Importance of the Collecting and Study of Games

Paul Brewster

Eastern Anthropolgist, 10(1), 1956, pp. 5-12.

Reprinted in E.M. Avedon & B. Sutton-Smith,
The Study of Games, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1971;
and Reprint Edition: New York: R.E. Krieger Publishing Co. Inc., 1979, pp. 9-17.

[Page 9] The definitions and interpretations of the term game are many and widely varied. On the theory that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," G. Stanley Hall sees in the games of children the reproduction of activities natural, and even essential, to our early ancestors but having little or no relation to the modem milieu. This point of view has been adopted more recently by Reany, who divides the child's play-life into five stages (animal, savage, nomad, pastoral, and tribal), assigning an age span to each.1 Groos, on the other hand, after having studied and described both the play of human beings and that of animals, concludes that in the child's game we have what is essentially an exercise contributory to the development of the physical organs. The game is motivated by some basic instinct: the urge for physical contact (as in wrestling), the urge to chase, etc. Following the same theory, Car sees in the social games of the child a reminiscence of the collective unconscious and an exercise fixing the newly acquired functions or duties. The functional theory advanced by Claparede was inspired by Groos, but diverges somewhat from the views of the latter. For Claparede the game represents a kind of apprenticeship for the duties and responsibilities of life, under the influence of instinct.

[Page 10] This emphasis upon the part played by instinct is, however, not acceptable to modern psychologists, who look upon an explanation giving instinct for the motivating force as equivalent to an admission of ignorance. Under the influence of Freud and his disciples, the game has been regarded by some students of the subject as a compensation or substitution for instincts suppressed by the normal conscience. Presented in the innocent form of a game, they are accepted by society without question.

Piaget sees in the game:

"… sous ses deux formes essentielles d'exercices sensori-moteur et de symbolisme, une assimilation du reel a l'activite propre, foumissant a celle-ci son alimentation necessaire et transformant le reel en fonction des besoins multiples du moi. C'est pourquoi, ajoute-t-il, les methodes actives d'education des petits exigent to utes que l'on fournisse aux enfants un materiel convenable, afin qu'en jouant ils parviennent a s'assimiler les realites intellectuelles qui, sans cela, demeurent exterieures a l'intelligence infantile."

[Editorial Note: The following is a computerized English translation of the French text. "... In its two main forms of sensory-motor exercises and symbolism, an assimilation of reality to the activity, Fuma has it's necessary power and transforming the real according to the multiple needs of the self. It why, he adds, the active methods of education to require small utes that can provide children with a suitable material, so that they reach a playing assimilate the intellectual realities that would otherwise remain External child has the intelligence."]

J. Chateau denies that there is in the child's game this assimilation of the reel to himself, but says that the assimilation comes slowly. and as a consequence of serious, rather than play, activities. The child makes of himself the center of the world, and does not seek to explore anything beyond himself. Objects interest him only when he is permitted to exercise his powers (of touch, taste, etc.) upon them. The driving force in the child's play activities, as he begins to tryout his muscles and his senses, is the desire to become strong or in some other way superior.

According to Huizinga, all play is a voluntary activity.2 He goes on to say that it has two basic aspects; it is either a contest for something or a representation of something.3

Herbert Spencer has pointed out that play uses up surplus energy in young who have no need to feed or to protect themselves, all such care being the responsibility of the parents. To this idea, early psychoanalysis added the so-called "cathartic" theory, according to which play has a definite function in the growing child in that it furnishes him a means by which he can work off past emotions and find imaginary relief for past frustrations.4

Notwithstanding the wide diversity of opinion as to what constitutes play or a game, there is a pretty general feeling among those who have [Page 11] studied the subject that the game is perhaps a more fruitful and more important field for investigation than has hitherto been realized, and a growing awareness of the need for collecting and studying the traditional games before they are completely replaced by those of more modern origin.

Anthropologists, ethnologists, and others studying native tribes have, on the whole, been strangely indifferent to the pastimes ,of the peoples among whom they happen to be working. True, such scholars as Haddon, Im Thurn, Roth, Griaule, Itkonen, Costermans, Comhaire-Sylvain, and others have given us a great deal of valuable information, but a far greater number have interested themselves almost exclusively in the economic, political, and/or religious life of the tribe under study.

