Future Archaeology of Gaming


Like everything else we make and use, gaming pieces form part of the archaeological record. I once had the pleasure of lifting a particularly fine set of 9th century hnefatafl pieces out of the ground. Now I have seen a set of 20th century mah jong pieces go into the ground.

The site of the burnt and demolished house near mine is now clean and ready for the new building planned there. But, as has often been observed, two important reasons that the archaeological record contains more small objects than large ones are that the larger ones are easier to find when you lose them and they get in your way if you leave them lying around intact. The mah jong pieces are in coarse sand with window glass outside the building’s erstwhile western wall. I tossed some of them together in a closer cluster and turned them over to expose the Chinese characters before taking this picture. One of them I gave to my wife, who identified it as the North piece.

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5 thoughts on “Future Archaeology of Gaming

  1. Well, “future archeology” for sure – but “of gaming” isn’t guaranteed. Chances are, 500 years from now archeologists will identify those pieces as ‘sacrificial offerings’ or ‘fittings for a ceremonial horse armor’. =P


  2. As a skilled contemporologist(?), I can tell that those mah jong tiles were probably used by Chinese people. They have only Chinese script on them. The ones they make for foreigners have little English letters and Arabic numbers on them. We mah jong purists shun such barbaric foreign things.

    The first Chinese characters I learned to read were on mah jong tiles. I had to, my illiteracy was costing me money. Now, you can tell how much of my life I have wasted playing the game by the way I can read the Chinese characters by feeling them with the tip of my thumb, without looking at them. In most mah jong tiles, the characters are incised, so it’s possible.

    For explanation, the way Chinese play mah jong is extremely fast – it is too tedious otherwise, and being able to read the tiles with your fingertips like Braille is a way to play very fast without your opponents being able to see which tiles you pick up.

    As a kid in Australia I had a Swedish neighbour, a great character and a very nice man who ran away to sea at a young age, who told me he taught himself to read English by reading the naughty bits of trashy novels. Hey, whatever works – he spoke pretty good English. He began to learn English because of sex, I began to learn Chinese because of gambling. We both transcended the genre.


  3. How are future archaeologists going to cope with the fact that our culture has become increasingly digital? Sure, some of us play Mah Jong with tiles, but a lot of people play on computers (I’d bet many have never seen a tile in real life). And then there’s Doom and Quake, etc. for which a dirt digging explorer might only find a box or a disc (or nothing at all for downloaded software). …And the Internet. How much of our day is spent engaged in ephemeral activity that leaves only electronic traces? Somebody better leave a note.


  4. That problem is similar to the fact that for most of our species’ history, nothing was written down. We can never access e.g. the mythology of Bronze Age Scandinavia beyond the enigmatic illustrations left in rock art.

    Historians have already seen this with the phone. The best-documented politicians are those of the early 20th century. Before and after that period, the number of preserved letters per capita and year drops precipitously.


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