While life is not always fun and games – particularly if you are on a quest and heading into unknown territory – games have been a part of human entertainment for a long time. The need to relax from a long stint of guarding Hadrian’s Wall, or win some coin in a seedy tavern, or chance your fate with a con artist is deep in the human psyche.
In his 1938 book, Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga argued that games help forge a culture, and were a teaching tool for strategies of war, language, law, art and philosophy. Such tools can then be used by an author to reflect the culture they have created. Novels that have a game as a pivotal part of their plot are as diverse as “Red Dwarf” and the brain destroying game of Better than Life. This game used an electronic headpiece to propel the user into a perfect life that they wanted, at the expense of their physical body. Ron sacrificed himself in a game of Wizard Chess in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Matthew Reilly used chess as the game of choice for royalty, giving us a glimpse into royal life and danger in “The Tournament”.
All of these use a game to show the inner workings of what we want versus what we have and the scheming, an unexpected courage or the diplomacy that can be a central part of politics. In showing how people play, we reveal how they think. We all know someone quite mild who becomes a highly competitive scrabble player. It might be just a game, but it reveals much more.
Games have been a part of our culture for a long time. The earliest bone game pieces and dice are found in prehistoric sites, and even today, the game of knucklebones has plastic bone shaped pieces. Board games and counters date to 3,000 BC in Egypt and Turkey. India can claim ownership of Snakes and ladders, which spread rapidly. I have an old board where the sins lead to a fall down a snake – pride, greed etc all form a lesson in religious values for a young child to absorb without a lecture. The rules of chess were being formulated in Spain and Italy in the 15th century.
Games of chance also provide an opportunity to gamble, as well as deceive. Card games such as poker are a solid backbone of western movies. The photographic memory of the gambler in “Mackenna’s Gold” played by Gregory Peck saved him from death as he remembered the map that led to treasure. Whereas a card sharp or professional gambler was ok, a cheater risked being shot. Gambling and winning by sleight of hand is part of the charm of “The Stainless Steel Rat” by Harry Harrison, and Modesty and her sidekick Willie Garvin study card tricks in the Modesty Blaise series. Agatha Christie used clues in a card game to solve a murder in “Cards on the Table”. Playing poker in Star Trek, The Next Generation was a favourite way for the bridge staff to relax away from the stern eye of Picard. Or Spock playing 3D chess. In the Hornblower series by CS Forester, the favourite game of the analytical Hornblower was whist, with its precise calculation of risk and card runs. It was also a way for impoverished officers to win money and favour from the higher officers.
But when money may be won, there is always someone who loses. Do they do it gracefully, or flip the table over and get into a fight? Or do they use it to their advantage? The sideshow game of ‘where’s the bean?’ with fast hands and a ready flow of distracting chatter lead into areas of stage magicians with the ‘hand is quicker than the eye’ banter. But it’s not often the one moving the cups loses. One interesting variation on this was in “The Saint” books by Leslie Charteris, where Simon Templar had perfected the gentle art of disguise so as to look like the perfect gullible mark. In this way he could take down pyramid schemes and small-time swindlers who could not believe their luck and overextended their reach in order to strip him of money.
So it’s an interesting way to learn about a character without a massive dump of information. The author can show a lack of morals, or gracious in defeat, or a Machiavellian villain long before they are revealed in bigger and bolder actions. A game of chance or is it won by strategy?
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