Having fun the old way

Three generations sit down to play "lotto comique" together

The games we play reflect the society we live in. That's the idea behind an exhibition currently to be seen at the Swiss Museum of Games near Vevey.

This content was published on December 1, 2008 - 12:15

"The idea is to trace the development of games from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. This was a pivotal time in the transformation of home amusements," Rita Schyrr of the museum told swissinfo.

In the 18th century, the aristocracy had plenty of time on its hands. "To be well regarded in society, you had to know how to play games, just as you had to know how to dance," Schyrr explained.

A lot of the games played then took a long time. Tric-trac, a relation of backgammon, was an extremely popular game with complex rules. The variety of possible strategies, the tentative moves, the hesitation about entering the opponent's area before ending in total conquest offer a parallel to the elaborate courtship rituals of the aristocracy. "The games don't come from nowhere," Schyrr remarked.

In the 19th century the bourgeoisie, which had a much more business-like approach to time, took over as the dominating class. They played much the quicker game of backgammon, battling things out straight away without the lengthy opening that characterised tric-trac.

The difference is typical of the change in society which occurred after the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Frivolity was out, usefulness was in.

Games which had once been played by adults were downgraded. In the 18th century blind man's buff had once been a somewhat saucy game which gave young people of opposite sexes the chance to get a bit closer physically than normally allowed. In the 19th century it became the children's game we know today.

Moral and instructive

The exhibition has a wide range of uplifting and educational games on show. It's hard to think that children today would be impressed by the "moral and instructive" version of snakes and ladders where virtues move forward and vices pay a forfeit and slide backwards.

"Practice of charity" on square 28 moves up to "inner contentment" on 37, but woe betide the player who lands on "pride": they go right back to one.

"Illustrated grammar" doesn't sound very appealing either – despite the curious picture on its box which appears to show a statue dropping books on children below.

Then there is "School exam", where you land on a square and are asked a question. Not exactly Trivial Pursuit, however: "In what season does it freeze?" "Where do fish live?" Some are baffling in their very simplicity: "Where do we throw apples onto the ground from?"

Mass production, mass appeal

Around the middle of the century the invention of chromolithography, a technique for colour printing, made it possible to mass produce games for the first time. This opened up the market to a much wider public, and the imaginations of games designers ran riot.

The second half of the century saw the birth of some of the major games producers, like Milton Bradley (MB) and Parker Brothers in the United States, and Ravensburger in Germany.

Another change was the move towards playing games as a family, with different generations sitting down together, something that lasted at least throughout the 20th century.

Games started to reflect the interests of the time, which for many Europeans was one of colonial expansion. "A lot of these games are not very politically correct," Schyrr admits, "but we have to see them in their historical context."

One example is designed to help children "develop taste and a sense of colour": it involves ornamenting a "savage" with feathers and beads. Others feature caricature Africans and Chinese. "It's easy to see that this is the European way of looking at these people," says Schyrr.

It was the exoticism which was the attraction, for the circus was another area of fascination which spawned various games.

Current events

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, current events offered another subject. The gold rush to the Yukon, the Kaiser's ground-breaking visit to Palestine in 1898, a balloon flight over the North Pole, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 all had games based on them. Doubtless they helped develop a knowledge of geography as players moved their pawns over maps.

Some had a patriotic message to convey, like the wartime game in which players had to get the allies to Berlin – something which never actually happened. The box of a German game shows a gallant soldier on its lid hurling a grenade at a melee of enemy soldiers under the slogan: Hurrah! Advance with hand grenades!

If these are the games our great-grandparents – and great-great grandparents – played, what about us?

"There are games everywhere today, on your mobile phone, on your computer – you don't even have to download them, they are there for you to play," Schyrr points out.

"And then we have scratch cards, and lotteries with vast sums of money to be won. Are we at another turning point in our attitude to games?"

Perhaps a visit to the museum in a hundred years time will have an answer.

swissinfo, Julia Slater in La Tour-de-Peilz

Games Museum

The Swiss Museum of Games is in the castle of La Tour-de-Peilz, near Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva.

It was opened in 1987 and features games from all over the world.

In addition to its displays, it arranges events where visitors can play familiar games or learn new ones.

It also holds temporary exhibitions: the current exhibition features games of the 18th and 19th centuries, a turning point in European game culture.

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 to 5.30.

The temporary exhibition is called "Le jeu discret de la bourgeoisie" (The discreet game of the bourgeoisie")

It runs until February 22.

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