This apparent indifference has in many instances been remarked upon and deplored by field workers themselves. Dr. Padmanabhachari writes:

Human life and human institutions can be better understood by - and indeed cannot be thoroughly understood at all without - a study of the life of primitive peoples including even their pastimes, the games they played, the sports they engaged in ... Play patterns are an integral part of all human culture wherever mankind is found and in whatever state of advancement the culture may be. A study of the play of primitive peoples will throw much needed light on the nature of the play tendencies of mankind as a whole. Moreover, a study of games and sports will reveal to us the nature and extent of civilisation of the race.5

Professor Bell, writing on the Tanga, comments:

I believe that the play-life of a people is just as efficient a guide to its ethics as its magico-religious life or its economic life. The study of primitive play has been sadly neglected, and probably stands in much the same position as the study of primitive economics stood until quite recently. One of the essentials of human happiness is indulgence in some form of play. I feel that this is a universal postulate which may be applied to all peoples of all cultures, and I would appeal to all those who are in a position to study primitive peoples to pay a close attention to the subject of primitive play.6

In his series of articles on Nigerian games, Professor Newberry writes:

Many educationists and anthropologists have voiced the opinion that [Page 12] too often is it the case that the study of a tribe or people is confined almost entirely to adult life from puberty onwards, and that only occasionally is a detailed account of children's games given in what are in other respects comprehensive accounts.7

Raum expresses his views on the matter in the following words:

Since modern sociological schools of Social Anthropology are almost exclusively interested in "structural" analyses of social ways and relations, certain areas of "primitive" life-and among them games-have passed out of the focus of attention of anthropologists. This is to be regretted.8

Similar statements are to be found in the writings of many other anthropologists and students of native life.

In recent years the situation has changed somewhat for the better, although one still encounters in professed ethnological studies such cavalier treatment of games as the following:

N'dri and Quodie had crossed the road to a group of dark men playing some game in the shelter of a great uprooted tree. The game consisted of tossing pellets very rapidly into the holes of what resembled a wooden muffin tin .... Ruth, who was forever trying to outwit an amazing variety of patently unfounded inferiority complexes, saw a challenge here, for she was very good at games .... "Ah, oui," sighed N'dri as Ruth moved in among a tribe he considered inferior to his own, which was Baole, and Ruth was indeed playing clack-click, click-clack, and winning all the marbles ....9

Although the author's interest here lies in a more serious subject, one might reasonably expect him at least to identify the game in question, particularly since he must have met with it many times in the course of his travels.

The benefits to be derived by the anthropologist or the ethnologist from a study, particularly a comparative study, of games are many. Perhaps one of the greatest of these is the evidence often found in games of direct borrowing or of adaptation of games materials of neighbouring peoples. Sometimes these borrowings or adaptations are of fairly recent [Page 13] date; sometimes the internal evidence points to a much earlier period. In either event, theories regarding culture contacts between certain peoples are often materially strengthened by the discovery of non-indigenous elements in the games played by a particular tribe or nationality. As one Indian scholar has well expressed it:

It seems to me that ... the importance of the comparative study of such games, from the ethnological standpoint, does not lie so much in the details of their similarities and differences as in the light it throws on social contact between different groups of people. Culture traits may migrate in various ways, and these migrations may be due either to actual movements of people or, as so often happens, to contact. The tracing of the possible routes of migrations of these games, as in all other single traits, furnishes important clues regarding the general contact-metamorphosis of different people or the displacement of one by the other. Whichever may be the basic reason in a particular locality or particular tribes, it provides important clues and evidence which are of considerable value to the historical study of their culture!10

If the investigator finds it difficult or impossible to gain admittance to a peculiarly sacred ceremony or to learn the substance of a jealously guarded ritual, he can sometimes learn a great deal, though perhaps not all, about these by observing closely the imitations of them by the children. Since children are extremely clever imitators, possess retentive memories, and, above all, are conservative, their versions of the ceremonies and rituals are by no means to be taken lightly. And no matter how sacred the ceremony or how strong the taboos surrounding it, it is almost sure to have its counterpart in the games of the children. Bell, for example, mentions the imitating by Tanga boys and girls of the datal, a puberty rite,11 and Schwab has described in detail the imitation of the well-known sasswood ordeals by boys and girls in Liberia.12 According to Haddon, one of the favourite pranks of boys in British New Guinea is to mask and then to imitate the fulaari, a kind of village constabulary whose duty it is to enforce any afu or taboo imposed by the chief.13 An anonymous Indian writer tells how he himself, as a child, used to imitate in [Page 14] play the Muktad, or Dosla, ceremonies. One of his statements is worth repeating here:

With change of times, the original rituals and ceremonies may possibly pass away, giving place to some new forms, but the children, who are conservative, may retain and continue them till it may be difficult to identify them and to trace their origin.14

Ghosts and evil spirits still play their roles in the games of children though the adult members of the society may no longer believe in them, and the dart- and spear-throwing games still popular among many peoples take us back to a time when these were not games but an important part of the training process by which young men were developed into warriors and hunters.

Many of the games played by twentieth-century children, even by those of the most highly civilized societies, contain traces of very ancient and even primitive beliefs and practices: water worship, the foundation sacrifice, the symbolism of colours, the efficiency of spittle as a fuga daemanum, the witch, the "Black Man," crossing the fingers to avoid being taken prisoner, and many many others, all of them of interest to the ethnologist and the folklorist.

However, it is not only the anthropologist who can benefit from a study of games. Since in a number of them there are many archaic 'words, they should be of interest and value also to the philologist. In the case of many, if not most, of the counting-out rhymes used to determine which player is to be "It" in a chasing game, which is to have first turn, etc., the majority of the words appear to be mere gibberish and are so regarded both by adults and by the players themselves. However, a careful study reveals that in many instances these have not been made up by the players but are either archaisms or unintelligible corruptions of words still in current use.15 Bolton and others working in this field have found in counting-out rhymes fragments of Latin prayers from the Middle Ages, phrases from Masonic ritual, bits of incantations and spoken charms, words from the gypsies' Romany, tinkers' slang, and the professional jargon of strolling mountebanks.16 Curious admixtures of this kind are occasionally to be found also in songs, rhymes, and dialogue [Page 15] within the game proper. As is frequently the case in religious or magic rituals,17 participants in games may sometimes be found using special vocabularies. This, however, is more likely to be encountered in games engaged in by adults than in those played by children.

Certain games are of particular interest, or should be, to the psychologist, the psychiatrist, and, in a slightly lesser degree perhaps, the physician. One of these, and probably the best example of the type, is the hantu musang or main musang of Malaysia.18 In this game, which is played by boys and on occasion by men, one of the participants is hypnotized by the rest. Then follows a chant of invocation in which the spirit of an animal (civet cat, monkey, goat, etc.) is invited to enter the body of the boy.19 When the transfer has been effected, the hypnotized player performs, with amazing fidelity, the characteristic actions of the animal in question. While in this state he does feats which would be quite impossible for him were he in his normal condition. The game is not without its dangers (injury as a result of falling from a height, for example) for the boy who is possessed, and great care must be exercised in bringing him out of the hypnotic state. Since trances and possession are features of religious groups in many widely separated parts of the world, games of this kind should have some appeal also for the student of comparative religion. In the former, however, the trance seems, ordinarily at least, to be self-induced, aided perhaps by sounds, perfumes, etc., but not requiring any physical contact such as is frequently found in games of the hantu musang type. The priest or shaman or even an humble worshipper may be possessed by a saint, a god, or a god manifesting himself as an animal-spirit. Dr. Verrier Elwin writes me:

I have not come across any game in India which resembles the hantu musang but I have witnessed scenes where priests or shamans have been possessed by an animal-spirit and have behaved very like the animal concerned. Thus among the Hinduised Gonds of Madhya Pradesh the spirit of Hanuman sometimes possesses a man during the harvest festival and this man then behaves exactly like a monkey to the great entertainment [Page 16] of the spectators. He appears to be in a state of trance when this happens, and this is probably induced by a long period of drumming, chanting, and drinking.20

The educator, too, can learn much from the games of children if he is a careful observer. He will note, for example, that although the games are spontaneous and unsupervised,21 there are certain rigid rules, learned from elders or formulated by the children themselves, to which they conscientiously adhere. And he will note, further, that any infraction, no matter how slight, of these rules will result in the culprit's being severely rebuked if not expelled from the playing group. He will probably be surprised to learn that number games were being played by children of so-called primitive societies long before they were introduced into modern education as a teaching technique, and may well be amazed at the youngsters' skill in mental computation and at their grasp of the principle of counter distribution. It is largely because of their having been encouraged as children to take part of such games that in adulthood they are so proficient in mancala and similar board games.22

From very early times the agility and grace of playing children have furnished subjects for the artist and the sculptor, as have also, to a lesser extent, games of a sedentary nature. A terra cotta group in the British Museum, representing two girls playing astragals or knucklebones, has been dated as 800 B.C.23 Erman has copies of wall paintings of board games, jumping games, kollabismos, and other games, all dating from the Fifth Dynasty or the Middle Kingdom.24 MIle Auboyer's recent fine work contains drawings from wall paintings and sculpture depicting ball games, [Page 17] the playing of board games with dice, and the spinning of tops.25 Some of these paintings and carvings are as old as 200 B.C. A wall painting of a hand-clapping game being played by two young Egyptian girls, which for centuries has adorned the tomb of Ak-hor, has been reproduced in Culin and Falkener.26 Later artists who have painted the games of children include the elder Pieter Brueghel, whose "Children's Games" is perhaps the best-known example of the genre; B. Dahlerup; N'Guyen Phan Chanh, whose painting of two small Annamite children playing a board game while two others look on has been reproduced in Beart's recent two-volume work on West African games;27 and Jan Molenaer, whose La Main Chaude hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Singing-games and dancing-games have much of value for the musicologist and the choreographer. The study of games of this type has been, for example, a very important part of the work of the sisters Danica and Ljubica Yankovic, of Belgrade, whose books and articles on folk-dancing are recognized by all folklorists as models of thorough research and meticulous scholarship.

Workers in the fields both of mental and of physical therapy have in the games of children extremely valuable tools, and particularly so since for almost any condition a suitable game or pastime can be found.

Finally, it should be stressed that one need not be a specialist on games in order to collect them. True, it might be better if he were, but if all he can do is set down carefully and in full detail all that he sees and hears from beginning to end of the game, he is still making a valuable contribution not only to colleagues in his own field but to workers in other fields as well.


  1. Mabel J. Reany, The Psychology of the Organized Group Game (Cambridge University Press, 1916). According to her classification, the animal period covers the 'years from birth to age 7, the savage period from 7 to 9, the nomad from 9 to 12, and the pastoral and tribal stages from 12 to 17.
  2. John Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (trans. F. C. Hull), London, 1949, p. 7.
  3. Ibid., p. 13.
  4. See Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York, 1950), p. 187.
  5. T. R. Padmanabhachari, "Games, Sports and Pastimes in Prehistoric India," Man in India, XXI, 2--3 (April-September, 1941), 128.
  6. F. L. S. Bell, "The Play Life of the Tanga, II," Mankind, II, 4 (June, 1937), 86.
  7. R. J. Newberry, "Some Games and Pastimes of Southern Nigeria," The Nigeria Field, VII, 2 (April, 1938), 85.
  8. O. F. Raum, "The Rolling Target (Hoop-and-Pole) Game in Africa: Egyptiar Accession Rite or Multiple Ritual Symbolism," African Studies, XII, 3 (September 1953), 105.
  9. Hassoldt Davis, Sorcerers' Village (Boston, 1955), pp. 26-27, Italics mine.
  10. Sunder Lal Hora, "Sedentary Games of India," Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, N. S. XXIX (1933),5.
  11. F. L. S. Bell, "The Play of the Tanga, I," Mankind, II, 3 (1937), 57.
  12. George Schwab, Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology, XXXI), Cambridge (Mass.), 1947, p. 223.
  13. A. C. Haddon, "Notes on Children's Games in British New Guinea," Journai of the Royal Anthropological Institute, XXXVIII (1908), 294.
  14. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, X, 5, (1915), 374-375.
  15. F. R. Chapman, "Koruru, the Maori Game of 'Knuckle-Bone'," Journal of the Polynesian Society, VII, 2 (June, 1898), 114 ("It appears to be a genuine Maori game, as the people could not give me the meanings of the words, which they say are old Maori ones").
  16. See H. O. Bolton, The Cownting-out Rhymes of Children, Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution (London, 1888).
  17. For a good example of this, see Frederick Kaigh, Witchcraft and Magic of Africa (London, 1947), pp. 31-56, 60.
  18. Other names are hantu kra (monkey), hanta kambing (goat), hantu kuching ( cat), sintren, lais, main peteri, and lokang (lokan). Dr. Polunin, of the faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, has made a film of main peieri and lokang; and Dr. de Jong, of the Institute of Malay Studies, has a tape recording of the introductory portion of the ceremony. I have for some time been collecting materials on hantu musang and hope eventually to publish a study of it and other games of the type.
  19. There is a difference of opinion here. Some writers who have witnessed it regard it as only a clever bit of imitation.
  20. In a letter from Shillong on March 7, 1956.
  21. There is really, of course, no other kind. As Huizinga (op. cit., p. 7) puts it "First and foremost, then, all play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play; it would at best be but a forcible imitation of it."
  22. This game, or some form of it, is played all over the Far East and among most African tribes. It is known also as Chanka (Ceylon), Chongkak (India), Chuncaio (Philippines), La'b hakimi or L'ab akila (Syria), Mediiwa (Bali), Dakon (Malaya) Cabatta or Madii (Abyssinia), Wari (West Coast), Toee (Congo), Batt (Wad! chagga ), etc. Some natives become so expert that they play blindfolded and are able to play two or three opponents simultaneously; see Alan P. Merriam, "The Game of Kubuguza Among the Abatutsi of North-East Ruanda," Man, LIll (November 1953), 171.
  23. E. Lovett, "The Ancient and Modem Game of Astragals," Folk-Lore, X, (September, 1901), 2-80.
  24. Adolf Erman, Aegypten und Aegyptisches Leben im Altertum (ed. Herman Ranke), pp. 175,279,290, 292.
  25. Jeannine Auboyer, La vie publique et privée dans l'Inde anciienne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955).
  26. Stewart Culm, Korean Games, with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan (Philadelphia, 1895); Edward Falkener, Games Ancient and Oriental (London, 1892).
  27. Ch. Beart, Jeux et Jouets de Touest africain, II (Dakar, 1955),481.

Last update August 27, 2010