I recently attended BlizzCon 2017, a convention of video gamers from around the world.
I and thirty thousand other fans of games published by Blizzard Entertainment, descended upon the Anaheim Convention Center for a two day gaming fest. Gamers came from around the world to participate in new releases, new characters, new levels and of course, the World Cup of Overwatch, a team based shooter with hundreds of thousands of devoted followers.
I watched the World Cup of Overwatch from inside a stadium with thousands of others as the South Korea team demolished all comers. The South Koreans are legendary for their skills and are seen by most as unbeatable. Even Team France said that winning the World Cup would be nice, but beating Team South Korea would be better.
Watching these fans cheer and groan as they sat spellbound I could not help but notice how this was a celebration of community and culture.
It was not, as many culture warriors decry, a retreat from reality and an exploration of narcissism.
This was just another way that people enjoy each other.
And this is a lot of people.
Thirty million people play overwatch, but not all at once. At any one time there may be as many as three hundred thousand people playing Overwatch, but the exact number is a company secret.
Blizzard Entertainment won’t say.
[The numbers for World of Warcraft are even more stellar, as it boasts a subscriber base of 5.5 million players! Geeks rule!]
This shows just how important games are to us, and how revealing they are about who we are at any time in history.
The history of board games is one interesting example of change over time in American history.
In the first half of the the nineteenth century Americans played chess and checkers but did not yet have the iconic board games we have grown to love. One can imagine how more difficult their holidays must have been to navigate without the supportive pastimes we have now.
Nevertheless, what the 1840’s lacked in fun they made up for in righteousness. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening, when religious fervor gripped the national psyche. A good time was attending a camp meeting in the middle of the forest, dancing with snakes and speaking in tongues, sometimes for days and days on end. With this alternative, it is no wonder that someone came up with another way to pass the time.
In 1843 Anne Abbott invented a board game called The Mansion of Happiness. The ides of the game was immediately exciting to Americans who came home from dancing with snakes in the woods. By moving a playing piece along a track with hazards reflecting the daily travails of humans everywhere the players could pretend that they were the game, rather than just playing a strategy. The Mansion of Happiness
allowed these pious Americans to move in search of Eternal Salvation, avoiding setbacks such as Perjury, Robbery and Drunkenness.
The purpose of this new and strange pastime was to teach children, of course. All games are didactic in this way, and therefore offer a historical insight into what was important at the time. In 1843, it was important for children to live a moral and pious life, with the ultimate goal to enter the real “mansion of happiness”, also known as heaven.
Because the Second Great Awakening was so widespread and pervasive in the lives of Americans, we can see through The Mansion of Happiness that children were being taught how to live a religious and Christian existence. The purpose of life was to be a good Christian, and character defects like “immodesty” and “ingratitude” were seen as sinful and detrimental to your soul.
In 1860 the United States was in turmoil, with the nation literally breaking apart in The Civil War. The election of President Lincoln had set off a rush for the exists across the South.
With the onset of war, Milton Bradley introduced The Checkered Game of Life.
The game moved players along a track from Infancy to Old Age, guided by pointing fingers and texts. The fun was everywhere, especially if you were to land on the space called “Suicide!” and were promptly out of the game.
It is interesting how killing oneself, which today we see as symptomatic of mental illness, was seen as random in the nineteenth century.
Milton Bradley chose to use a spinner and not dice to advance players around a board. Dice were taboo because of their association with gambling, so a spinner was deemed more in line with the moral defense of children.
As a teaching tool it is easy to see how this game helped children to understand the era they were born into. The country was a violent place in the 1860’s. The children who played the first “Checkered Game of Life” would no doubt be dealing with death of loved ones, as everyone knew someone killed or maimed by the Civil War. The game would offer reassurance to children that there was a path for them through these uncertain times, and that they could live to be long in the tooth and not perish like someone close to them had no doubt suffered.
The Checkered Game of Life shows us how this time was one of uncertainty about survival, in contrast to the certainty of eternal salvation that dominated the nation just two decades prior.
The most famous of all board games started out in 1883, when Parker Brothers introduced “Banking.” See if you can recognize it. Players tried to secure ownership of the most property and drive the other players into bankruptcy. If you guessed that the game “Banking” is called “Monopoly” today then you probably have spent long rainy days in your youth playing the game that never seems to end.
Monopoly is a game unlike all others. It is not unusual in that it is a game with only one winner. It is unusual because winner is determined only when everyone else is foerced to loses.
There can be only one winner in Monopoly. Any compassion for others only extends the game ad infinitum.
Monopoly is really a very fast game, if you play it without any generosity or sympathy for the other people around the table. It is infamous for taking forever to play.
The good news is most people have compassion for their friends and family. The bad news is Monopoly is designed to teach children these traits of human kindness are antithetical to success in a capitalist society.
After the Civil War, the United States was starting upon the era of railroad expansion and industrialization giving rise to the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons.
In fact many people would recognize the top hatted, tuxedo wearing gent who symbolizes the game of Monopoly as the legendary John D. Rockefeller, who was infamous for his heartless business practices and ruthless entrepreneurship.
The game of Monopoly reveals to us how the morality of the American culture had embraced a focus on speculating one’s way to wealth.
The effects of Monopoly on players has been studies by researchers at UC Berkeley. In an article in New York magazine they described the experiment and how is reveals the effects of economic advantage on otherwise normal people.
“One of the players, a brown-haired guy in a striped T-shirt, has been made “rich.” He got $2,000 from the Monopoly bank at the start of the game and receives $200 each time he passes Go. The second player, a chubby young man in glasses, is comparatively impoverished. He was given $1,000 at the start and collects $100 for passing Go.”
The unfair advantage given to one player and not the other is kept secret to both. The effects of this unfair advantage are revealing for what they do to otherwise normal and ethical people.
“It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely…to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.” [emphasis added]
The game of Monopoly can help us to understand how Americans reacted to the capitalist drive of the late nineteenth century. While not an empirical study, the lesson derived from this games playing ethos can guide our understanding of how the economy grew and why groups like the Farmer Alliance, the International Workers of the World and the Populists ultimately came about.
“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything…the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, a$$hole$.” [original edited]
Taken as a whole the change over time can be seen from the 1840s through the 1880s reveals the country moved away from a focus on Christian charity. The social focus placed less importance on moral righteousness.
The United States changed to see any moral sympathy as the path to disaster. The nation had become one where capitalism had superseded Christianity as the cultural ethos.
Today we can pause and think about the games that people play and what they tell us about our own society.
It may help us to understand why football players are taking a knee during the national anthem.
It may help us to understand the popularity of online video games where hundreds of thousands of people meet up to quest in World of Warcraft, or why some choose to shoot terrorists in solo play in Call of Duty.
Whatever the insight, games are fun and reflective. History is in the games we play, because the games we play are games that are about us. It is as the Roman senator Cicero described it, “Historia est Magistra Vitae.” History is the teacher of life.
The Games We Played: A Playful Expression of Board Games. http://web.archive.org/web/20041226033242/www.nyhistory.org/games/index.html
Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. William Morrow and Company, 1994.
Lisa Miller Published Jul 1, 2012. “The Money-Empathy Gap.” NYMag.com. http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/.