You Can’t Lose: The Hidden Benefits of Playing Games

By Martha Folsom

Pigs in the CloverPlato was a game player. He wrote that “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation.” At some much more recent point in time someone decided that games, especially board games, were for children and that a sign of being “grownup” was the comment, “I don’t have time to play games.” Before that, game playing was not only the purview of children but also a very serious activity of grownups.

In Africa everyone plays MANKALA games. Boards carved into the stone of the pyramid of Cheops and the temples at Luxor and Karnak establish Mankala as one of the oldest games in the world. The children are usually relegated to playing in the dirt, while the elders have boards to play on. The higher the player’s status in the community, the more elegant their board.

A game of UR, with an inlaid ivory, mother of pearl and lapis board and playing pieces, was found in the excavations of the Royal Palace at Ur, and dates back five thousand years. The Greeks in Troy, the Celts in Bronze Age Ireland and Viking kings played NINE MENS MORRIS which originated in Egypt in 1400 BC and which found its way, later, into Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Francesco de Medici of Florence presented THE GAME OF GOOSE to King Phillip II of Spain sometime after 1574 and its popularity spread like wildfire throughout Europe.

Pigs in the Clover Here in America, during the 1880’s, there was a game called PIGS IN THE CLOVER. It was a dexterity puzzle, a simple, maze type game. It became such a rage that our own government was brought to a halt because the members of Congress were so engrossed in play.

The new millennium has brought with it a resurgence of game playing by grownups. Adults have returned to game playing as a social entertainment with family and friends. There are many reasons, the first being that it is fun. There is magic in playing games. That very aspect is one of the best reasons to play. Medical doctors have known for some time now that laughter is good medicine. It is good for our blood pressure to laugh and have fun. Games develop social skills by removing obstacles; psychological barriers and uneasiness among people who do not know each other well creating the sense of pleasure in company that is the basis of friendship.

Secondly, playing games is also good for our brains. Game playing requires knowledge, intelligence, memory, dexterity, the ability to plan, the ability to adjust and it fires the neurons in both our right brain and our left brain. Recently numerous tests have found that these are the activities that keep our brains younger. Confucius recommended the game of GO, played since 2000 BC, to the Chinese nobility as a means of keeping their minds lively. Two thousand years ago Cicero wrote, “Memory shrinks unless exercised.” One, more recent, study seems to indicate that adults who do brain activities, such as games, jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles were two and a half times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease than television watchers.

Thirdly, games are a great value economically. Some very good games have extremely small price tags. Many games that cost a little more are less than a dinner out and/or a movie. Truly good games can be handed down from one generation to the next. Many game collections include playable games dating from the 1800’s.

Excellent quality games, both in design and play, created for older children and adults are being introduced to the American audience at a pace not seen in many years. Some of these games are from Europe, where game playing has always been a favorite pastime of families and adults. They have been translated into English and are usually exceptional games. Other new games are coming from a multitude of new small game companies in the United States and Canada that want to produce games with enduring play value. They are fun. There’s a whole new generation of great games waiting to be discovered. Visit a game store and as mathematician, Frank Armsbuster declared – “Play a game, get a brain!”

Martha K. Folsom is the current president of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors, an international organization devoted to the study and preservation of traditional games and puzzles. She also owns The Old Game Store, on Historic Route 7A in Sunderland, Vermont.

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