risks of betting were high and game materials less than perfect, soldiers sought frequent entertainment through games. Another form of competition that involved making do with what was available in a military camp involved racing lice or cockroaches across strips of canvas and betting on the outcome ("Life in a Civil War Army Camp," 2002).

Family Activities and Socializing

For families, evenings and weekends were times for social activities with friends or members of the extended family. Similar to board and card game popularity among soldiers, life at home frequently included activities for relief from such typical daily events as chores or the general stresses of war. Croquet offered one such outlet. During the1860s, croquet became extremely popular for families, and the game's equipment was a common sight on lawns when weather allowed. Friends and family, both males and females, could gather to socialize on the croquet lawn, which also marked their middle-class social status. Men and women even courted each other during such gatherings. The wide variety of participants, including children and members of both sexes, allowed the game's social nature to flourish rather than just its competitive aspect. Within croquet's social context, however, the competitive spirit existed, even thrived. According to historian Jon Stern-gass in "Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze," women were particularly clever and competitive croquet players who often defeated male players—and enjoyed doing so (Sterngass 1998, p. 309).

Popular Sports

Such other types of games as baseball were also increasing in national popularity during the early 1860s. Large venues for baseball parks were less common in the South than the North due to the North's greater urbanization and diversified population. Immediately before the Civil War began in 1861, baseball's popularity had been increasingly evident in such Northeastern cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. From schoolboys to townsmen, groups across the Northeast gathered to play. With the onset of war, however, the nation's focus shifted. As soldiers arrived in the Northeastern cities, they became interested in the game, which offered social and physical outlets. Soldiers and officers gathered for recreation and formed baseball teams based on their athletic talents rather than their military ranks (Smithsonian Associates, 2004).

Southerners played such other team sports as cricket and football, in addition to baseball. As with board games, materials used in sports could be homemade or creative, especially for soldiers with limited resources. Commonly, a stick or fence rail became a bat, and rags or string could entwine available objects to serve as balls. Thus, men from different social classes played together and developed interests in games they could take home to various parts of the country after the war.


Adams, David W., and Victor Edmonds. "Making Your Move: The Educational Significance of the American Board Game, 1832 to 1904." History of Education Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1977): 359–383.

"Life in a Civil War Army Camp." Civil War Armies, 2002. Available online at http://

Marten, James. The Children's Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Smithsonian Associates. "The 1860's—When Men Were Men and They Played Baseball in Washington." 2004. Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter. Available online at

Sterngass, Jon. "Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze." Journal of Sports History 25, no. 3 (1998): 398–418.

Sutherland, Daniel D. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989.

Varhola, Michael J. Everyday Life during the Civil War. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1999.

Jenny Lagergren


views updated Jun 11 2018


Have you ever played Tic-Tac-Toe? Did you win? Did you know that each Tic-Tac-Toe game will always end in a tie unless one player makes a mistake?

There are nine squares on a Tic-Tac-Toe game board, so the first player has nine choices for the first move. The second player has eight choices for the second move (one square is taken), which makes a total of 72 possible arrangements after the first two turns. After five turns, there are 15,120 possible arrangements.

Someone could possibly win on the sixth turn if the other player played really badly, so the nine possible winning positions must be subtracted from the total, leaving 60,471 arrangements after only six moves. No one can keep track of that many combinations, but that is not necessary. The successful Tic-Tac-Toe strategy is simply to block the other player's moves while hoping the other player makes a mistake.

A good chess player must use a sequence of opening moves that will yield the best possible position. In chess, the player in control of the white pieces (White) always moves first. Since only the eight pawns and two knights can move on the first move, there are twelve possible first moves for White. (The two knights can each move to two different positions).

There are also twelve different opening moves for the player controlling the black pieces (Black), so after only two moves, there are 144 different possible arrangements of pieces on the board. Each move opens up other pieces that can move, so after only four moves, there are about 70,000 different possible arrangements of pieces on the chessboard. Not every arrangement is of equal value, but with 70,000 different positions to consider, it is difficult for even good players to keep track of all possibilities. So good chess players remember patterns of pieces and learn to recognize certain patterns that give them an advantage over their opponents.

A great deal of mathematics is therefore involved in most games. Poker players must calculate the probabilities of certain card arrangements in order to win. (Never draw to an inside straight!) Bridge players must use probability to calculate the possible arrangements of cards in their opponents' hands in order to decide which strategy to use in playing winningly.

Bridge Strategies

Bridge players use mathematics in evaluating their hands. In one popular system, an ace is worth four points, a king is worth three points, a queen is worth two points, and a jack is worth only one point. Players also count distribution points. Having no cards of one suit is worth three points, a singleton is worth two points, and only two cards of a suit is worth one point. Evaluating the hand this way allows a player to determine if a hand is "biddable."

Once play starts, math is used to determine how best to play the cards. For example, in a typical hand, one side may have nine cards of the trump suit, which means the other side has four trump cards. Suppose the missing cards are the queen, 8, 6, and 3. How are those cards likely to be distributed between the opponents' two hands? One opponent could have all four trump cards, one could have three cards, and the other opponent one card, or each opponent might have two cards. The mathematics of probabilities shows that the most likely arrangement is for one opponent to have three of the missing trump cards. So a player cannot depend on capturing the missing queen by simply leading the ace and king.

see also Probability, Theoretical.

Elliot Richmond


McGervey, John D. Probabilities in Everyday Life. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1986.


views updated May 23 2018

176. Games

See also 26. ATHLETICS ; 175. GAMBLING ; 337. PUZZLES ; 347. RECREATION .

1 . a word or phrase composed by rearranging the letters in another word or phrase.
2 . a game based upon this activity.
the art or practice of making anagrams. Also called metagrammatism.
a riddle the answer to which requires a pun or other word play.
Facetious. the use of methods that, while not dishonest or contrary to the rules, are dubious and give the user unfair advantage in a game or sport.
Facetious, the art or technique of keeping another person slightly off balance in order to gain an advantage.
Facetious. the art or technique of employing a vocabulary of arcane, recondite words in order to gain an advantage over another person.


views updated May 23 2018

Games ★★½ 1967

Bored married Manhattanites Paul (Caan) and Jennifer (Ross), who are looking for some kinky entertainment, get involved with amateur medium Lisa (Signoret). Suddenly what's “real,” isn't and there's more than one doublecross to cope with. Lots of atmosphere but not enough suspense. 100m/C VHS . Simone Signoret, James Caan, Katharine Ross, Don Stroud, Kent Smith, Estelle Winwood, Marjorie Bennett, Ian Wolfe; Cameos: Florence Marly, Luana Anders; D: Curtis Harrington; W: Gene R. Kearney; C: William A. Fraker; M: Samuel Matlovsky.


views updated May 09 2018


GAMES. SeeToys and Games .