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A Path to Our Futures

Mary Flanagan (Dartmouth College)

A new perspective on game history can inspire next-generation designers to create new models for play in the context of the Anthropocene.

What is this new perspective, exactly? First, we must forge a stronger articulation of the relationship between games and their cultures of emergence. An ancient example clarifies this theme: in the second century BCE, someone bothered to craft a clay cuneiform tablet that details the rules of what likely was, at the time, a popular board game of ancient Mesopotamia. Only a handful of zealous researchers, such as Irving Finkel at the British Museum, have pursued deep understandings of such ancient play artifacts. But what’s most interesting for those of us working in games—contemporary designers and scholars—is to find that ludic thinking and its link to spiritual significance abound in artifacts and art forms from around the globe. In fact, the history of games is in part humanity’s age-old spiritual quest to understand themselves and the cosmos. The history of games is carved into ancient stone, depicted in burial chambers. Take the Egyptian game of senet, for example. Scenes of game play date back to 3100 BCE, but the game is likely much older.1 The example of senet is particularly compelling because there is much evidence that it evolved in time, moving from a pastime with no religious connotations to become used as a spiritual tool. As Piccione notes, by 1293 BCE, the senet board “had been transformed into a simulation of the netherworld, with its squares depicting major divinities in the afterlife”2—the strategy of the game reflecting the strategy of the gods.

A second aspect of the new perspective concerns bringing direct attention to the circulation of games themselves: the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways in which games influence, are borrowed, or become outright appropriated, and how these shifts add to or reduce a game’s power to communicate ideas. Our senet example reflects the changing and (sometimes precarious) cultural conditions found in the life cycle of many games, but games can also move from meaningful spaces to something far less significant when removed from their context of creation. The Indian game of Mokshapat was literally a spiritual quest within the Hindu dharma. Then it was appropriated by British colonists, taken to the UK, and published as Snakes and Ladders, a popular children’s race game that eliminated the meaningful aspects altogether. Imagine if there remained a spiritual or contemplative part of the game how different games might have emerged.

How we tell the story about the history of games changes the way we imagine games to be.

It’s true that games have often functioned as metaphors for paths to enlightenment or trails to transcendence—but not always. The Landlord's Game, the appropriated precursor to Monopoly, was created by Lizzie Magie in 1903 to demonstrate the system of land grabbing by developers for commercial means, thus serving corporations, not people. The original critique on economic policy was distorted into Monopoly, a celebration of that very practice, promising the American dream during the Great Depression. Thus, games continually exemplify their historical conditions, and designers repurpose and appropriate mechanics to reflect them—not always in a good way.

Once we consider the deep link between games, their cultures, and the context for how they change and circulate, the next step is far bolder. I propose that we use history to inform how we craft games that reflect contemporary concerns and possibilities. Brian Sutton-Smith, Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and a handful of other (male) scholars were early twentieth-century proponents for the study of game and proposed various reasons for why we play. Sutton-Smith’s Rhetorics of Play, in particular, is a wonderful prism through which we can view game history, offering various simultaneous purposes for our play, from realizing one’s identity to exploring power to situating ourselves against fate. But none of these scholars tried to move us beyond these simulations of existing social practices to provide speculative futures in which we must play unprecedented, unimaginable roles. Many—but not all—contemporary games rely on overused and outdated tropes in our age of escalating urgency, where unprecedented levels of migration and the instability of planetary resources absolutely demand new attention to traditional game mechanics such as resource grabbing, transportation or territory control, and winner-take-all outcomes. In the Anthropocene, there is unlikely to be a sole winner or secure future.

Aside from driving games, sports, and puzzle games (from the likes of Fez and Monument Valley to immersive environment puzzles like Gone Home and Dear Esther), there remain relatively few supported alternatives to violent, us-vs-them interaction, especially in AAA games. It’s incredibly challenging to invent new modes of interaction, and even harder to reinvent the ways we are used to playing. But we must.

What does it look like to create new models for games in the context of the Anthropocene? Clues in contemporary games help point the way. For example, the game Journey (2012) positions two players to coexist or collaborate in a beautiful lost world. Removing any capacity for violent interaction and language, the game has communication happen through movement and small sounds. This type of reinvention of online game connectivity that eschews stereotypical battle interaction for subtle, language-free bonding leaves players feeling positive, even loving, toward their unidentified collaborators. Other games twist standard game tropes or focus on different ways to be a hero. The Stanley Parable (2013) plays against the authority of the narrator and questions the idea of agency in games. Wandersong (2018) involves players saving the world through singing. The board game Pandemic (2008) features compelling cooperative play.

Playing games together gives us a structured way to exist together, to set conflict in a frame removed from our daily grind. Games give us a role in which we can play a definitive part, in which we act within the construct given, and in which there’s the promise of success against odds.

But the odds are changing. No longer do domination strategies feel satisfactory, or binary winner-take-all models of game play make sense. We need to be moving from binary oppositions and resource gorging to more complex, cooperative, radical models that will be required to reflect problem solving in a new age of drastic planetary conditions. Perhaps games themselves not only reflect, but help create, cultural conditions. If that is the case, the most important conditions that games model are not those of annihilation but rather reduction, simplicity, and cooperation.

Studying these play things and taking them beyond light entertainment to a serious level of cultural logic, then, will help us better understand our present and create speculative futures—a critical task of the games community.


1. ^ Peter Piccione, “In Search of the Meaning of Senet,” Archaeology 33 (July/August 1980): 55–58.

2. ^ Piccione, “In Search of the Meaning of Senet,” 56.