Games | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Games are distinguishable from other forms of play in that they are contests in which all players start out with equal chances of winning; they end when a winner or loser is determined; and although the play may appear spontaneous or unsupervised, it is in fact guided by rigid rules and procedures.


Games are distinguishable from other forms of play in that they are contests in which all players start out with equal chances of winning; they end when a winner or loser is determined; and although the play may appear spontaneous or unsupervised, it is in fact guided by rigid rules and procedures. Although many games are played without objects, the term "game" is often associated with a visible item.

History of Games in Canada
Many games have their roots in Europe and the US. Games have been played for centuries with little change as they came down through the years, passed from one child to another. The development of public education systems in Canada, featuring schools with playgrounds, fostered the spread of traditional group games and also served as a setting for the creation of new games. Forms of most of these traditional games, such as hopscotch and tag, are still popular with children today.

In the 19th century, boys and girls everywhere played games such as hide-and-go-seek, tag, blindman's buff, skipping, leap frog, hopscotch, red rover and puss-in-the-corner (the latter, known today as four square, is a game in which 5 children compete to occupy 4 places on the corners of a square). Even games such as "I Spy" and the sidewalk game of "Step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back, step on a nail, you'll put your father in jail" (inspired by the introduction of wooden sidewalks) are known to have been played by Canadian children a century ago.

Like children everywhere, Canadian children played games with an assortment of ephemeral objects such as sticks, stones and "junk." Since many families did not have money to spend on children's playthings, most game objects were made of "found" or inexpensive materials. These included knucklebones (small bones in the hind legs of a sheep) used as dice or in games like jacks. Hoops from discarded barrels or rims of wheels were trundled with sticks in races along roads and pathways.

Marbles, which were played mainly by boys, were generally made of clay and could be homemade. Manufactured clay, glass, ceramic and agate marbles were imported from Germany until the early 20th century, when the US began mass manufacturing glass marbles. Marbles were used in games such as ring taw and conkers. Boys also played with tops. Again, these could be homemade, using a spool and dowel, or could be purchased from local stores. They came in many forms, including whipping tops, peg tops and hand spinners.

Also popular was bilboquet, a game in which a ball is attached by a string to a handle with a cup-shaped end. The object of the game is to hold onto the handle, swing the ball up and try to catch it in the cup. Children played with balls and kites, and these too could be homemade.

Commercially Manufactured Board and Table Games for Children

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the rapid growth of an educated urban middle class, which for the first time provided a market for the establishment of a commercial game industry. This industry not only produced copies of traditional and classic games but developed new games and game materials for a growing child market. Eventually, these materials filtered into children's game playing, but, although they were heavily advertised by the 1870s and 1880s, it is not known to what degree mass-manufactured games were played compared to homemade or locally produced items.

During the first half of the 19th century, Britain, Germany, France and the US started producing game boards for children, but most were expensive since they were handpainted on linen. By the time of Confederation cheaper wood or cardboard games were available in most Canadian urban centres. Some were traditional games that had been played for hundreds of years in Europe, the US and Canada, eg, CHESS, chequers, backgammon, fox and geese, and 9-men's morris. Other games were newly designed for children's use and featured moral or educational themes to make them more attractive to parents.

By the 1880s, the children's game industry was actively producing and selling a number of board games which were for children's amusement only and which dealt with popular themes (such as "The Little Shoppers Game") rather than moral concerns. These games were mainly produced by American and some British companies, and it was not until 1886 that the Canada Games Co was formed. This firm was a branch of the British Copp Clark Co and never fared very well; most of its games were cheaply made and less attractive than the American or European products.

Nevertheless, it did produce some "Canadianized" versions of standard games, such as Toboggans and Stairs, which was based on the traditional Snakes and Ladders. Children's games were frequently manufactured by book publishers and were sold through mail order catalogues such as Eaton's (beginning in the 1880s) and in local bookshops.

In addition to the games mentioned, late-19th-century manufacturers offered games of physical dexterity, such as parlour (table) versions of tennis, croquet and tiddly-winks. Fort and bagatelle were wooden table games with marbles as projectiles to hit targets. Fort stopped being manufactured in the 1920s and has never been revived, while bagatelle evolved into pinball. Because these 2 games were constructed of wood, they were also made locally by furniture and barrel manufacturers. Although the Canadian industry and market for children's games became stronger after WWI, Canadian game producers faced heavy competition from their American counterparts, who continued to develop blockbusters such as Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble.

