Concerning the origin of games

By | January 9, 2009

Like most things, games evolve. Modifications arise over time, sometimes by design, sometimes casually – examples include deliberate design, house rules, misinterpretation, and our innate tendency to search for parsimony and avoid unnecessary complexity. Since game designs are socially transmitted between both players and designers, and elements of game design can be recombined to form new games, these modifications accumulate over time, spawning new games that compete with others for attention and favour. Survival of the funnest, so to speak, with design patterns as genes, and boredom as the key factor leading to game species extinction.

The point here isn’t to assert that the evolution of games is the same as biological evolution, but to draw a few interesting parallels:

  • Firstly, games should continually change to suit their environment; that is, the minds and taste of current gamers. Read simplistically, game evolution suggests that games will necessarily become more fun, more accessible, and more addictive over time. However, though this may occur on a localized scale, changes in taste and social context over time will prevent this, particularly with regards a given design’s more flexible qualities. This mistake is similar to that in which a modern biological species is held to be somehow more evolved and thus better in some way than an earlier species or a species that exhibits characteristics similar to earlier species. Later designs are not necessarily improved designs.
  • Secondly, a relationship exists that mirrors that between biology and geography in biological evolution and, furthermore, has similar consequences leading to speciation. For example, in biology, allopatry is the phenomena where a population splits in two by some natural barrier and thus evolves into different species. In games, there is an obvious example in the many flavours of football, or, more recently and more abstractly, in the way that early war games evolved into a vast array of different role-playing games based on divides of geography, player age, taste, and available play time, all of which characterize the different ‘brain ecologies’ in which games live.
  • Thirdly, the arguments used to defeat the blind watchmaker argument used by creationists can be used to conjecture a way in which games and play could arise spontaneously (click here for a good video demonstrating the blind matchmaker version).
    • Assume the existence of creatures capable of making a distinction between those activities worth doing for their own sake and those not, and capable of combining aspects of those activities to produce new potentially worthwhile ones.
    • Over time, the process of living will cause those creatures to engage in many activities. They are thus likely to randomly discover worthwhile activities.
    • Given freedom to act, those activities are likely to be repeated.
    • Two factors now come into play. Firstly, the original activity will vary each time it is produced due to circumstance and memory, and, secondly, activities may be combined.
    • As this process repeats itself over time, new, more complex forms of worthwhile activity will arise. The resulting activity is play.
    • To move from undirected play to games, we need formalisms such as rules, restrictions, and goals. These might evolve on their own or they might arise in response to social pressures, a desire for commonality and consistency, or even just desire for an economy of expression. It’s not clear whether they require higher function and language, however – perhaps animals can play, but only humans can play games.

None of this is really that revolutionary – game designs are just memeplexes, and Dawkins has already argued quite convincingly that memes and memeplexes evolve along similar lines to genes.

Point three, however, has an interesting consequence that I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. Assuming the general idea holds, it has only minimal assumptions that any life with rudimentary language and intelligence would most likely possess. Therefore, this seems to suggest that games and play are an inevitable feature of all intelligent life. This seems somewhat intuitively obvious, but its nice, I think, to see why it should be.