States of Play: Nine Stories Explore the Entertaining Evolution of Game Design

The design of games has evolved a lot over the last few centuries, from structured play for children to interactive games made to engage adult players through sophisticated storytelling. The following stories trace modern gaming from toy building blocks and playgrounds through card and board games, cardboard playhouses and online play spaces.

Building Blocks: When Freidrich Froebel created the first Kindergarten in the early 1800s, one key to his new educational enterprise was a deceptively simple set of toys. These were no ordinary playthings, however — “games” played were based on lesson plans, designed to teach kids about how the building blocks of reality itself fit together and come apart. At a time when many children played with the leftover wood, wax and fabric scraps cobbled together into crude toys, Froebel began to design toys with a purpose. The legacy of these designs would shape the evolution of building blocks and playgrounds, but they would also more introduce a level of intentionality to the playing field.

Playing Cards: In the late 1800s, Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Nintendo Koppai, a gaming company that would eventually produce some of the world’s most popular and influential video game consoles. At the time, though, his venture was not an innovative technology endeavor. Instead, it tapped into a low-tech tradition of making and selling hand-crafted “flower cards.” Decks of these subversive cards were originally created to get around a strict and sweeping policy of Japanese isolationism, put in place to keep Western influence at bay.

Talking Boards: During and after the Civil War, people who had lost loved ones became enchanted with the idea of communicating with the dead. They came up with all different ways to contact the spirit world, including “talking boards.” Out of this era emerged the Ouija board, its name supposedly the result of asking the board itself what it wished to be called. From the late 1800s through the 1960s, the Ouija board was considered a source good and clean family fun. Then along came The Exorcist, a film in which the main character becomes possessed by the devil after playing with a Ouija board by herself.

Board Games: The Landlord’s Game, which preceded Monopoly, was designed to illustrate the benefits of Single Tax theory as proposed by Henry George. The game’s creator, Lizzy Magie, patented it in 1904 and included two sets of rules. In one rule set, ruthless monopolists attempted to crush one another. In the other set, building up properties benefited everyone on the board. The goal was to illustrate the benefits of a more egalitarian economic system. Of course, most players are only familiar with one set of rules — one side of the story.

Arcade Games: After more than 80 years of illegitimacy, the City of Oakland officially legalized pinball machines in 2014. Like playing cards, early versions of these ubiquitous gaming devices were widely used for gambling, in part due to their initially skill-free design. In the early 1900s, more and more laws were enacted to make pinball gambling harder. Manufacturers would try to circumvent these laws with labels that said “FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY: no prizes no wagering.”

Cardboard Playspaces: Cardboard revolutionized the packaging industry. This new material allowed for the construction and distribution of cheap, light, flat-pack boxes that could be assembled and shipped on demand, enabling companies to bring distribution in-house. In parallel, though, cardboard had a less obvious but powerful and lasting impact on the realm of creative childhood construction. One pair of famous mid-century designers in particular recognized the play value of cardboard boxes and sought to capitalize on it.

Card Games: From Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft, the incorporation of elaborate stories has become a key element of many modern games. Magic: The Gathering, for instance, has a deep mythology about an infinite number of parallel worlds. Eric Molinsky of Imaginary Worlds examines how this particular handheld card game has survived the onslaught of competition from digital games and how its designers continue to create a sense of story and engage in world-building within a non-sequential card game.

Online Games: A few months before the end of a world, players began saying their goodbyes. The massive multiplayer Sims Online, one of the most popular computer games ever made, was going to go dark. When EA Games pulled the plug on its servers, bits and pieces of the world started disappearing. The environment began to disintegrate. The texture on the trees flickered. All the people froze and blinked out of existence. The last thing they saw was a blue pop up window: “Network Error — Lost server connection.”

Universal Gaming: Even in an era of online, augmented and virtual reality gaming, escape rooms are on the rise and physical toys persist. Over time, early wood building blocks gave way to modular Lincoln Logs, interconnected Tinker Toys and plastic LEGO bricks that snap together, each representing a flexible world of creative potential. Each of these, though, was also largely independent of the others, at least until the advent of the Free Universal Construction Kit, a nifty system which quite literally ties them all together. For fans of toys or toy history, this system offers a chance not just to tie different toys together but also to educate kids about more intangible connections between past and present modes of play, linking old and new.

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