Human beings are wired for two things—learning and playing. No one is likely to argue with the first claim…that we are wired for learning. Babies who are only a couple months old, for example, naturally begin to babble and imitate sounds. After a few more months, they learn to support their entire weight on their legs. By the time they are two-years-old, they can walk up and down stairs with just a bit of support; they even start formulating two-to-four word sentences. This natural acquisition of new skills and abilities transpires for nearly every human being and is evidence that we are wired…for learning.
But are we also wired for playing? Recently I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Barbara Voorhies, an archeologist who studies ancient civilizations on the coast of Chipas, Mexico. She has a PhD from Yale, and is currently a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Back in late 80’s, one of her projects at an ancient fishing village involved the excavation of enormous mounds of shells that had gone largely undisturbed for thousands of years. The real, discovery, however, wasn’t in the shell mound…but underneath it: an odd, round shape pressed into the mud by an ancient fisherman.
Though her discovery was decades ago, it wasn’t until just recently that she was able to put all the pieces together. Based on other people’s research and a number of similar discoveries around the world, Dr. Voorhies figured out that below this massive pile of shells was an ancient ‘chase’ game played with primitive dice—much like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. It’s one of many games played by ancient man that has been discovered all over the world. Some of the games are alleged to be the predecessors of ‘mobile gaming’: a mat with the game painted on it so that could be rolled up, transported, and played anywhere.
Humans have played games for thousands of years. And why wouldn’t we? Games offer rapt and rapid learning—a chance to learn deeply and quickly. My family recently had a few days off of school due to snow, so in addition to sledding and snowball fights, we dusted off the old Monopoly board. As my kids played I made little notes from time to time about the formal and informal learning that that seemed to be taking place. Any one who has played a bit of Monopoly tends to develop a strategy that seems to combine risk assessment, diversification, and timing. There is also a great deal of mental math, negotiation, and trading that comes into play. But as I watched three of my sons play, I noticed another skill being the developed—the ability to adapt and evolve.
Games like Monopoly have their own rules, but it is not uncommon for people play by ‘house rules,’ or their own modified version of the game. At our house, as the game drug on, my sons made their own adjustments and modifications. For example, it didn’t take them long to learn that being the banker was a lot of work, so they decided that everyone would take a turn running the money for ten minutes and then collect an extra 200 dollars at the end of their shift. At one point, the youngest brother started to lose the game—and as a result—also started to lose interest. To ensure that he kept playing, the other two brothers afforded him control over the selection of music that played in the background on Pandora. My favorite part of watching them play, though, was when one of the brothers successfully bartered for control of Boardwalk using a combination of his own previously acquired properties and two chocolate chip cookies that were fresh out of the oven.
These kids calculated, schemed, and compromised. They experimented with strategies and even developed a bit of financial diction. That is the real power of games. Games do what teachers often struggle to do—they blur the lines between learning and playing.
Voorhies, B. (2013). The Deep Prehistory of Indian Gaming: Possible Late Archaic Period Game Boards at the Tlacuachero Shellmound, Chiapas, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 24(1), 98-115.
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