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Original Issue


It's your move. Follow these directions and you will win one of the richest treasures in gamedom. From Toronto take 401 West. Pass Cambridge. When you are greeted by a three-toed gargoyle, head west on Highway 8 toward Waterloo, Ontario. Soon the road widens. Ignore all blandishments from headless centaurs and keep following the Waterloo signs. Exit at University Ave. West and make a right turn onto Phillips St. Wave to the drooling elves. On the second block pull in at building 415.

Congratulations! You have found the gold mine: the University of Waterloo's recreation department, which houses the world's only Museum and Archive of Games. The museum contains more than 400 games and 1,000-plus documents, graphics and artifacts and it is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and by appointment evenings and weekends.

It's well worth the visit. You will discover, among other things, bone games. In a pile of mixed seal and bird remains, a crafty Eskimo player would discern the seal bones and reconstruct them into a flipper. The museum also has examples of ancient diversions, one a Japanese drinking game with hand-painted glasses, as well as numerous modern games, including some in braille.

The computer section is no less fascinating. Here you can try your hand at 50 electronic contests from darts to Adventure—the latter an arcane journey in which the player travels through stream and forest, gets chased by dwarfs and if, while searching for clues, he types "abracadabra" into the machine, it will chide: "Good try, but that is an old, worn-out magic word."

The museum also has extensive archives. These house books, articles, pictures and slides—not just about games but about game-playing in related areas (recreation, education, warfare, conservation and business)—all indexed in a computerized information-retrieval system. Except for those documents under climate control, everything is available to the public.

Spend a few hours in Waterloo and you will find yourself pondering more than just games—you will be contemplating history, religion, sociology, psychology. All the more so if you visit with museum curator Elliott Avedon, a 49-year-old professor of recreation who created the museum in 1972.

"I define 'games' as two or more forces in opposition resulting in a disequilibrate outcome," says the professorial Avedon. "It doesn't have to be two people. It can be a person against another person, a machine, nature, or himself.

"Games involve three elements—strategy, chance and dexterity. You manipulate the equation in playing. For instance, while kids often play Parcheesi as a chance game, adults use considerable strategy in blocking and doubling.

"We started playing games because we suffer from a stimulus hunger. A guy in a cave with nothing else to do may have grabbed a skull by the eye sockets and rolled it toward a pile of bones. We play games together because we're innately gregarious.

"Games are simulations. We get our cards from medieval society. Clubs are peasants, diamonds merchants, hearts clergy and spades nobility. Many games have religious beginnings. In the Middle Ages tug-of-war began as an interplay of good and evil. The earliest known hopscotch diagram was found in the Forum. It was a pagan rite. The Catholic Church made it into a journey to Heaven. The top was spun on Shrove Tuesday before Easter and put away until the next year. That's how we get the expression 'sleeping like a top.' The Puritans tolerated only those games that gave religious instruction. Drama and dance were religious festivals.

"Other games simulate wars. Checkmate comes from the Persian Shah-mat, kill the king. Chess dates from 6th or 7th century India, but it spread around the world and sometimes got changed and renamed—Shogi in Japan, Hsiang-ch'i in China. There is no queen piece in Japan because women had no official place in the shogunate. In China and Japan, when you take a piece it joins your side instead of being destroyed. The knight is the only universal piece; it can jump because it's on horseback. The rook represents artillery; difficult to pull, it can only go in straight lines. Pawns are soldiers. The bishop cuts diagonally through all levels of society. All war games developed from the patterns of chess.

"A third class of games are those of position and alignment. Ticktacktoe is one. They too reflect society. In 16th century Japan people who reached higher levels in these games got higher positions in the social order.

"Scrabble and crosswords are modern games because they reflect a love of language instead of symbols. We have one modern game in which public and private health services compete [Medigame], and another in which developers, civil servants, special-interest groups and public-spirited citizens battle over property [Eden Express]. Computers will add another dimension, one more complicated than anything to date. Using cable TV and computers, we may be able to play games crosstown on a snowy night. Teachers are using games. Businessmen once took coffee breaks. Now they take game breaks."

Avedon was just getting started. Want to meet him? The next move is yours.