Ancient Games Precursors to Modern Play

For many of us, the history of digital games begins with the quaint – and visually crisp – visit to Pong. It is the “amusement” that revitalized the arcades of the 1970s, as teenagers accustomed to pinball and perhaps the paper Dungeons & Dragons marveled at the vector dynamics of this first-in-class digital wonder. (Note that few people at the time even would know to call it “digital,” barely able to comprehend how the thing worked.)

But sweet nostalgia isn’t why Pong, created by Atari, Inc. in the early 1970s, is on the minds of game design students today. At the New York Film Academy (NYFA), a school that teaches game design along with 3-D animation, cinematography and acting (among other arts), Pong and first generation console games (Computer Space, Gun Fight, Space Invaders, etc.) provide insight into what launched this industry – and why it is so remarkably appealing to millions of playes.

NYFA students – and those at many other gaming schools – study the history of games because it goes beyond binary code into something far more complex: what compels human mind and spirit to play. Archeological evidence of games is found the world over, particularly in ancient Greece, where everything from ancient versions of jacks, basketball and hockey once existed. These were all rooted in a pervasive culture of competitiveness – remember, this is where the Olympics were held and one man’s deadly run to Marathon spawned a 20th century cultural phenomenon. Games allowed children and adults to compete in a civilized way (meaning, no one got terribly hurt in the process). Examples include:

  • Spinning a top: The physics involved in employing centrifugal force to a circular object involved use of a wand (a “kerykeion”) and was largely considered the game of children, simple in its objective and more about developing a skill than winning a competition. Greek children ritualistically laid aside the spinning top when they matured into other games.
  • Passeé-boule: The objective was to toss a ball through a hole in an upright board. The relationship to several modern sports – basketball in particular – is difficult to ignore.
  • Ephedrismos (knock over the stone): A little bit like bowling, a little bit like playing chicken in a swimming pool and arguably a tad bit related to Tetris and Angry Birds, this game involved two players trying to knock down an upright stone. When one succeeded, that person would ride the back of the other player until the “loser” could knock the stone down again with his or her foot (with the “winner” flailing about on back to do the same thing).
  • Knucklebones: Using the tarsal bones of sheep or goats, players would either attempt to deconstruct (ok, “knock over”) the opposition’s constructions. Another game using the same bones would involve numerical values and random tossing, quick like modern dice.

The game designer needs to acknowledge the very nature of play, as evidenced by centuries of development and the recurrent themes present in those games (strikingly similar games have been uncovered in Mayan ruins of the New World). Some games are for individuals, some for two players and, in an interconnected Internet society, some for many more players. But the basic goals and competitive nature of these games is quite like those played thousands of years ago, played with little more than rocks and bones.

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