Imagine you are a prehistoric human. What is your life like? You may spend your days hunting, tending crops, or crafting. But what do you do in your free time? You likely gather around a fire with other members of your community to tell stories or play games. Storytelling and games have been cornerstones of our civilization and essential to human expression. But when did they first combine? What is the connection between these two pillars of our society?
Storytelling predates the written word and likely began shortly after the advent of spoken language. The earliest storytellers used visual aids to enhance their narrative – gestures, facial expressions, and artwork created on rock walls, living trees, and their bodies. Storytelling was used to explain the world and its origins; as a technique for teaching and learning; to connect individuals to the community; to pass knowledge and values to the next generation; and, of course, to entertain.
With the advent of the printing press, stage plays, cinema, radio, television, and now the internet, prose and narrative have remained ubiquitous in our culture. As Reynolds Price wrote in 1978, “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens — second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives…”
Games, too, have been a part of the human experience since the beginning. Tombs dating from pre-dynastic Egypt have been found to contain Senet boards from 3500 B.C.; multi-thousand-year old games from Africa and Asia are still widely played to this day: Mancala, Chess, Go, and Backgammon. While some are abstract, some tell a story — Chess has its intrigue and leaping knights, ending in the capture of a king. And the game industry, now with its younger cousin the video game industry, is growing every year. Readers of Casual Game Insider need no primer on the importance of games.MORE THAN PARLOR TRICKS
The confluence of games and stories likely first played out on the ancient stage. The Oscan Games, a series of masked absurdist farces popular in Rome in 391 B.C., are some of the first known examples of improvisational comedy. Storytelling is still a popular activity in improv — you can try it yourself at your next party: sit in a circle and have each player say a single word in turn as a story unfolds. With funny players, the results will likely surprise and delight you.
During the 19th century, the middle and upper classes in the United States and Great Britain had more leisure time than ever before. This sparked interest in parlor games — simple activities played indoors at small parties. These games took a variety of forms, some of which included collective writing and/or drawing. Examples include Consequences and Exquisite Corpse, collaborative writing and drawing games inspired by French surrealists in which players have limited information about the rest of the story, producing an absurd partial stream of consciousness.
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