Games of Empires. Historico-Cultural Connotations of Board Games in Transnational and Imperial Contexts
Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany, 21-23 April 2016
Katrin Berndt (Associate Professor, University of Bremen, Germany)
As a universally shared human activity and a fundamental form of cultural expression, playing has been an object of research in the humanities and the social sciences since philosopher Karl Groos developed his evolutionary psychological theory of play in Die Spiele der Menschen (1899; Engl. The Play of Man). To sketch out and establish a historico-cultural approach to the genre of board games was the aim of Games of Empires, an interdisciplinary conference organized by the Department of Ancient History and the Chair for Transcultural Anglophone Studies of Saarland University that took place from 21 to 23 April 2016 in Saarbrücken, Germany.
The welcoming speeches by conference co-organizer Professor Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen, by the university’s Vice President for European and International Relations Professor Astrid Fellner, and by the Deans of both Philosophical Faculties, Professors Brigitte Kasten and Dietrich Klakow, drew comprehensive disciplinary and historical lines to illustrate the significance of board games in various periods of history as in contemporary culture. From pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s aphorism that ‘time is a child at play, moving pieces in a board game’ to the production of Medieval chess books and to games as a form of intercultural communication, the different traditions and conceptualizations both of the act of playing and scholarly engagement with the cultural practice were laid out. In addition, the participants were welcomed to a beautiful campus that, situated between picturesque hills close to the forest, promised to encourage both lively discussions and more contemplative views of the theme.
The first of six sessions, addressed ‘Board Games in Transcultural Perspective’, began with the inaugural lecture by Professor Elmar Schenkel (University of Leipzig) on ‘Rule Forty-two, or, Playing and Being Played. Some Thoughts on Board Games and Literature’. Establishing structural and thematic correlations between games and literature in his enlightening presentation, Professor Schenkel introduced the conference’s key terminology by discussing the concepts of major play theorists Johan Huizinga and Roger Callois. Huizinga’s canonical study Homo Ludens (1938) located the origin of all culture in the practice of playing and identified the principle of agon (competition) as a central element of Western societies, whereas Callois’ Les Jeux et les Hommes (1961; Engl. Man, Play and Games) revised Huizinga’s ideas by identifying four fundamental categories that characterize all human games: in addition to agon, these are ilinx (vertigo, in the sense of ecstasy altering perception), ludus (luck), and mimicry (imitation). Schenkel explained the categories by linking them with literary texts that feature a form of play in either theme or structure. Including works by Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne, Jorge Luis Borges and Douglas Adams, he showed how poetry as a genre lends itself more to ilinx, whereas ludus serves as a principle of construction in Hermann Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel, and agon as a motif in epics and in detective fiction. Further talks in the session were Dr Saskia Schabio’s (University of Stuttgart) ‘No Game of Chess: Rewriting the Domino-Theory across the Americas’, which discussed games as an expression of an imagined authenticity, correlating board games with public spaces and identifying them as symbols of essential cultural features in literary texts by Ana Menéndez and Edouard Glissant; and the presentation of Professor Rahul Peter Das (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg), whose linguistic exploration of Squares. chaturangik, a collaborative, bilingual poetry publication by Pat Clifford and Aryanil Mukherjee, illustrated the impact of ludus on literature by highlighting the playful and transgressive significance of language exchange.
The first day was concluded by the opening of the exhibition ‘Faites vos Jeux. World War I in Games’ in the university library, an event that was an ideal accompaniment to the conference: organized by Dr Ulrich Schädler (Musée Suisse du Jeu à La Tour-de-Peilz), it presented a variety of board games and card games aimed not only at providing entertainment in the context of war, but also at practising players’ strategic skills and serving as a means of political propaganda. The wine reception and subsequent dinner gave all participants the opportunity to continue the lively discussions begun in the afternoon, and to enjoy a pleasant walk through Saarbrücken city centre.
The second day of the conference was dedicated to board games in various national and imperial contexts from archaeological and historical perspectives. Following a chronological trajectory, it began with a session on ‘Functions and Meaning of Board Games from the Roman Empire to the Early Modern Times’ that featured presentations by archaeologist Thomas Martin from the local Museum for Prehistory and Early History (‘Games of the Ancient World’) and by two historians of Saarland University, Dr Mario Ziegler (‘Board Games in the Heathen-Christian discourse of late Antiquity’) and Dr Karen Aydin (‘Functions and Connotations of Board Games in Public Spaces’). With a focus on the late Roman Empire, Dr Aydin gave a fascinating overview of both the actual presence of playing fields in public spaces – explaining, for example, that the Forum Romanum featured board game patterns in those places where most people were most likely to meet – and the cultural meaning of games at the time, showing how they allowed competitors to prove their virtues and to re-enact and perform social conventions. Last but not least, she illustrated how games served as simulacrum of historical combat in Roman poetry.
