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Ancient Games and Deep Play in Video Games

It’s been months since I posted on my blog, and that’s because I’ve been back teaching again and working diligently in my off hours on freelance work, or my own video games when I can.

This January marks my second semester as Head of Game Art at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and my return to blogging is part working to dialogue with my students on the subject of video games and how that fits under the subject of play in our culture.

The topic this week is in regards to Ancient games, including the games that other animals play, and what is being accomplished by that play.  What is it that makes us drawn into play and video games more and more as part of that.

Play is common among animals, we all have seen enough images of lion or bear cubs sparring and playfully wrestling.   We also have seen that other animals use tickling as a form of play.  More recent news suggests that at least one group of chimpanzees plays with sticks as if they were dolls, and that this seems to be a cultural trait specific to that group of chimpanzees.

While scientists are focused on the gender difference between how the male and female relate to the dolls, and how they pass this custom down.  I am interested in the fact that it is play that is the custom being handed down.


When it comes to humans and play we have a lot of evidence of ancient civilizations playing, but we don’t know where the play really originated.   We have the people of central and north America who played the precursor to LaCrosse.   This game in ancient times was not played on a small field but rather across a field miles long, by thousands of players from different tribes for several days.

Another set of games played to wild popularity were the gladiator games at the Colosseum in Rome.  The importance of this structure and it’s complexity is testament to how important games have been.


What does this have to do with video games?  I think that is the question,what is it that has always propelled us to play games?  What has always pushed us to take them so seriously?

One of the things that goes hand in hand with these games is that there has been exhibited a need to move outside of ourselves, to transcend as humans.  We see this demonstrated all through history, not just in games but in our religious cathedrals that have been created to make people have an experience.   A lot of time and thought were put into getting people to have those experiences, that momentary wonder as you walk into a cathedral where the light streams in through stained-glass windows and the stone seems to weightlessly lift above as if born on the trunks of trees.

For the ancients it was probably a matter of life or death.   If they didn’t play the games well, it might mean that the spirits would be displeased and the sun may not rise the next day, or maybe spring would never return.

We have been drawn to games, and more importantly, through play we experience the world and get to test our boundaries and abilities while bonding with others at the same time.

As artists we can well understand the value of play.  Through play artistic discoveries are made and we push our skill level.  It’s when we don’t push past and experiment that we stagnate.  As artists we are also looking for those moments when we can drop down into ourselves and transcend ourselves.   Writers often say that a story will write itself and cannot fully explain where it comes from, but that it’s as if they are facilitating the telling of the story.   I often feel the same way when I’m in a good flow, I forget myself and become immersed in the artwork and at times hours may go by and I’m unaware of this and these are the moments we look for in our process.

Video games offer a more immersive experience than other forms of media, such as books, and film.   In some ways it mirrors the complete immersion that we might attain in the frenzied game on a mile long LaCrosse pitch, or in the gladiator games.   It may in effect make us feel like we are participating in something that part of us longs to experience again and is always looking for.  It may feed our need to experience danger, or even things from long ago.

The question is what is it that happens to players when they are in the flow of a game?  Are they transcending the minutiae of their life and do they feel part of something larger?   Are we humans at this point getting anything of real value from video games? This is the question we need to keep asking, and of course as game designers we need to ask that question each time we take up a pencil.

Although the Game industry reportedly grossed around 80 billion dollars last year, I think that in some ways we are still in the infancy stage of this form of play, and what it gives us in return for the hours put in.


Daev Finn is an artist, illustrator, writer, visual effects artist, and video game developer, whose work can best be seen as Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Visual Effects.

Daev lives in Colorado with his two sons Everest and Asher, and his wife Sheryl Paul, author of The Conscious Bride, and The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner.