When Idle Hands Were the Devil's Workshop: Did Early Game Manufacturers Overcome A Gaming Prejudice?
by Nicolas Ricketts — National Museum of Play at The Strong
June 25, 2012 – 00:00
Nearly everyone plays games today. But the earliest manufactured board and card games illustrate that our ancestors may have felt differently about gaming. Many games from the middle and later nineteenth century were didactic—they taught a subject either scholarly or religious. Maps comprise all the earliest children’s puzzles; these taught geography. The first American board games followed a map’s path as well. Children’s card games often taught Bible verses or the titles of authors’ works. And one of the best-known and earliest board games, Milton Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life, followed courses paved with good deeds—move ahead—or slightly devilish setbacks. The winning player achieved the last space, literally Happy Old Age, with a combination of luck and accumulated points.
There was less time for play in the colonial agrarian economy, so time not spent working—often called idleness—was undesirable. But industrialization and increased urbanization, one hundred years later, changed habits and attitudes. As America grew and changed and manufacturing and capitalism gained footholds, people, and their children, had more time to play. But gaming itself carried a negative connotation from the past. Children had no disposable income of their own, so parents purchased their toys. Did they, as consumers, favor educational or moralistic games over simply playful versions? Or did the manufacturers discover that these games sold best and then promote them to increase profit? And finally, did educational or religious games help overcome a common belief of games and game playing as bad, evil, or a waste of time?