Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Is It All Work And No Play For Jack?

By 
Connor Caple
2003, Connor Caple

 

ou may have just spent weeks designing your world and its inhabitants, but did you give any thought to their social lives? Do your characters work, or fight, all day and then just retire to a bar at night? Perhaps you've read novels where that was the case. Maybe it seemed to work fine, but if I lived in a world that dull I'd probably be dead by now.

Even the roughest of cultures have games. Children in every civilization play games as they grow. When they become adults, does that desire for recreation suddenly desert them?

Games can be split into many classifications. In our world we have children's games (Hopscotch, ball games, models and toys) and several types of adult games.

The adult games can fall into categories like

Games of chance (cards, dice, etc.)

Games of skill (Field events, darts, skeet shooting, foot races)

Recreational pursuits (Dancing,)

Team Games (Soccer, Polo, Hurling)

Games of intellect (Mancala, Chess, Checkers)

Modern literature also has many examples of these games.

J. K. Rowling Quidditch plays a major part in the Harry Potter books.

David Gemmell The Rigante series has a book based almost totally around gladiatorial combat

John Norman His Gor series has the 'Game' and the 'Players', who walk around dressed in checker-boarded clothes and play a game a lot like chess.

We even have real world spin-offs like Terry Pratchett's 'THUD' game, which you can now buy.

The possibilities are endless. If you want to design a game for your world, look at the culture you are working in. Is there religious significance, like in ancient Greece where the games were part of the worship of the gods? Is gambling popular? We know games of chance have existed for thousands of years. There is the biblical reference to the Romans dicing for the robe of Jesus as he was sent for execution.

How 'intellectual' is the population? The game of Chess, for example, has a long and varied history. The rules as we know them have only existed for a couple of hundred years. Before that, pawns initially moved only one square. Chess developed from another game called Shatranj, which had elephants instead of bishops, and a less powerful  'queen.'. Look back even farther and you will find a four-player game called 'Shatarunga' that used a die to decide what piece was allowed to move!

Would a bloodthirsty bunch of nomads play chess, or would they be more likely (as in modern Kazakhstan) to play a variant of polo on their war ponies?

The ancient Celts knew board games, but they also played a vicious game called 'hurling' which has survived (in a toned down form) to this day in Ireland and Scotland. In fact, if you read the ancient literature, they used this game to settle quarrels instead of a fight, since the death count would be a bit lower. Yes, people died playing these games. There were no safety rules, no helmets, no 'fouls.'

How far can your imagination take your games?

If you think like one of your own characters, you will get more ideas. Imagine that you, for example, work in the senate of your local town. You are a pen pusher, you come home at night and ... do what? Sit and stare at the wall? Get drunk and collapse, until you do it all over again the next day? There must be more to life than this. Are you an intellectual? Would you enjoy a board game, attend a play?

Do you thirst for bloodier entertainment after a hard week's work and head for the Coliseum? Do you go there to make money, laying wagers against the combatants and the racers? Perhaps, as in ancient Rome, there are well-developed chariot race tracks set up in your world. Teams from each 'stable' race weekly. The drivers are heroes to the local crowds. The races are vicious affairs where whipping an opposing driver is well within the rules. You might bet on your 'faction' in the games, you support them wildly; you perhaps wear their insignia somewhere about your person - or their colours? This is not a lot different to modern soccer or baseball games in some ways - all team games have their supporters.

Would Harry Potter work as well without Quidditch? It's not just a recreational pursuit; the rivalries are used to move the story forward, to build tension. In the fourth book, the villain 'fixes' the games in an attempt to trap and kill the hero. Can you see a way that games and contests could be used for a similar purpose in your world?

The ancient Mayan civilisation played a dangerous game in a stone walled courts with a solid rubber ball. By all accounts the team members were heroes to the populace. The game was dangerous -- the ball could break limbs, or cause concussion or even death. The players struck the ball with their hips, but we do not know how much physical contact was allowed between players.  We do know that at least one prince or king took part. It is recorded on one of their pyramids.

Does your culture value 'hard men' or would it prefer softer pursuits? Perhaps the barbarians up the road play a more vicious game and your culture encounters it - how do they react? The Romans gathered animals and people from around the world for their lavish entertainments, with the sponsors trying to impress the populace. What could the politicians in your world stage as a recreational activity to sway the population's opinion? Would they even want to? Might they just take their enemies and make them fight to the death for sport?

In films like Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, the gods are depicted as using humankind and other species as pieces in a game. They move them around a stylised map and cause death, disaster and conflict by their actions. Are your people just pieces in someone's game?

What about the status of your game players? In the Gor series, the Players are outside the law. The warring city-states would not harm a Player. The best Players are famous throughout the world and revered by the citizens. A father might boast to his son that he once played the Champion of Ar at the Game. It would not matter that he had lost - he played the champion, it was an honour that he was allowed to do so. Would your culture revere a sportsman or a player in the same way?

Think about games let them add depth to your world.

References: 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4) by J. K. Rowling  Publisher: Scholastic Trade; Reprint edition (July 30, 2002) ISBN: 0439139600

Outlaw of Gor by John Norman  Publisher: New World Publishers; (January 1, 2001) ISBN: 0759201471

Midnight Falcon (The Rigante Series, Book 2) by David Gemmell  Publisher: Ballantine Books; (May 1, 2001) ISBN: 0345432363

THUD the Boardgame by Terry Pratchett  Publisher: Millennia Marketing