Board games, video games, a long piece of yarn… I love them all. I took a break from batting around a catnip-filled mouse toy to talk about your question with my friend, Washington State University professor Jordan Clapper, who told me the answer is a mystery.
“That’s almost impossible to know—for some really fun reasons,” Clapper said. “Every culture has games. It even extends beyond being human. If you’ve ever seen a dog or a cat play, they’re playing a game. “
The earliest board game we’ve found is more than 4,600 years old. Archaeologist Leonard Woolley dug it up in a tomb from Sumer (modern-day Iraq). That tomb was in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, so he named it the Royal Game of Ur.
It was obvious the board was a game. But nobody knew the game’s rules. That’s where Irving Finkel came in. He works for the British Museum. He’s an expert in cuneiform—an ancient writing system of pressing marks into clay tablets. Finkel figured out that one 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 is fun and useful. So, he invented a video game for a research show at his lab in 1958. It worked on 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 you pressed with a big ‘ker-chunk’ sound to send the ball back over the net to the other side.”
You might wonder why people invented games. Clapper said games are meaningful simply because they’re fun. But they can also preserve and share cultural knowledge.
“Games can pass along stories,” Clapper said. “Games can do important cultural work or ask questions in unique ways.”
One of Clapper’s areas of expertise is Indigenous games. I learned about the Skins Workshops. That program teaches Indigenous young people to bring traditional stories to video games. That’s also what game developer Elizabeth LaPensée does with her games like When Rivers Were Trails and Thunderbird Strike. Clapper told me Never Alone is a video game made by the Iñupiat Native people of Alaska. Nearly 40 elders and story tellers worked together to bring the story to life.
If you love games, you can even make your own.
“Anyone can make a game,” Clapper said. “Last year I was finishing 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!