Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Games & Time: Part 1

We are involved with games from the moment we are born. And these games usually involve time. They allow us to "play it safe," to work with and consider time in ways that would be impossible in real life.

As I have pointed out before in an earlier blog [Our Most Important Sense: A Sense of Time],  I believe it is the unique human sense of time that has allowed our species to become dominant. I also believe the human concept of time is linked to ways that the brain functions.

Games allow us to 'play' with and improve our unique time skills, to exercise our brains -- as the following quote about short-term memory and chess points out. 
This ability to hold on to a piece of information temporarily in order to complete a task is specifically human. It causes certain regions of the brain to become very active, in particular the pre-frontal lobe. This region, at the very front of the brain, is highly developed in humans. [ED: my emphasis]
Perhaps the most extreme example of short-term memory is a chess master who can explore several possible solutions mentally before choosing the one that will lead to checkmate.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY': McGill University, Montreal, Canada
We all know the game Peekaboo that is played with very young children. An older person covers their face or hides behind a door only to reemerge. Some children are quite upset when the person goes away and bubble with laughter when the person comes back.

peekaboo game with child
US Navy personnel play Peekaboo with a young baby. (
Peekaboo is thought by developmental psychologists to demonstrate an infant's inability to understand object permanence. Object permanence is an important stage of cognitive development for infants. (
Another way to talk about 'object permanence' is from the point of view of time. Peekaboo requires that a child remember the person when they reappear in the 'now' moment and to not be upset when they disappear as they will come back. The game trains a child to develop short-term memory. 

Peekaboo appears to be quite old and is played worldwide in a variety of cultures.

While Peekaboo is a game, separation anxiety is the real thing -- and affects many young children. When a child must leave a parent and go to kindergarten or is left with a baby sitter, he or she may become upset. In this sense we can see Peekaboo as a safe game that allows a child to work through the idea of a parent being gone for a while.

Children's games are often about 'now you see it, now you don't'; they frequently involve hiding while retaining a sense of the permanence of things even when out of sight.

Hide-and-seek played by older children, has some of the same elements as Peekaboo but at a more sophisticated level. The children are first together, then all hide separately until they are caught; finally at the end they come back together and are reunited. This reinforces the central theme: people can go away but when they are out of sight, they still exist.

It is also interesting to note that this game is usually passed down by older children to younger children -- not taught to them by adults. This is  an example of an oral tradition that still persists in our culture.

Blind Man's Bluff is an older children's game during which people in a sense disappear because the person who is 'it' is blindfolded -- but at the end everyone is back to normal. It has been played around the world by children for about 2500 years.

 Blind Man's Bluff. (

have universal appeal 
and often cut across cultural boundaries. 
Chess, for example, is remarkable in this way.


Chess began about 1500 years ago and has been played continuously around the world at all levels of society, by all ages, by both men and women and in developed and less developed countries.

Two knights at a chess game in 1283. (
The black and white alternating squares are a grid, a classic artificial human pattern, that becomes the frame, the world during the game. Like all games it has a beginning, a middle and an end. While not necessarily limited by a specific time, the game goes through clear phases such as the beginning characterized by the phrase "opening moves" and the final moves known as the 'endgame', a term which comes from chess. 

Chess Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade in competition in 2002 at the U.S. Chess Championships in Seattle, Washington. (
If you have ever been around serious chess players, you know that when they are playing their concentration is total and they are not to be disturbed. For the duration of the game, they live on the chess board. Normal everyday time, in a sense, is suspended while it, nevertheless, continues relentlessly forward on the field of play -- the board.

Two boys playing a game of chess in Santiago, Cuba. (
Benjamin Franklin on Chess & Time:
In his essay, On the Morals of Chess, Franklin listed the lessons learned from the game -- starting with how it taught a player to consider the future: 
Foresight: which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action; for it is continually occurring to the player, "If I move this piece, what will be the advantages or disadvantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?" 
Benjamin Franklin On the Morals of Chess (1779)

Chess players at a park in Kiev, Russia. (
Young German chess players in 1952. (
A game of chess in Algeria. (
Painting by British painter James Northcote about the game of chess, circa 1800. (
A page from a Persian manuscript, A Treatise On Chess, from the 14th century. (
Carved ivory mirror case depicting a couple playing chess around the year 1300. (
Known as the Charlemagne chess set, these pieces were made in the 11th century. This piece is a knight from this ivory set. (

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