This year (2011-2012) the University of Pennsylvania has chosen the theme of “Games” for a series of on-campus activities and explorations. The best thing I have seem associated with this theme year is the development of a Quidditch team at Penn; the worst thing is the small display on games at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

The Penn Museum should have been the perfect venue for an exhibit on games. It has an extensive collection of games from different cultures around the world and across time. The gaming collection was not accidental but the deliberate development of the first director of the museum, Stewart Culin (1892-1899). Culin thought that studying games was important because other scholars and many collectors were certain games were only interesting because they were “primitive pastimes” that proved that “savage” cultures we inferior to more evolved Western ones. Culin thought, instead, that the study of games was essential for studying any culture because it connected everyday life with mythology and worldmaking, two activities that define cultures. Through a study of games, Culin thought he could figure out the “worldview” of a culture, its general perspectives on how the world worked, the mythic concepts that guided its thinking, and the categories it used to organize the world and keep chaos away. He published a renowned book, Games of the North American Indian, that is still highly regarded today, nearly 100 years after its publication. The connections between games, gambling, divination, worldview, and mythology constitute Culin’s greatest contribution to anthropology.

To carry out these research concerns, Culin collected gaming materials for the new museum at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of these artifacts came from world’s fairs and international expositions, many of which included ethnographic displays of material from other cultures that showed connections between other human traditions and ours. Other artifacts came into the collection through archaeological excavations by Penn scholars and Culin’s own fieldwork. I have written about the significance of Culin’s work and gaming in a publication of the Penn Museum and will use some of that publication to explain the problems with the Penn Museum exhibit. A PDF of the entire article can be downloaded here:  Veni, Vidi, Vici: Taking a Chance on Chance

The hundreds of objects in the Penn Museum gaming collection could have given a fine sense of the significance of play in human societies. Instead, the museum has presented a small, two-case display that distorts the significance of games and play, and provides simplistic and inaccurate comments about games. Both cases contain text that fails to reflect the rich ideas of gaming theory, and they promote one simplistic purpose of gaming: to win. If there is anything games are not about, it is simply winning, or simply producing one winner who beats out the competition. This “winning is all” mentality would never be presented as the definition of play, gaming, competition, or games by anyone who had spent the least bit of time study the literature on the subject from the past 100 years. That it dominates the Penn Museum exhibit suggests either a hasty exhibit design or one controlled by an uninformed designer.

First the exhibit cases: there are two, one labeled “Games of Chance,” and the other labeled, “Games of Skill.” Each case contains a single, small window that contains several artifacts. Over the window is an explanatory text; below the window is a quote and artifact identifications. “Games of Chance” contains playing cards, ancient dice, Tarot cards, and a Hopi game board. The “Games of Skill” contains different kinds of balls.

Each case contains a large print quote from authors whose connection to gaming is not at all clear. Nevertheless, the selection of these quotes is illuminating of the faulty process by which these exhibits were designed. The first case, Games of Chance, has a quote from the 30th U.S. President John Calvin Coolidge: “Those who trust to chance must abide by the results of chance.” It’s hard to think of a less meaningful definition of chance or a less meaningful source for such a definition. Calvin Coolidge? Conservative, small-government, Silent Cal Coolidge? I’m guessing good ole John Calvin Coolidge never had fun at games in his whole life so why pick him to say something about games of chance? He didn’t believe in chance and stated that explicitly in his 1925 Inaugural Address; he believed in business and history and an unchanging human nature. I was not able to find a context or source for the quote used in this exhibit but the second half of it seems to be, “They have no legitimate complaint against anyone but themselves.” It is a damning statement for those who believe in chance. Coolidge and his conservative cronies believed that Americans had to take care of themselves and those who left their fate to chance (or worse, thought the government should help them) were foolish and deserved to suffer. Coolidge, by the way, was known for his inactivity  and for running a government that did nothing, on purpose. When learning that he had died, writer Dorothy Parker reportedly said, “How could they tell?”

Calvin Coolidge:

Not the best source, obviously, for a statement on chance. I would have chosen Gerda Reith’s brilliant book, The Age of Chance: Gambling and Western Culture, as a source of the definition of chance which, she points out, has changed through the millenia. Today, chance is associated, Reith says, with uncertainty, insecurity, randomness, risk, unpredictability. Chance doesn’t require a quoted definition as much as an understanding of its shifting and pervasive influences. Gaming, especially gambling (playing at games of chance while risking something tangible), is an engagement with chance. As Reitch says, gambling involves deliberately and knowingly stepping up to chance and seeing how far we can push it, “challenging destiny to reveal its intentions” because, even if we cannot change destiny, its intentions are weakened under our knowing attacks. She concludes that “gambling offers a microcosm of the uncertainty of the outside world” and this means that games are about more than a few artifacts that show what we play with. They are about how we try to make the world secure, she emphasizes, not how we try to win or become rich. Games, says French social theorist Roger Caillois, in his book Man, Play and Games, let us experience a world in which there are conditions of “pure equality” that we are denied in everyday life. The rules of chance and merit (his word for skill) are “clear and indisputable” in play whereas in real life they are always in dispute.

The second case in the Penn Museum exhibit describes Games of Skill and the quote highlighted in it is from author John Ruskin: Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation.  As far as I can tell, Ruskin had nothing to do with gaming: it is as if someone did a search for the word “skill” and found a quote that fit the space, even if it was not entirely significant. The quote is so difficult to untangle that it certainly is not the best way to define what is meant in this case by skill. I don’t know much about Ruskin but a simple wiki search (which anyone inserting this quote could have checked) suggests that he was not enamored of displays of skill but felt instead that an artist’s work should communicate their worldview, their moral outlook. To him, art (one of the subjects he wrote about) should not just be a demonstration of skill. Not the best person to be quoting for a definition of skill.

Reith points out that the distinction between games of skill and those of chance is artificial when it comes to gambling. Although there are elements of skill to playing poker for example, there are also elements of chance. This blending of these the seemingly different modes of play was acknowledged by the refusal of American federal authorities to sanction online poker because the element of chance was, for them, too integral to the game. Calloiss talks about skill, as described above, as something you bring to a game, not something that is inherent in the outcome of the game. Skill, or merit, is tested against chance and each player has the same opportunity to display and test their proposed superiority. The “prowess” one brings to a game can be wiped out, Callois reminds us, by the effects of chance which negates the influence of “work, patience, experience, and qualifications.” That blending, or even battle, between skill and chance, is what makes games so fascinating, not whether a game has only one or the other. They are always implicated in our understanding of the outcome of a game.

So the quotes, such a prominent element of the design of the cases, are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. And the basic premise of the two cases, that you can divide skill and chance, is overly simplistic and unfortunate.

Back to the first case which presents the concept that one of the two forms of  gaming is games of chance. Nowhere is there a definition of games or play or chance (and the connections between them). There are many possible definitions of play from many perspectives: economic, social, biological, psychological, physiological, cognitive, therapy, ritual, educational, neuroscience, mathematical, political, etc. Any of these could have informed an exhibit but since none of them was used here, I will suggest the one I prefer. I see play as an essential part of the flow of everyday human life, not a set of activities completely different from everything else we do, especially work. Play is stepping temporarily away from the everyday and entering into a set of activities that comment on, test, prod, challenge, redefine, confirm, and/or rehearse the real and the mundane. Play, says Roger Caillois, is “an occasion of pure waste” that takes place in an alternative universe that is voluntarily entered and abandoned at will. It is both restrictive, with clear and precise rules, and free, offering pleasure even though its outcome is uncertain or dangerous or expensive.

Where does that pleasure come from? For anthropologist Victor Turner, that pleasure is inherent in the state of liminality, the experience of in-betweeness. Entering a liminal or in-between world (as we do in play) lets us experience a world of rules turned upside-down, logic  challenged, cause-effect reversed, masquerade and imposture valued, chance run rampant, values redefined, and prohibitions laughed at. We play because we have to, because in order to understand how to evaluate and question the arbitrary nature of rules in the “real” world we need to experience its illogical alternative. The people who don’t play, who aren’t playful, are by definition uncreative, narrow-minded, blind to alternative visions, and stuck in the mundane.

Fate, chance, risk, luck, and destiny are all ways of thinking about and categorizing the world into those things you can do and control, and those things that seem beyond human control, beyond all rational, logical, magical, or religious explanations. Humans use the rules of specialized play to find out how chance works, what happens when they tempt fate, and how far they can push the laws of logic, cause-effect, statistics, and probability. James Smith and Vicki Abt, in their article “Gambling as Play,” suggest that in gambling, like in much game play, “There is a balance of skill—which makes the victory honorable and worthy of admiration— and luck—which makes victory possible for the less skillful.” It is interesting to them that most adult gaming involves chance and they suggest that, “Perhaps adults have less confidence in their ability to control their destinies and are therefore more willing to accept the unearned prizes bestowed by chance.”  If this is the case, gambling is less about the exchange of money and simple fun and more about the production of meaning and sense in a world of chance and risk.

