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The Problem of Evidence - Printable Version

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The Problem of Evidence - slimy_asparagus - 03-20-2021

I am very skeptical about the quality of our anthropological evidence concerning games from other cultures.

So presumably these interactions went something like.

1. White European goes exploring amongst the "natives".
2. He (usually a "he" I guess) brings with him his cultural biases about the superiority of his culture. The degree to which his assumptions are racist may well vary from quite explicit to more condescending, but they probably were to at least some extent.
3. He sees the "natives" playing a board game and either simply observes it or asks about it.
4. Simply observing it is not guaranteed to get the correct rules at all. There may be situations that he never witnesses. The players may be taking shortcuts because they all can see that they make no difference.
5. Asking about them may be impossible or fraught depending on the language barrier.
6. Leaving aside translation issues, the people teaching him the game will most likely treat him like a child learning the game rather than formal rules. This could allow mistakes to creep in. In particular it provides another opportunity for nuances in the rules to be lost.
7. For reasons explained above he may be predisposed not to question any inadequacies in the game as he sees it.
8. Neither culture is probably a "boardgaming culture" in the modern sense. So both will likely have assumptions about what constitutes  a boardgame and will assume the other shares those assumptions even when they don't.
9. So in summary neither side will have the tools to question whether the communication has worked.
10. The European may well not have the motivation to do so.

Am I off-base in this analysis? Is the available evidence examined through the process of trying to ask how reliable the process of gathering the evidence was in the first place?


RE: The Problem of Evidence - Walter.Crist - 03-22-2021

Hello!

Yes, there is always a degree of uncertainty about how we know what we know about games. For the games which we are including in our reconstruction and historical analysis, we take into account degrees of uncertainty, based on a number of different of what we are calling uncertainty factors, and we can weight pieces of evidence based on how many of those uncertainty factors are tied to an account of a game. And one of the most frequent we use for an ethnographic account is that the account is about a foreign culture (foreign with respect to the person who reported it). That said, any serious anthropologist engages in participant observation, where they live among the culture for an extended period of time, learn the language, and are generally able to communicate and ask questions of the people they are living with. They often describe many aspects of belief, history, songs, stories, and other complex issues that can only be understood from being able to communicate with people. These are generally not passing encounters (though of course some are; and this is obvious in the quality of the description of the games). Furthermore, the act of playing the game is, in many cases (this is true especially of mancala games) better communicated through the act of play rather than complex verbal explanation. Indeed many travelers (different from anthropologists) describe playing games with people in other places, and not being able to communicate across a language barrier, but still being able to successfully play the game. This is one way in which board games are a powerful social lubricant, especially for these kinds of abstract games which can be communicated with just a little bit of demonstration.

That said, there are different levels of engagement with the games. This mostly comes from prevailing European and North American views of games as frivolous and unimportant. Indeed, most anthropologists ignore them completely, and thus we have no information from many many cultures. Others clearly had no interest in the games, and probably didn't even know much about games from their own cultures. Indeed, there are several accounts of Europeans describing mancala-style games as "resembling draughts," often adding that the method of play is impenetrably complicated or that they were unable to figure it out. Spanish chroniclers described several Inka games as "like our chess or backgammon;" of course these are very different games and likely betray not only a poor understanding of Inka games, but also of Spanish ones! These accounts are not very helpful for determining rules, but if a game is named, it can help us to place it in a time and place.

Others are of a mid-level usefulness, where it is clear they played the game. They offer a decent description of the details of the game, but it seems clear that the rules do not have details for every possible outcome of the game (e.g., there are potential situations at the end of the game that continue in an unending loop).

This brings into question the nature of game rules and etiquette. We have an expectation these days that rules should exist for every eventuality in a game: you need this to design and sell a game that nobody has played before to make them able to know what to do if these kinds of edge cases come up. Governing bodies for Chess, Go, Draughts, and other games played in competitions have also introduced these kinds of rules to traditional games, because it is important for there to always (as much as possible) be a winner and a loser that can objectively be identified according to certain criteria. This kind of expectation for a game to produce a clear winner is certainly important, but it may not have always been as important as the experience of play. That is to say, the social experience of playing with others, and playing fairly, or impressively, according to what the game allows, is also crucial. This is where etiquette comes into play. The rules of a game may allow for a situation where a player can avoid losing by playing in a certain way which is strictly allowed by the rules, but which may reflect poorly on you as a player, because it may be seen as bad etiquette to play in this way. In many cases these games are played in smaller, very connected communities, so there is social pressure to play fairly/honorably/sociably, because if you gain a reputation for playing in this way, nobody will want to play with you anymore—and this reputation bleeds into a person's social status, even outside the game.

Other anthropologists provide move-by-move accounts of certain games, making it clear that they have become familiar with a game to a great degree.

So, to sum up, because anthropologists were often not interested in games, and the purpose of their work was not to report on these games (apart from the very very few who were interested in games), they're often not included or poorly described. Those that did take an interest are easy to identify in the literature, and these authors go into enough detail to make it clear that they have an understanding of at least the broad strokes of how the game is played, and were able to understand how it was taught to them. Yes, it's clear that rules are missing in many cases, but part of the reason the project exists is to identify these and figure out if we can reconstruct missing rules!


RE: The Problem of Evidence - slimy_asparagus - 03-22-2021

(03-22-2021, 11:05 AM)Walter.Crist Wrote: Indeed, there are several accounts of Europeans describing mancala-style games as "resembling draughts,"  often adding that the method of play is impenetrably complicated or that they were unable to figure it out. Spanish chroniclers described several Inka games as "like our chess or backgammon;" of course these are very different games and likely betray not only a poor understanding of Inka games, but also of Spanish ones! These accounts are not very helpful for determining rules, but if a game is named, it can help us to place it in a time and place.

Walter, thank you. This is precisely what I as thinking of. People with a poor understanding of games in general, viewing games of a very different sort and trying to squeeze them into what they believe  a game to be.
Thanks for you explanation and many examples.