When Idle Hands Were the Devil's Workshop: Did Early Game Manufacturers Overcome A Gaming Prejudice?

Curator's Note

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?


Michael Z. Newman's picture

games for good purposes

Thanks for this informative post to kick off the week. I love the images in your slideshow, especially the New York state counties map.

The idea that play and games must be put to some productive purpose rather than being mere amusement or diversion recurs often in the history of video games in particular, as well as games more generally as you show. I tend to think of these efforts as expressions of adults’ anxieties about children and children’s culture. When video games emerged they were new and exciting but also threatening in some ways (unfamiliar, addictive, aggressive, etc.), and seeing them as a productive or educational technology (unlike, say, pinball machines, which were disreputable amusements) helped to domesticate the new medium and reassure adults that play would be safe and worthwhile. Maybe these early games had a similar function in relation to the growth of consumer culture and the increase in leisure time?

Nicolas Ricketts's picture

Thanks for the comment

Michael, your comment is both thought-provoking and timely. There are certainly many parallels between early games and today’s electronic games. And I think today’s games, and sales figures, could be said to have a similar effect and/or cause on today’s consumer culture and changes in perceptions of, and activities related to, the concept of leisure.

The didactic function of

The didactic function of board games (and other games) is something that’s always interested me a great deal. The extent to which seemingly abstract games serve such purposes is always an interesting concept to pick apart. The educational purpose of many of the games you cite does seem to fit in with broader trends in toymaking from those periods as many toys were intended to encourage children in mimicing adult behaviors and responsibilities. So, the chicken-or-the-egg style question you pose is quite compelling, and I wonder if perhaps the educational games reflected existing toymaking trends of the day.

I was not aware of the educational aspect of puzzles’ early history, although my grandmother used to tell me about the first one she’d seen — her father brought it home during the Great Depression, which was apparently a peak in jigsaw puzzles as a fad.

Nicolas Ricketts's picture

Great comments

I too have always been fascinated by games that teach, and what they say about the game industry. It is so difficult to understand what Mr. or Mrs. America was like 100 or 150 years ago without jumping onto generalizations about things like culture and manufacturing. I bet is is safe to assume that we’ve seen a gradual acceptance and enthusiasm for gaming in general, though, in the intervening years. Not a bad thing of course.

You’re absolutely right about jigsaw puzzles. The second and greatest American craze for them crested in 1933. People couldn’t get enough of them. They rented them and borrowed them from lending libraries, if they couldn’t afford them. Many thanks!

Shane Toepfer's picture

The Frivolity of Play

I am also fascinated by this topic, particularly the omnipresent critique of games and play as something wasteful or frivolous.  These examples perfectly illustrate the criticism of play as an unproductive use of time and energy by highlighting how early games had to compensate for this criticism, almost beating those who would criticize these texts to the proverbial punch.

I am really curious within these early examples of how players could have potentially "played" with the texts, subverting their structures to suit their own playful needs or desires.  It seems that in these moralistic and educational games that some really interesting modifications could be made by gamers looking to revel in play’s frivolous nature, enjoying the experience for its wasteful (and subversive) possibilities.

Steven Boyer's picture

Adult Education and Cash Grabs

The linked page about The Checkered Game of Life is intriguing in that it describes that game not necessarily in terms of children, but as a response to more adult vices (gambling, drink, idleness). While the focus on education for children seems a likely fit for educational games (and could be used in an attempt to stop them from becoming morally compromised adults), is there any sign that these games had significant adult usage? This also makes me wonder if other moral movements of the time (thinking Temperance) took interest in games. 

At the same time, building off your closing questions, I wonder how much of this emerged out of genuine educational or moral drives and how much of it is companies cashing in on the desires of the market. Were most of the board and card game companies owned or funded by religious, moral, or educational entities, or were they smaller parts of general entertainment producers? And how did the religious and educational institutions take to games, with added economic complexity again (for example, the benefits /drawbacks of an endorsement/condemnation by, say, the Catholic church to their broad consumer congregation)?


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