History of Games

Human history and games are inextricably intertwined. Irrefutable evidence shows through the ages that fun and games are not frivolous

Updated on August 9, 2022
History of Games

See all about the history of games. Human history and games are inextricably intertwined. Irrefutable evidence shows through the ages that fun and games are not frivolous pursuits per se—instead, they come naturally to us as essential parts of being alive. When you understand the evolution of games (and you can find many older ones from The Old School Game Vault). You can begin to make intelligent choices about what elements of games you might want to include in your gamification designs.

History of Games

A Dim and Distant Past

Have you ever been to the zoo? If so, you’ll likely have sat and watched monkeys and apes for a while. It doesn’t take very to see them at play. They’ll chase each other, throw things, jump on each other, and that kind of thing. Assuming, as it seems likely, that human beings are just better-evolved monkeys. So, it’s expected that we’ve been gaming for a long time. We probably played any game before we learned to speak or stand on two legs.

That means we have no idea what the first games we played were like. However, we do have a good idea of the timeline of modern game development. Actual good game-style examples.

Rolling the Dice 3,000 Years Ago: Games History

Dice aren’t a modern invention. They’re probably among the oldest known gaming tools known to man. During an excavation in Southeastern Iran, archeologists discovered a 3,000-year-old set of dice! We don’t know exactly what games those early Persians would have played with them, but the popularity of dice has endured throughout the centuries.

Dice games have been with mankind for a long time, as seen in this cave painting.

In 14th-century England, people played a game called Hazard (mentioned in the famous work The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer), and Hazard didn’t fall out of favor until the 19th century. It had a very complex ruleset and has since been supplanted by dice games with more straightforward rules.

“Take a simple idea and take it seriously.”
—Charlie Munger, American investor, businessman, lawyer and philanthropist

Whether carved in bone or cast in plastic, the simplicity of a die—a cube with dots and nothing more—as an effective, if the chance, the determinant is ageless. You may not know this, but the most popular casino game would remain—well into the 21st century—a dice game. Craps is the only game in a gambling house where the odds are in favor of the gambler. Despite this, it’s the most profitable game for the casinos; people don’t seem to know just when to stop playing. And play they do—elsewhere, too, using dice in a range of fun-filled activities extending into fewer adult settings, such as homes and schools, through the years. Yahtzee revolves around dice, and not for nothing does Dungeons & Dragons incorporate dice, even if many of those dice have 4, 10, 12, 20, or even more faces.

Tiles and Dominoes

There are references to tile games in China that are over 2,900 years old. Dominoes emerged 1,000 years later during the Song Dynasty (also in China). However, Western dominoes probably only began in the 18thcentury, and Mahjong (the most popular tile game in the world of Chinese origin) didn’t arrive until the 19th century.

Board Games are Even Older Games History

If you enjoy a game of Monopoly or Scrabble, it would appear that you are in good company. The earliest known board games are 5,000 years old and were in motion by the Egyptians. We don’t know the rules of these games, but there is a “Senet” board that dates back to about 3500 B.C.!

The Chinese invented their first known board game in 200 B.C. In Western Europe, they played Tafl (a game very similar to chess) from 400 B.C.

Chess is often the “archetypal” board game and is itself very old, but there were board games before the invention of chess.

Still Playing!

If you’ve ever played Go, Chess, Backgammon, or Nine Men’s Morris, then you’ve played a game with more than a thousand years of history! Go is from 200 B.C. in Korea, Backgammon from Iran around 600 A.D. (complete with dice), Chess from India around the same time, and Nine Men’s Morris may be from Mediaeval England, but many think it stems from the Roman Empire!

Snakes and Ladders, one of the world’s most popular children’s games, probably began in India in the 16thcentury. And, surprise, surprise, dice power the probability for players in that game, too.

The first commercial board game arrived in 1800 by George Fox in England. It was the Mansion of Happiness and was essentially a “race game” similar to Ludo. The oldest surviving board game company is Milton Bradley (whose famous games include; Downfall, Hungry Hippos, and Connect 4), which were in 1860!

The Mansion of Happiness was the first board game to be on sale commercially (i.e., on an industrial basis).

Deal Me In! Games History

Card games are a more recent invention, and the first use of a card deck was probably in Ancient China. They would have a game during the Tang Dynasty (6th century A.D. – 9th century A.D.). Cards reached Europe in the 14th century. Early decks would have been very similar to Tarot cards, whose modern and classic medieval versions we can find online or in virtually any bookstore’s Mind, Body, and Spirit section.

The four-suit (hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds) deck we’re most familiar with was invented in France around 1480. The oldest card game we still play is probably Cribbage, which came from the 17th century. Bridge didn’t arrive until the early 19th century.

In the 1990s, cards were revisited, and games like ‘Magic! The Gathering’ was introduced and became incredibly popular. Card games would also extend to trumps—a classic favorite in British schools, featuring items from racing cars to spacecraft, Western gunfighters, and horror monsters. Players compare the statistics of their topmost cards and win or lose accordingly.

Table Games

Carom is possibly the oldest table game (similar to tiddlywinks or shuffleboard), but no one knows exactly when or where it came into existence. Pool, billiards, and snooker are all relatively recent inventions, and roulette only arrived in the 19th century.

The game pictured above may look (at first glance) like a pool, but it’s a modern billiards table—as you can see by the lack of pockets on the table.

You’re in Good Company

As you can see, games have a long, rich history, and you’re in good company whenever you decide to play a game. Human beings have been playing games throughout the centuries. They are part of the human experience.

What about Electronic Games?

The first electronic game in the United States before the computer! A patent was filed in 1947 for a “Cathode ray tube amusement device.” In the 1950s, also in the United States, (very few) people began playing computer games on mainframe systems. These would have been out of reach for the vast majority of people. As the hardware would have been astronomically expensive.

The first game console was the Magnavox Odyssey – released in 1972. Arcade games such as Space Invaders, Pacman, etc., began life in 1978 and became hugely popular in the early 1980s. During that time, quite a few consoles were up. But a crash in the American gaming industry killed most of the companies involved in 1983. When the Japanese picked up the reins and began developing video games. Console gaming became universally popular, signaling the slow downfall of the arcade game.

“Everyone has played video games at some point these days, and video games are fun.”
—PewDiePie, Swedish comedian and web producer

Games have a long history, as you can see. The electronic game’s roots stretch back to the earliest human games. It’s not that our ancestors needed to tell us that the game goes with the territory of being alive; games are part of our DNA.

The Take-Away for Games History

Human history and games are inextricably up together. For millennia, people have had an innate compulsion to play, which won’t change anytime soon. What they needed, they innovated, leaving us a rich legacy of devices through the centuries. Ranging from the basic but powerful wonder of dice to the timeless strategizing involved in chess and on up to a library of latter-day board games that run the gamut in their levels of sophistication. As long you’ve understood the evolution of fun, you can begin to make intelligent choices about what elements of games you might want to include in your gamification designs.