Another literary perspective was contributed by Professor Joachim Frenk (Saarland University), whose insightful talk on ‘Board Games on the Early Modern English Stage’ highlighted the enormous popularity of board games in the era. While Shakespeare’s works feature comparatively little evidence of his contemporaries’ tastes, the plays by Ben Jonson and, in particular, Thomas Middleton offer diverse and suggestive references to chess. Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1621), produced with Judi Dench in 1969 on a stage in the form of a chess board, uses the game as a structural element as well as to create an ambivalent representation of seduction, whereas the playwright’s controversial and enigmatic A Game at Chesse (1624) turns chess into an allegory for contemporaneous political themes and developments.
The afternoon sessions addressed cultural discourses as exemplified by board games in the British Empire, in early modern France, and in twentieth-century China, suggesting a variety of perspectives on board games with an emphasis on their political functions and significance. Professor Rainer Buland (Mozarteum Salzburg) pointed out that actually winning a game is not considered a goal in all cultures, while Fatih Parlak (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) examined how early modern board games both represented and challenged stereotypes on Turks. The function of games in strategic and military training was explored by Dr Nicolas Schillinger (Freie Universität Berlin), who traced the journey of a tactical war game developed by the Prussian military in the early nineteenth century that was exported to China after the German defeat of the French army in 1871. Also with a focus on China, Barbara Holländer and Professor Ernst Holländer (RWTH Aachen) gave an overview of the changing cultural varieties of chess. In his very informative presentation, Professor Ernst Strouhal (University of Applied Arts, Vienna) investigated the design and political function of playable maps in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, outlining how Fascist propaganda was adapted for 1930s versions of Ludo and Monopoly, but also showing games that were designed to communicate progressive ideas and achievements. For example, the game ‘A Chronological Star of History’ celebrated the abolition of slavery and anti-colonial liberation movements in its syntax, tasks and board descriptions.
The third conference day complemented the scholarly perspectives of cultural historians and literary scholars introduced so far with presentations by practitioners in the session on ‘The Development of Board Games in Contemporary Culture’. Game designer Dr Steffen Bogen (University of Konstanz) explained the motivations and experiences that accompany the invention of new board games, and Tom Werneck (director of the Bavarian Games Archive Haar e.V.) gave a lively and memorable presentation of the history of the successful establishment of Germany’s most prestigious game prize, the ‘Spiel des Jahres’ award. The conference concluded with the final session’s return to the connection of games and literature, featuring co-organizer Professor Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn’s fascinating talk on ‘All Part of the Game? Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players in Transcultural Perspective’. Based on a short story that visualizes the colonization of India as a game of chess, the film directed by Ray employs chess along with British and Indian ways of playing the game as metaphors for political manoeuvrings and cultural encounters in imperial contexts. The talk took up again the game categories established by Callois, discussing how agon illustrates the policy of the East India Company, while the vertigo principle represented in ilinx informs the film’s presentation of the male obsession to play. The transcultural critique offered by the adaptation again uses the chess metaphor to acknowledge the British way of playing, but also to imply that it was their cheating that caused Britain’s imperial dominance in the nineteenth century.
The conference successfully established a both interdisciplinary and focused scholarly approach to board games as a social activity, which relies on virtual worlds that both mimic and challenge forms of domination within the contexts in which they are invented, and in which they serve to entertain. The contributions from literary scholars, historians and practitioners exemplified local, national and global connotations of games, whose boards encourage a dialogic exploration of the historical and cultural variants at play in their rules and design. In his Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), the Weimar Classicist poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller had defined play as an expression of freedom from want: ‘The animal works, when a privation is the motor of its activity, and it plays when the plenitude of force is this motor, when an exuberant life is excited to action’ (Part VI, Letter XXVII). The engaging talks presented at Games of Empires, and the lively discussions that shaped the conference, have made it evident that the history and cultural practice of board games indeed is a promising area of interdisciplinary research that provides fresh and illuminating insight into why, and how, we play.
Note: All images were kindly provided by the conference organizing team at Saarland University. Photo 1 by Jochen Hans, Universität des Saarlandes, Saarbrücken, Campus.