It may or may not be true what they say about the devil having all the best tunes, but there can be no doubt that the peoples of Asia have all the best games. What’s more, they seem to have had them longer than anyone else, and undoubtedly invented a great many of them.
Who in the West has not been introduced to board games through parcheesi, or its British equivalent ludo, and duly passed it on to their own children? And how many are aware that it is a simplified version of a traditional Indian game of skill for two teams of adults? How many know that the game transmitted to the West as chutes and ladders (or snakes and ladders) is derived from one devised by Indian sages to teach children the moral value of patience in character building? Nor is the gaming legacy of India confined to children: the battlefield of modern international chess remains occupied to this day by pieces that reflect the constitution of the classical Indian army of the sixth century, from which they are derived. That piece in the corner that looks like a castle is still called a rook, which is an Indian word for “chariot,” and the knight now represented by a horse was once in more majestic command of an elephant.
Who doesn’t play cards? Thanks to the Chinese, then, for inventing the paper from which they are made, the idea of cards themselves, and the paper money that may have been the inspiration behind them. Other Asian cultures have added to China’s contribution. Playing cards traveled through India, Persia, and Arabia and first entered Europe from the Mameluk dynasty of Egypt sometime after 1350.
Or take dominoes. They closely resemble playing cards, being blank on one side and numbered on the other, and in China cards and dominoes are made of the same material and played in much the same way. Tile games were the result of a further extension of cards and dominoes. The most famous of these, mahjong—which took America by storm in the 1920s—reminds us that the contributions of traditional Asian games to the recreational repertoire of the West have not ceased with the passage of time. Where and how did games begin? The question is obvious, but unfortunately amenable only to speculation. The oldest civilizations to have left written records refer to games of various sorts without suggesting that any of them were novelties or outside the ordinary realm of daily activities. Where written records are lacking, archaeological remains include game boards scratched on stone or clay as well as the occasional shaped piece that might have been used in gaming, not to mention obvious randomizing devices such as dice and astragals. Anthropologists who have studied contemporary primitive societies find that most have games of one sort or another. It would seem that games—like languages, religion, and the arts—are natural products of the human urge for order and harmony and originated far beyond the catchment area of even prehistorical research.
The most obvious supposition is that games arose through the adaptation to playful purposes of implements and activities originally devised for functional purposes. For example, the primary function of shooting arrows from bows in a hunting society is to secure food, and perhaps to guard hunting grounds from rival tribes. A secondary purpose would be to practice the use of bow and arrow in order to improve one’s skills. A subsequent development would be to establish, by competition, who the best marksmen are in order to allocate more efficiently the various cooperative labors of hunting. Some archers would gain more pleasure from the exercise of skill itself, or from the kudos garnered by the best of them, than from fulfilling their original purpose. What begins as the purely practical thus gradually evolves into the purely recreational.
A survey of the games of Asia will not in itself provide an answer to the origins of games. But as we explore such ancient and distinctive contributions as playing cards and dominoes, go, nyout, pachisi, nard, and the mysterious game of liubo, we may come to realize that the whole of humanity is related not just by its urge to play (which is common to many creatures) but by its urge to play in accordance with those structured sets of rules that we call games.
Exhibition curated by Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel