Game on

Published January 30, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

GAMES are no joke; in 2022 the global gaming industry was worth $184 billion and is poised to hit $340bn by 2027 because we, as a species, just love to play around. While video games were once limited to consoles or beloved platforms like the late and highly lamented Commodore 64, we can now play games on phones and on (mostly) free-to-use websites, which has also recently led to a revival of interest in classic games like Ludo, which can now be played online with potentially millions of partners.

Speaking of Ludo, the game has rather interesting origins. It is almost certainly derived from the ancient Indian game of pachisi, which is old enough to merit a mention in the Mahabharat itself, where it is referred to as ‘pasha’. Given that the oldest preserved parts of the Mahabharata date back to 400BC, and given that the epic almost certainly existed in oral form long before its compilation, this places the origins of pachisi very far in the past.

As is the way, the original game evolved and mutated into various versions, and what we know as Ludo came into existence when an Englishman named Alfred Collier ‘discovered’ it and patented it in 1896. So yeah, there’s some cultural appropriation/ synthesis involved here, but don’t feel too bad about it because no one actually owns the rights to Ludo, as such. It belongs to the world.

And in any case, the British taking away Ludo isn’t nearly as unfair as the story of how the highly popular and extremely capitalistic game Monopoly came about. This story starts with American Lizzie Magie in 1903. A writer, comedian, actress and engineer (!) the multi-talented Magie was also considered quite radical for her times as she entertained the wild notion that women were just as good as men when it came to business, invention, or anything at all, really. As proof, she patented a process to improve typewriters at age 26, and also protested at the economic and political status of women and black people in America by posting an advertisement auctioning herself off as a “young woman American slave” for a husband to ‘own’ her.

Ludo has rather interesting origins.

An outspoken feminist and the daughter of a prominent abolitionist, she was greatly concerned by what she saw as monopolistic practices by landlords, and decided to design a board game to raise awareness of these practices. Thus was born The Landlord’s Game, which was designed to show the evils of concentrating too much land and wealth in a few hands.

And, in what can only be considered an incredible irony, that very concept was appropriated, or ‘copy-pasted’ by one Charles Darrow, who renamed it Monopoly and sold the patent to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers also quietly bought the rights to Magie’s original game for $500 and went on to erase her role in all of this by inventing a highly embellished origin story for the game. It wasn’t until 1974, when economics professor Ralph Ansback was sued for copyright infringement by Parker Brothers for creating an ‘opposite’ version of the game titled Anti-monopoly, that the truth came out when Ansbach’s research proved that Magie, and not Parker Brothers, was the brain behind the game. He won the case.

Now I’m a big fan of Risk, the world conquest board game, and I still play it every chance I get. Having first encountered the game as a child, I did wonder why there was no Russia on the board map, but there was the United States, split into eastern and western territories. Perhaps one reason for this was that Risk came out in 1957, when the Cold War was absolutely frigid and so the USSR was divided into six separate territories with no mention of Russia, which was replaced by an incredibly oversized Ukraine.

Also, as properly patriotic Pakistani children, we were rightly incensed by the fact that the territory of India was huge and there was no Pakistan at all! Apparently, we weren’t the only ones upset by this, as subsequent local knock-offs of Risk simply replaced India with Pakistan, and thus our pride was salvaged.

Speaking of India, let’s also look into how Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders, if you’re a lame American) came around. Originally known as Mokshapat or Moksha Patamu, it seems this game was meant to be a moral instruction for children, with the squares on which the ladders started represented a virtue or good deed, while the heads of the snakes represented evils and moral depravity. Follow the moral road and find success; opt for evil and find yourself in the belly of the snake. Naturally, this too was adapted by the British, who stripped it of its moral core and marketed it.

Space is running out or I could talk about the world’s oldest board game but suffice it to say that no matter how much humanity changes, one thing will remain constant: the games we play.

The writer is a journalist.
Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2023

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