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In the British Museum in London, amid the mummies and disputed marbles, there is a delicate wooden board around a foot long, inlaid with limestone and lapis lazuli. Its design gives a hint to its purpose: twenty squares, covered in flowers and dots. One of the oldest surviving games in the world, the Royal Game of Ur seems to have been played a lot like modern-day checkers, with competitors racing across the board. It comes from southern Iraq and dates to around 2,600 bce.
We know humans have played games for even longer than this: as the Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga put it in 1938, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” He suggested that our species, Homo sapiens (the wise man), could be described with equal accuracy as Homo ludens (the playing man).
Huizinga’s work also helps us to understand why play is far from a frivolous enterprise: because it is voluntary, and not necessary to survival, how we have fun says more about our species than how we work. “Play is superfluous…it is free, is in fact freedom,” he writes. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.” In the 1860s, just before this magazine was founded, soldiers distracted themselves from the horrors of the Civil War with pastimes such as louse-racing or ten-pin bowling using cannon balls. The Civil War Trust records that “by the last years of battle, decks of cards were hard to come by in the Southern ranks,” with Confederate soldiers reduced to taking them from Union prisoners and the bodies of the fallen. It’s not hard to imagine the effect this had on morale.
Nonetheless, Anglo-American culture has long grappled with the idea that fun can be wholesome and, in fact, necessary to happiness rather than a debauched, degenerate luxury. Perhaps that’s a hangover from the Puritans—in the seventeenth century, they were so hard on the idea of relaxation come Sunday that King James I was moved to issue a “Declaration of Sports,” which specifically permitted “leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation” on the Sabbath.
But taking games seriously, it turns out, is vital, both socially and politically: neuroscientists now acknowledge the role of imaginative play in the neural development of children. Women, too, often miss out on leisure time. As Rebecca Abrams’s 1997 feminist treatise The Playful Self asks: “A man has a God-given right to play football on a Sunday morning; a child cannot survive without two hours’ frenetic activity in the park. What does the woman in their life do? Make the lunch.” In 2014, Brigid Schulte’s book on work/life balance, Overwhelmed, observed that throughout history, “women’s time has been subjected to unpredictable interruptions, while men’s ability to experience blocks of unbroken time has been protected. The ‘good’ secretary and the ‘good’ wife were the ones guarding it.”