Board games, video games, a long piece of yarn… I love them all. I took a break from banging around a catnip-filled mouse toy to discuss your question with my friend Jordan Clapper, a professor at Washington State University, who told me the answer was a mystery.
“It’s almost impossible to know — for some really fun reasons,” Clapper said. “Every culture has games. It even goes beyond being human. If you’ve ever seen a dog or cat play, they’re playing a game. “
The earliest board game we’ve found is more than 4,600 years old. Archaeologist Leonard Woolley unearthed it in a tomb from Sumer (now Iraq). This tomb was in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, so he called it the Royal Game of Ur.
It was obvious that the board was a game. But nobody knew the rules of the game. This is where Irving Finkel came into play. He works for the British Museum. He is an expert in cuneiform – an ancient writing system in which characters are pressed into clay tablets. Finkel found out that a tablet was the game’s rule book. Now people can play the Royal Game of Ur in printable form or online.
Clapper also told me about the first video game. It was called Tennis for Two. Scientist William Higinbotham wanted people to see that science was fun and useful. So in 1958 he invented a video game for a research show in his lab. It worked with a tool called an oscilloscope.
“He programmed a light to move back and forth,” Clapper said. “There was this big chunky controller. It was probably the size of a Big Mac box. It had a button that you pushed with a big ‘ker chunk’ sound to send the ball back over the net to the other side.”
You may be wondering why humans invented games. According to Clapper, games make sense simply because they’re fun. But they can also preserve and share cultural knowledge.
“Games can tell stories,” Clapper said. “Games can do important cultural work or ask questions in a unique way.”
One of Clapper’s areas of expertise is indigenous games. I found out about the Skins workshops. This program teaches Indigenous young people to bring traditional stories into video games. Game developer Elizabeth LaPensée does the same with her games like When Rivers Were Trails and Thunderbird Strike. Clapper told me Never Alone was a video game developed by the Inupiat people of Alaska. Nearly 40 elders and storytellers worked together to bring the story to life.
If you love games, you can even create your own.
“Anybody can make a game,” Clapper said. “Last year I finished a book I was working on and had a dream about a game I wanted to make. I took index cards and markers – and started making pieces. If you want to make games, go out and make them.”
I’d love to hear about the clever ideas you come up with.