Twitter supplies endless amounts of hilarity, often in the form of other people’s drama. one of my favorite ongoing twitter jokes is the resemblance of Senator Ted Cruz and Grayson Allen, point guard of the Duke men’s basketball team. As a person with progressive political views and as a devoted Syracuse basketball fan, I have equal disdain for both of them Nevertheless, the resemblance is so uncanny it’s endlessly amusing to me. I can’t help but imagine Ted Cruz out there on the court, tripping people, throwing temper tantrums when he’s caught doing it, and then going back to the Capitol to try and force us all to behave according to biblical law after murdering some people for good measure.
Anyway, Politico reported that Senator Cruz is starting a pickup basketball game with his colleagues, in an attempt to mend fraying personal relationships with other Republican senators (because, you know, everyone hates him). Deadspin called bullshit on him, asking for a photo of him playing basketball, which resulted in this exchange:
Regardless, the senator’s idea of playing basketball with colleagues to build better relationships with them is a good one. My own research has examined the ways in which people use play, and games in particular, as a way to build social relationships with one another. Having strong social relationships builds trust, and allows people to have more fruitful interactions outside of play, which can have economic, political, and other social consequences.
Games are fundamentally a social act. Unless you’re playing a game of solitaire, you need another person to play a game. The social property of games is related to a skill that is uniquely human: the ability for two people or more to share attention on another object or person separate from them. Research by Michael Tomasello on apes and infant humans has shown that this is instinctual in humans but it is not in apes. Human infants understand from a very early age that when someone points to an object, they should focus their attention on it, and likewise point to things to demand adults to pay attention to those things. Apes can learn to mimic this behavior and respond to it. The difference is that humans can understand that the other person with whom they are sharing attention has a different perspective on that object. We’ve all experienced this in action when we try to point at something to draw a dog’s or cat’s attention to it. They simply do not have the ability to understand what the hell we are doing.
Games provide an excellent activity for people to exercise this uniquely human ability. Whether it’s a board game or a sport, a game provides something on which two people can focus their attention: a board with pieces, a ball, and, in an abstract sense, the action of the game itself.
Another property of games is described by the social theorist Victor Turner. Games allow people a space in which they can behave outside the rules of normal social behavior. For example, you cannot push your boss out of your way to get somewhere at work, nor can you roll some dice to decide whether you’re going to make it to that important meeting. Nevertheless, in a pickup basketball game, physical contact with your boss would not be thought of twice. This property of games, called “liminoid” by Turner, means that people can interact with one another through play in ways that would be impossible in regular social life. This then has consequences for building social relationships, as social divisions that normally exist break down by increased familiarity outside the normally rigid social boundaries we experience.
Thomas Malaby, a cultural anthropologist, observed tavli (Greek backgammon) players in Chania, a city on the island of Crete. He observed that, frequently, the game was played between two acquaintances, and observed by a number of spectators. Throughout the course of the game, the players and spectators use the game to make social inferences about the players. They likened it to the first meeting of the parents of a bride and groom, where they size each other up to determine their worthiness. If people were to pass the test of the game, they would then be judged to be worthy of trust, thus having real-world consequences in their relationships among the community.
So what does this have to do with archaeology? Well, (warning: shameless self-promotion) in a book I published with my colleagues Alex de Voogt and Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games across Borders, we argued, in part, that the Egyptian board game senet offers evidence for this kind of functionality of games.
During the third millennium BCE, Egyptians were heavily active in the Levant (today’s Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel), mostly for trading purposes. One site, in particular, was important early on: Tel Arad.
This town flourished as it functioned as the middleman between Egypt and the copper mines in the Sinai Peninsula. Heavy interaction can be attested through the appearance of many Egyptian artifacts at the site. In addition, blocks of limestone that display the pattern of senet, three rows of ten spaces, were found in great number at the site. Interestingly enough, once Egyptians seized control of the copper mines, the game disappeared from the site. Instead, the game started to appear at sites closer to the coast, such as Tel es-Safi, as a result of a focus on maritime trade between Egypt and sites along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Senet games were also found at the site of Byblos, where a significant long-term Egyptian trading colony existed for the procurement of cedar, an important commodity for a nation with few natural sources of wood.
The changing geographical distribution of Egyptian style games may suggest that these objects served as objects to facilitate interaction between Egyptians and local peoples. A board game allows for people to build social relationships, even where there is a language barrier. When interacting with people from foreign lands, it is important to initiate some kind of social interaction and to do so in a way that allows for behavior outside what would normally be allowed. By playing a game, the players are allowed to come into contact with one another, break down some of the social boundaries that exist, and come to a judgment as to whether someone is trustworthy or not. This is why so many non-Duke fans hate Grayson Allen: he plays dirty, and we look at this as a reflection of his character. But in the case of Egyptians and Levantine peoples, it allowed them to initiate contact through which they could build mutually beneficial economic relationships. Once the Egyptians started looking elsewhere for their commodities, they no longer had a need for senet and stopped playing it.
So, it is probably a good idea for Ted Cruz to start a pickup basketball game with his colleagues, if it can help them interact better with each other. I would argue that it would be even better if he or his Senate colleagues started a game with senators across the aisle. Building those relationships with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum could go a long way to restoring the kind of collaboration that used to exist in that body.
That is, unless he likes to trip people like his doppelgänger does.
Crist, W., A. de Voogt and A-E. Dunn-Vaturi. 2016. Facilitating interaction: Board games as social lubricants in the Ancient Near East. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 35(2): 179–96.
Malaby, T. 2003. Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City. Urbana, IL: Universitty of Illinois Press
Sebbane, M. 2001. Board games from Canaan in the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages and the origin of the Egyptian senet game.” Tel Aviv: 213–30.
Shai, I., H. Greenfield, J. Regev, E. Boaretto, A. Eliyahu-Behar, and A. Maeir. 2014. The Early Bronze Age remains at Tell es-Safi/Gath: An interim report. Tel Aviv 41: 20–49.
Tomasello, M. 2006. Why don’t apes point? In N. Enfield and S. Levinson (eds), Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition and Interaction. Oxford: Berg, 506–24.
Turner, V. 1982. Liminal to liminoid in play, flow, ritual: An essay in comparative symbology. In V. Turner (ed), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1–60.