Games, being a characteristic human activity strongly determined by custom and the frequent subjects of folklore, have been the subject of anthropological investigations.
Classes of games
While many different subdivisions have been proposed, anthropologists classify games under three major headings, and have drawn some conclusions as to the social bases that each sort of game requires. They divide games broadly into:
- Games of pure skill, such as hopscotch and target shooting;
- Games of pure strategy, such as checkers, go, or tic-tac-toe;
- Games of chance, such as craps and snakes and ladders.
In addition to these basic classifications, there are mixed games; such as football, partly a game of skill and partly a game of strategy; poker, partly a game of strategy and partly a game of chance; and baseball, which combines elements of all three. Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel underscored this point when he remarked, “I had many years when I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.”
Games of pure skill are likely the oldest sort of game, and are found in all cultures, regardless of their level of material culture. They are associated with cultures that place a high value on individual performance and prowess.
Games of strategy require a higher material basis. They are associated with cultures that possess a written language: not surprising, since most strategy games are based on mathematics and feature the manipulation of symbols. They often require special equipment to be played. They are associated with hierarchical societies that place a high value on obedience.
Games of chance appear at a variety of levels of material culture; what they seem to share generally is a sense of economic insecurity. They are associated with cultures that place a high value on personal responsibility, keeping one’s word, and maintaining personal standing in the face of misfortune; in other words, with “cultures of honor”.
Games and sports
There is no clear line of demarcation between games and sports. Generally, sports are athletic in nature, and have an element of physical prowess, but then so do many games. For cultural anthropologists, the distinction between games and sports hinges on community involvement. Sports often require special equipment and playing fields or prepared grounds dedicated to their practice, a fact that often makes necessary the involvement of a community beyond the players themselves. Most sports can have spectators. Communities often align themselves with players of sports, who in a sense represent that community; they often align themselves against their opponents, or have traditional rivalries. The concept of fandom began with sports fans. Games amuse the players; sports amuse a broader public; in advanced material cultures, sports can be played by paid professionals. When games like chess and go are played professionally, they take on many of the characteritics of a sport.
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