Games and gaming have been an important aspect throughout their inception in human history. To understand this bold claim, a common definition is required. defines “game” as an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.” This establishes the bulk of most games, if not all, but the definition still lacks certain finite characteristics that would prohibit activities that are not intended for description and discussion(e.g. simple imaginative play by children, vocational work). As an addendum to the basic definition, games can further be defined as having a set of governing rules that are agreed upon by all participating individuals. This additional characteristic now governs all encompassing games for future consideration and discussion. A final characteristic will validate the claim of importance that games have to people: games are designed with the overt explicit purpose of enjoyment, but also has the potential for development and growth; in other words, games can be educational.  So, just to reiterate, games are defined as:

  • an activity with the overt purpose of enjoyment
  • with a set of governing rules, agreed upon by the paricipants
  • and which has the potential for development and growth

The final defining attribute validates the assertion that games have had a significant impact throughout human history.  How?  Considering that games have originated in civilizations across the globe and that those games vary in structure, scope, and purpose (beyond enjoyment), one possible conclusion is that games become a characteristic of individual cultures.

The given definition for games remains incredibly broad; and deliberately so.  This definition encompasses the following types/genres of gaming: sports, games of chance, board games, card games, miniature games, role-playing games, and video games.

Sports- while most athletes would not necessarily consider themselves gamers (e.g. a person who partakes in games), according to the above definition those same athletes are in fact gamers.  Sports can be defined here as games which are conducted on a designated playing field, where players oppose one another (either one player against another or as two teams playing against each other), are played with specific equipment that is required for play to commence (e.g. balls, hockey sticks, pool cues, bats), and conclude when a predetermined condition is satisfied (e.g. one team scores more points than the other by the end of the game, all balls are sunk before the other player sinks them).

Games of Chance/Dice Games-dice games are simple games of chance.  Other than sports, dice games are perhaps one of the oldest types of games that have ever existed.  Reading classic Greek works such as The Illiad references are made to individuals “casting lots.”  This is actually a reference to dice games; most are played with unconventional dice (14-sided or d14) with a single side marked.  Other dice games exist, of course, but no dice games has the popularily as most other types of games, as they rely mostly on chance and luck rather than skill or ability.

Board Games-this brand of game becomes difficult to classify at times.  A feasible classification could be: games which are relatively self-contained that are played on a flat playing surface.  This definition is incredibly vague and open for intepretation, but board games are difficult to define mostly because of the various games that could only be classified as board games.  For example, the simple game Tic-Tac-Toe is unlike any other game, for a number of reasons, and eludes most other classification of game.  As such, it can only be a board game.  The only other complication to the definition is the inclusion of the wording “relatively self-contained.”  The reason is because many board games produced by gaming companies (e.g. Fantasy Flight Games, Avalon Hill) also create expansions to their games to enhance the quality and enjoyment of the game; and to make money, they are companiesafterall.

Card Games-these games are very similar to board games in that they are relatively self-contained.  However, board games include a wide variety of elements that are required for play, all card games require either standard playing cards or specialty cards exclusive to the game.  Also, most traditional cards games can be played using the same deck of cards without any serious modification.  With the advent of collectible card games, card games are no longer as self-contained as they once were.  Perhaps the most famous of these card games is Magic: the Gathering, the card game that might be responsible for the popularization of  the collectible card game sub-genre.  With collectible card games, individual players are responsible for constructing their decks from cards to which they must acquire from the existant list of available cards.

Miniature Games-this genre of game is characterized by utilizing scale miniature representatives of people, creatures, objects, and terrain.  Most often, miniature games are combat-oriented war games, but it is possible that other competitive games could be miniature games.  Perhaps one of the oldest miniature games is Little Wars by author H.G. Wells. Traditionally, in miniature games where two opposing armies face-off, a single miniature figurine, or model, represents upwards of 10 people; the intention is to provide a credible scale for which the game represents.  Later miniature games use either a reduced scale or each model represents an individual and not multiple people.  This latter choice would forever alter the gaming landscape with the next great imaginative step in gaming.

Role-Playing Games-if one were to equate gaming to mathematical dimensions, while most other forms of games are two-dimensional with a simple end in-and-of-themselves, role-playing games, or RPGs, are three dimensional constructs in which the players have near infinite possibilities for enjoyment.  White Wolf Publishing described the evolution of role-playing games from simple board games, such as chess, to more complex games, such as Axis and Allies, to miniature games to the RPGs known today in their book, Vampire Storyteller’s Handbook.  As colorfully summarized here, Dungeon and Dragons co-creator David Arneson (1947-2009) first came up with the idea of using a model (see above) to not only represent a single person, but to also play-out as that person in hypothetical situations.  In essence, role-playing games are games in which the players play as characters, usually of the player’s creation, in scenarios that do not necessarily have clearly defined victory conditions; in fact, some situations do not have winning or losing as options.  In RPGs, a new type of player exists to facilitate game-play: the Game Master.  The Game Master, or GM, creates the environment and setting wherein the players have their characters exist.  The GM is also responsible for arbitrating rules issues; in this role, the GM’s power is nigh-limitless.  Nearly every RPG adheres to the principle of the unwritten Rule Zero: the Game Master is always right and whatever the Game Master says goes; except for Dragon Storm where the rule is explicitly written out as rule 3.4. Analogous to method-acting or round-robin story telling, role-playing games can vary greatly based on a number of factors (e.g. the players, the sub-genre of RPG, the GM).  While Dungeons and Dragons is the quintessential fantasy role-playing game, there are numerous RPGs that exist where one can play as a swashbuckling pirate, a supernatural investigator struggling to maintain their sanity, a over-the-top comic-panel style superhero, or just as a average albeit heroic person.

Video Games-video games are a modern convention of gaming.  What makes video games unique is that they are essentially every other form of game.  However, video games attempt to apply a new visual to the game while providing a new innovative approach to the same game.  In fact, most video games are described by what type of game they are emulating (e.g. sports games, role-playing games, strategy games).  There are several games that can only truly be video games as they would be difficult, but not impossible, to translate into other game forms.  The best example would be games like the Super Mario Brothers or The Legend of Zelda.

Despite their diverse nature, all of the above games have educational value.  What is learned depends primarily upon the individual game, but the skills acquired can be applied to real-life situations both obscure and commonplace.  Skills can vary from the physical (e.g. reaction timing, reflexes, endurance, fine-motor skills) to the mental (e.g. timing, mental math, pattern recognition) to even social skills (e.g. resource management, leadership, teamwork).  What can be learned in these games is too long to mention in a “brief” history of gaming.  Instead, it would be best to describe the learning potential when discussing individual games.


Vampire Storyteller Handbook, B. Baugh, A. S. Braidwood, D. Brooks, G. Gabrowski, C. Oliver, S. Skoog, 2000, White Wolf Publishing Inc.