While the names and exact rules differ, playground games are universal. They have simple rules and often need no props other than what can be found nearby. Many of them have no ultimate winner or goal, only a succession of victors and an end brought about by exhaustion or fleeting attention spans. Others, such as “Ring Around the Rosie,” have no conflict or dynamic rule-set at all, resembling ritual more than game. Of course, given the history of adult games, ritual and game aren’t always separate.

Where do these children’s playground games come from? What was their purpose and place within the culture, and how did they impact a young developing mind’s view of the larger world? We begin our speculative journey at the dawn of humankind.

The lives of prehistoric, pre-civilization humans were fraught with peril at every turn. Like the animals with which they competed for resources, family survival was not merely a fulltime job, it was an all-encompassing vocation in which everyone had to participate. It is difficult to imagine, then, that cave-dwelling human children would have had time for games.

Yet, as evidenced by the over 2,000 cave paintings at Lascaux, they certainly had time for art. These, if nothing else, prove that something separated the Cro-Magnons from the animals. The drive to recreate the world in symbolic form seems to be uniquely human. We are filled with a desire to communicate our perceptions of the world via language and art. Sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists use a variety of terms for this difference, but I like to call it imagination.

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How better, then, to communicate the realities of a dangerous world to your children than by making a game out of it? Language was likely not very developed at this point, so the games would need to be simple, and, as the dangers were more physical than cerebral, challenge the youngsters’ strength and agility.

Being alert and ready to flee predators would have been at the top of the list of necessary survival skills for all children. This would have given rise to any number of games with a predatory angle – tag and hide and seek being the two most prominent examples. Variations of these two basic games are reflected across every culture, from the Japanese “Mr. Daruma Fell Down,” to the Saudi Arabian “The Hunter,” to the Inuit “Amaruujaq.”

Next on the list of necessary skills would have been strength. A single person’s strength would often have not been enough for every occasion, so these games would have also taught skills of cooperation and teamwork. It is easy to imagine tug of war, crack the whip, red rover and king of the hill as the descendants of these early strength-based cooperative games. The Inuits played a great number of strength-based games, from wrestling games like “Qaklupinguaq,” where a player kneels on a large rock and tries to keep his opponent from touching the soles of his feet, to “Hiutimigaaq,” an ear pulling game.

As cultures progressed and conflict between tribes became more common, the games would have become focused on more specific survival and combat skills. Many of these games must have resembled some of the traditional indigenous games played by Australian Aboriginal societies. One such game, “Wana,” was played by the young girls. A short stick representing a baby would be placed on the ground, and one girl would protect it while the rest of the girls pretended to try and murder it with their wanas (digging sticks). Another game played by young boys, “Kalq,” involved using throwing sticks to throw and deflect a spear toward the player’s opponents.

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The latter two games’ brutality is potentially shocking to a modern audience. In a world where bright orange light guns raise concerns about exposing our children to violence, a game played with an actual spear seems a bit much, not to mention a game where the players pretend to kill a baby. But these games were designed to teach children about the harsh realities of the world and provide them with the skills to survive. Among the tribe who played “Wana,” women would stand by the men during fights and deflect the incoming enemy spears. Boys who learned to play “Kalq” learned important lessons that surely prolonged their lives.

Clearly, we no longer live in a world where the daily dangers are so pervasive that we need to train our children to avoid animal predators, fend off invading tribes and use brute strength to overcome environmental obstacles. But somewhere, deep within our consciousness, lays a memory of this primal struggle. The next time you see children playing tag, stop and watch them for a while. It’s not that hard to see the menacing grimace of a wild predator in their gleeful faces of the child who’s “it,” as she hunts her prey.

Corvus Elrod is a storyteller and game designer who is working on bringing his 16 years experience into the digital realm. He has a habit of taking serious things lightly and frivolous things seriously, a personal quirk which can be witnessed on his blog, Man Bytes Blog.

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