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Whether you’re talking about chariot races in the Roman Empire, polo in ancient Persia, World Series baseball in the early 1900s, or World Cup soccer matches a century later, there’s no doubt that games and entertainment have been part of the human experience since day one.

But what is it about games, sports, and competitions, in general, that has so long enthralled humankind? And how have elements of games found their way into education over the years?

A Brief History of Games

Games have certain attractive elements that have remained the same throughout the course of history, and most games have incorporated a framework or set of rules that must be abided by. For example, in tabletop RPGs, GMs aren’t expected to write a novel detailing the world the players inhabit; instead, the format is intended to facilitate communal storytelling. The respect for this commonly found framework isn’t just important — it’s what reinforces the concept of each game in the first place. In addition, things like competition and teamwork have long been valued by human civilizations and have always been integral parts of games and competitions. Goals and values are embedded in each game we play, and both have evolved throughout history.


Another classic, more utilitarian element to games throughout history is their ability to be used as a teaching tool. Polo, for example, was used as a training exercise for the Persian cavalry. In the same vein, cutting-edge modern teaching methods like STEAM education regularly incorporate games in order to teach students about advanced and challenging subjects. While games have enough reason to exist on other merits, their usefulness as a teaching tool is unparalleled.

Children’s Toys

In spite of certain similarities like teamwork and educational value, though, there’s no doubt that games have taken on a variety of different forms over the centuries. Children’s toys, for example, have always existed. But for millennia they were simple and scarce. Things like balls, whistles, dice, and knucklebones were common, but very few things were developed beyond these basic trinkets until the Enlightenment. During the 18th century, though, the entire toy industry boomed as cultures began to value children as individuals in their own right.


Nowadays, many toys are even designed with educational intent. From alphabet blocks to construction sets, to toy computers, educational toys have become much more advanced over the past couple of centuries, all with the goal of leveraging game-like mechanics to enhance learning.

Entertaining Adults

As far as adults go, games have always been present throughout history. The Greeks were competing in the Olympic games by 776 B.C. The Romans were obsessed with gladiatorial competitions and chariot races for centuries. The ancient Chinese board game “Go” was invented 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The soldiers literally cast lots for Jesus’ clothes.


Over time the games changed in appearance. The Middle Ages saw classic sport-like staples like melees (mock battles) and that iconic contest of champions: jousting. Board games like chess and Fox & Geese also were popular at the time. By the 1630s Jesuit missionaries had also discovered the Native American sport of stickball or lacrosse.


Since the Renaissance, many different paintings have also depicted card games and even fully operating “gaming houses.” By the turn of the 20th century, modern classics like billiards were on the table as well. When the early 1970s arrived, the first arcade-type video game had been introduced and was followed by home console offerings by Atari, Nintendo, Coleco, and Phillips. As technology evolved, Nintendo, Sony, and Xbox has released and continued to innovate with new iterations of their flagship consoles, as well as a slew of other modern video game marvels.

The Unpredictability Factor

While there is certainly an endless list of historical games to choose from, the enduring popularity of games like billiards, cards, and chess are perfect examples of how important unpredictability is for a game to be successful. Chess, for example, has an incredible number of variations on how the game can play out. In fact, there are more ways that a chess game can be played than there are human hairs, grains of sand, and atoms in the universe even if you multiplied them all together. The level of creativity that is left in the hands of a chess player to craft their own path as they play is a key part of what has kept the game, and others like it, popular for centuries.


Another factor that helps keep these games fresh from one generation to the next is the level of creativity that goes into playing them. Whether you’re a billiard player banking a shot off a wall, a poker player calculating your chances, or a chess player making a gutsy move for your opponent’s queen, the creative power required to play is a common theme throughout many of the most famous games in history, and this type of creativity has a lot of potential in education when gamification is applied..

Modern Games and the Future

While games continue to be a hotspot for humans to rally around, the kind of games being played is rapidly evolving with time. On the one hand, certain old-school gaming approaches, such as board games, have made a comeback in popularity.


However, at the same time, technology continues to have an undeniable effect on the gaming world. Virtual and augmented reality continue to demonstrate their considerable abilities through popular games like Pokémon GO, which literally blends the game into the physical surroundings of a person no matter where they are.


The advent of self-driving cars is also promising to open up an entirely new frontier of in-car gaming as passengers are shuttled around by their autonomous vehicles. In fact, in 2019 Audi was already busy demoing virtual reality gaming systems that allowed users to don a headset and play on the go. It even incorporated the actual motion of the vehicle as it drove.


In addition, the age-old concept of using games for education continues to find new outlets as the capabilities of virtual reality further facilitate the use of games in the learning experience. The increasingly complex abilities of VR systems allow students to use them to learn and even fail in a way that isn’t harmful to themselves or others.


There’s no doubt that modern games look quite different from their ancient and time-honored brethren. But regardless of their often dramatically different appearance, they continue to serve the same function for humans that they have all along. Modern games of all shapes and sizes continue to provide a means to reinforce values like competition, teamwork, and creativity in education as they impact the lives of humans around the globe.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.