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Gaming 3,000 years ago wasn't too different from your PS4, new research proves

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Aug 24, 2019

There might not have been anything remotely close to a game console or a MMORPG on the internet millennia ago, but there were gamers—and what made board games so appealing back then hasn’t really changed much even in our digital world.

Humans have been gaming long before even the concept of video games existed. This is what Maastricht University professor Cameron Browne, principal investigator behind the Digital Ludeme Project, geeks out on. Ludemes are properties of a game, such as how you move pieces across the board or what you need to win, converted into pieces of computer code.

Browne’s research is supported through 2023 by a $2.2 million grant from the European Research Council. His Ludii platform uses AI to reconstruct these games according to their ludemes. You can even play some of them here.

“The Digital Ludeme Project aims to reconstruct the missing knowledge of ancient games using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence,” Browne said on his Digital Ludeme Project website. “The goal is to construct a ‘family tree’ of games, showing how games evolved and spread across the world.”

Viking game pieces

Ancient pieces from the Viking game of Hnefatafl. Credit: National Museum of Iceland

Games can reveal more than you might think about ancient cultures. Some look so similar that it appears they might share a common ancestor, but just like different chess boards are used to play the same game, they could also be completely unrelated. The Digital Ludeme Project’s ultimate goal is to use reconstructions of games played thousands of years ago to piece together a gaming family tree that shows both their evolution and how they spread throughout the world.

To figure out what the ancient Mesopotamian or Egyptian idea of fun was, or what Vikings did to pass the time on the way to conquer Miklagard (modern-day Istanbul), the Ludii platform “thinks” in terms of archaeological data from all over the world. Ludii uses ludemes to simulate playing the game like an actual human being so it can figure out what about it was fun for the players.

“Over time, Ludii will be able to tell how likely it is for a game to appear during a certain time period and to adjust its findings for historical accuracy,” explained Browne, who wants to revive knowledge lost to time.

Did cultures on opposite sides of the planet have the same gaming tendencies? Another thing Browne is trying to find out is whether their ideas of potentially addictive pastimes were on the same level—or if two deceptively similar games were played differently.

ancient games

Credit: Daniel Scwhen 

Take the Mexican game of Patolli (right) and the Indian game of Pachisi. The plus-sign-shaped boards with their checkerboard backgrounds, on which some cells are crossed out, could suggest these games have something in common. Or not.

Maybe Pachisi and Patolli were played the same way even if the people who invented them never came into contact. That could suggest similarities in how the ancients had fun, even though each culture had no idea the other game existed. There is also the possibility these cultures crossed paths in a way we know nothing about yet. Of course, the games could have emerged totally apart from each other and played in completely different ways.

Check out the downloadable games on the Ludiii Portal and see for yourself. Do the rules and gameplay remind you of anything? Will you find yourself playing one for hours? This could be proof a Viking who played Hnefatafl lived thousands of years ago was the same type of gamer as you.

If that Viking could travel through time, maybe they’d even beat you at God of War.

(via Digital Ludeme Project)

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