Games are organized and cooperative play, and games can take all sorts of forms: that is what makes them so fascinating and what makes the appearance of gaming throughout human history so relevant. Greeks in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE played a drunken gambling game called kottabos during which they tossed wine dregs at an elaborate target, winning sweet treats, kisses, eggs, or a look at their future.

Kottabos players from a wall mural at Paestum, Italy (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

As long as 5,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians, in the afterlife, played a board game called senet, which re-enacts the nightly voyage of the sun god and the soul of the deceased through the Underworld, resulting in a judgment before the gods and an elevation for the winner to divine status. The stakes in this symbolic passage through the stages of the afterlife was nothing less that the player’s soul! A recreational version of the game was likely played by the living.

A senet board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary, reported that the Aztec wagered on a violent ballgame and also played a pachisi-like board game generally called patolli.

Aztec playing patolli as both a game and a spiritual activity, Codex Magliabecchiano

Games in mythology are often about order and chaos. Stewart Culin felt that the games were born out of the human desire to understand, categorize, and control our world. He saw evidence of this in the existence of gaming and gambler gods in tribal origin myths. For example, the Navajo tell of a Great Gambler god who, like his counterpart in other cultures, is a powerful supernatural being that shakes up the world and needs to be put back into his place. In these tales a good gambler-hero must defeat the god and restore order and justice. Similarly, in the ancient Maya Popol Vuh, the hero twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld in several bizarre games that include a ball game played with heads. Likewise, one of the great national epics of India, the Mahabharata, contains a dramatic account of a dice game that changes the fate of the entire world.

The second case in this exhibit insists that the most significant aspect of games is competition and the drive to win. It states, “Games are competitions that have a common goal: to win.” That is such a narrow view of play and games: it seems to favor organized, and maybe even professional and intercollegiate sports, as its prototype. I emphasize the cooperative rather than competitive nature of play because the idea that most play must result in a winner defeats the purpose of play and games. Winning is often incidental, important in some aspects of games but not in others and not the main reason to play. Maybe the truism, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” should come into play here, so to speak. How you play the game says much more about you as a player in the world of games than all the wins in the world. If the recent scandal at Penn State involving its winning football team should teach us anything, it is exactly that. No championship in the world, no trophy or honor for most wins or fancy sports facilities or millionaire coaches is worth more than the honor of playing—and living— with fairness and dignity and respect and caring for others. Competition and winning, as defined in this museum case, are misleading and damaging to our sense of play.

I just attended the Quidditch World Cup in New York, a gathering of 100 teams devoted to playing the centuries-old fantasy and real magical game revealed in the Harry Potter books. That there is competition in the games is not denied: everyone wanted to see the defeat of the 5 year champions, Middlebury College. But more importantly, this gathering and the games were about defining who you are, and who your community of shared values is. It is about making meanings, and making life more meaningful than is possible in cutthroat competition and the quantification of all aspects of life. It is playful, in all the wonderful and community-strengthening aspects of play. The sport, in which fantasy becomes reality for a brief time,  is played on over 300 college campuses and high schools, and in 12 countries.  It includes males and females on all teams and people of different sizes and abilities.

In the opening ceremonies, the International Quidditch Association commissioner, Alex Benepe, gave a speech that conveyed the origins of the sport on the Middlebury campus in 2005. Benepe told of overhearing at Middlebury two dudes making fun of the nascent Quidditch team and that only strengthened his determination to support the development of Quidditch. It was important, he stated to wild enthusiasm from the thousands of players and spectators in attendance, to, in his blunt words, “show those douche bags” just how cool and fun and valuable Quiddith was. He also encouraged players to play a “beautiful” game and to, of course, clean up after themselves.

The 2011 Quidditch World Cup (photos by Louise Krasniewicz)

The Penn Museum exhibit could have taken a lesson from the magical Quidditch players on just what constitutes a game and why games are so important. That the museum presented an overly simplistic and inaccurate exhibit on the meaning and value of games makes it a poor contribution to The Year of Games at Penn.