Updated: Sep 8, 2019
All games are educational games, regardless of the genre. Our brains have evolved to store and process large amounts of complex data, in other words, to learn. Learning is key to adaptation and adaptation is key to survival. As a species we tend to look for new patterns to unlock, and once we learn those patterns, we move onto the next. And that’s exactly what games are—patterns to unlock and understand, and they fulfill that craving for mental stimuli. Different genres of games are just different patterns of learning. Consider then, what might you learn from an FPS versus a social game like an MMORPG. What opportunities do these games provide to teach us? It can be as simple as hand-eye coordination or as complex as leadership and cooperation within a diverse community. At the heart of gaming is the key to learning.
However, that’s not all games are. Games are not designed or played within a vacuum. They reflect the culture in which they are created and played. In other words, they tell us something about what it means to be human, and they tell us something specifically about that culture. Humans learn through games. We have a tendency to make learning itself a game, and we have been doing so for a very long time. Think back to those star charts in pre-school, though gaming goes well beyond our days of Play-Doh and Crayolas.
An Egyptian hieroglyph dating to 3100 BCE refers to the game of Senet, a game of passing and racing, the rules of which aren't quite clear. More recently, archaeologists in Turkey discovered game tokens carved in the likeness of animals to a yet unknown game from the same time period. The Royal Game of Ur, is a somewhat later, but similar game of racing to Senet, first played in Ancient Mesopotamia c. 2600-2400 BCE. While these are a few of the oldest known games, we can surmise that humans have been playing games for much longer. Developing an understanding of this rich history helps students to understand how games are intrinsic to being human and a natural part of the learning process.
This week in Introduction to Game Design, we discussed game history, but we also played another historic game that has its roots in North America, specifically, the Cahokia culture, whose long-ago home isn’t far from campus.
Chunkey is believed to have been played as far back as 600 CE and was still being played when Europeans first began exploring the continent. The game was played by running and rolling discoidals, referred to as a chunkey stones, across the ground and throwing spears at them in an attempt to land close to the stone. The game drew a massive audience who would bet on the outcome, often times betting all that they had. Many variations of the game have been played, and it continued to be played after the fall of the Mississippian culture.
On this surface, the game appears to be fairly simple with a focus on gambling; however, as noted above, games are not created in a vacuum and can tell us much about the culture in which they exist. While Cahokians had discovered their own fertile valley and developed a complex agriculture system, hunting had not completely disappeared. Additionally, Cahokia was a large trading center with a potentially large fighting force as well.
With that in mind, when we examine a game like chunkey, can we be surprised that those within the culture would create a game that consists of using a spear, while running, and targeting a moving object that also engages and brings together large crowds? How do each of these components connect to the culture? How did bringing people together from outside regions play into politics? What lessons might this game have offered to those who played and observed it in the past, and what lessons might it offer to those who wish to understand the culture today?
We tend to think of games as play, as an escape from the demands of economic life, but games are some of the most rule-bound and structured forms of engagement. In games, just as in life, when the rules suddenly change, it can be frustrating. Game rules, then, should be consistent with the cultural values that structure other aspects of life. For example, if a game is created for an audience whose culture elaborates rules for fairness, and the game is blatantly unfair, it is unlikely that it would be well received. The connections that games make to the broader culture may be more fundamental than some perceive in regard to game design. For students, examining games through the lens of culture provides an opportunity to reflect on how their own culture and the culture of their intended audience influences their creations.