Throughout Canada's history, popular culture and technology have affected game playing. Group games such as tag were often renamed according to popular themes, for example, as "Cowboys and Indians" during the 1940s and 1950s when children's radio and television programming featured western themes. Lately, these games are more likely to have "space invader" themes. With the advent of movies, radio and television, many children's board games took on popular personalities such as the 1957 Leave It To Beaver Game, and this continues up to the present. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and his The Lord of the Rings trilogy influenced the development during the late 1970s and early 1980s of a series of fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Combining the elements of chance and strategy within player-designed fantasy plots, these games usually feature exaggerated bravado and sex stereotyping in comic book fashion. Because of these elements their appeal is generally limited to adolescent males, and the engrossing nature of play has worried some parents. The recent popularity of fantasy role-playing games is evident in the growth of players' organizations and stores selling gaming equipment.

The introduction of computer technology into the sphere of game playing witnessed a temporary boom of television and hand-held electronic games for children in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some of these games were designed as educational materials; others were based on traditional sports. A corresponding development has been the gradual replacement of traditional pinball machines with video games, whose popularity has led to the development of video arcades.

Games Played by Adults

Like children's games during the 19th century, most adult games in Canada were traditional and required few purchased materials. Comparative lack of leisure time was probably the significant factor limiting game playing for most adults. Traditional European board games such as chequers, chess, backgammon and 9-men's morris were often handmade (9-men's morris is a strategy game based on a 3-in-a-row design and is little known to contemporary Canadians).

In Québec, chequers, which was known as jeu de dames, was often played on a board of 12 x 12 squares (in contrast to the regulation chequers/chess board of 8 x 8 squares). Today all such handmade boards are considered "folk art" collectibles.

Game producers manufacturing materials for children in the second half of the 19th century also produced games for family participation. Parlour games such as "Authors" (a card game in which you had to match an author with a quotation) and "Lost Heir" (a matching card game) were extremely popular. "Conversation Cards" were question-and-answer card games designed to break the ice in mixed company in Victorian parlours. They were advertised as a blessing to bashful people and sometimes as "leading to the gates of matrimony." Cards continued to be probably the most popular game items for adults.

Playing at cards tended to be an urban adult activity, euchre and whist being the most popular in English-speaking Canada. Whist is an old European card game for 4 people involving a trump suit and the taking of tricks, and was the precursor of BRIDGE, which became popular in the 1920s. In the 1930s and 1940s games such as Monopoly and Scrabble were released for adults, and as major sellers they were only recently outsold by the popular Canadian-produced game, Trivial Pursuit.

 Marketed first in the early 1980s, Trivial Pursuit is a board game that involves answering questions provided on cards. Its success has been phenomenal, and in a complete role reversal, Canadian game inventors have provided a prototype that has been copied by American and European companies. An offshoot of the demand for this game has been the unprecedented flourishing of game invention in Canada by others hoping to achieve similar success.

This interest has also sparked the revival of existing game firms in Canada, including the Canada Games Co. Their successful adult "word and idea" games such as Balderdash, QWR (Quick Wit and Repartee) and Waddington and Sander's Whatzit and Slang Teasers address a growing urban literate adult market first successfully identified in the 1980s by the makers of Trivial Pursuit. Other popular contemporary Canadian-made games for adults include Scruples (High Game Enterprises). The popularity of murder-mystery dramas involving audience participation has fostered the production of An Evening of Murder (Waddington-Sanders) games.

While the Canadian game industry is most noted today for Trivial Pursuit, it has had past successes, such as the Munro 6-Man Table Top Hockey Game (see TOYS). The Munro company operated as a family cottage industry in Ontario from the 1930s to the 1950s and was then the biggest manufacturer of table top hockey games in the world; its games are easily identified by a wooden sloped rink, bent wire players and hand-crocheted nets.

Each year hundreds of new games are introduced to the Canadian market from an international industry. Some, like the puzzle cube created by Hungarian architect Rubik, have instant but short-lived popularity, while other more enduring games, such as Scrabble, have earned a classic status. In Canada, the major centre for the study of games is the Museum and Archive of Games, at U of Waterloo.

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