The games people play in a city are shaped by that city – and they shape the city in turn.
Most people, if you ask them, can remember a game they played as a kid that depended on the very precise shape of a very particular part of their home town – steps that were the perfect height for jumping into a flowerbed, or a basketball hoop you could just about chuck something through from the library window.
Play isn’t just fun, or important for its own sake: it’s also one of the key ways that we understand and interact with the world around us, and the games we invent depend on tiny precise details of what that world is like.
So, naturally enough, a hundred or more years ago, the games you could play in London were different to the games you can play there today. Streets were lit by gas, and lamp-posts had crossbars, so that the people who lit them had somewhere to rest their ladder.
That meant that children could throw ropes over the crossbars and use the lamps as makeshift swings. Look back a hundred years before that – or a hundred years before that – and everything was different again.
But the traces of these past games don’t just vanish. Take Pell-Mell, a game played in the 1500s and 1600s. Pell-Mell is a bit like croquet, but a lot simpler – there’s just one big hoop on a stick at the end of a long alley, and your aim is to get a ball through this hoop in as few hits as possible.
The name comes from the Italian word “pallamaglio”, which means “mallet ball”, and that’s pretty much all the game is: you take a mallet and use it to hit a ball. In some versions, when you near the end of the course you’re allowed to swap the mallet for a giant spoon so that you can flick the ball into the air.
Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes & Customs, published 1891. Image: Project Guttenberg.
It was never that all popular as a game, at least in England. But it was still popular enough that there were a few purpose-built courts, and in London, the fancy place to play was a specific alley near St James’s Park – just about where Pall Mall is now. Yep, Pall Mall is named after this mallet-ball game; in the 1660s, the road was built on the site of what had previously been a Pell-Mell court.
Sometimes games have a more fleeting effect on their landscape. For example, there’s the 1904 Treasure Hunt Riots, which cause a good few ruined gardens but no ongoing changes to city infrastructure.
The Riots – written about at length by Paul Slade here – came about as a result of a promotion by a newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch. The Dispatch decided it would be a good idea to hide medallions all around the country (but particularly in London), and award cash prizes to the people who found them. They printed clues to medallion locations in the paper – keeping it all quite vague, of course; it’d be no fun if people solved the puzzles too quickly.
The obvious-in-retrospect downside to this was that the huge array of really vague clues turned every paving stone, garden or pathway into a potential treasure trove. Hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic puzzle-solvers dug up front gardens, parks, museum grounds, and pavements all across the city.
Rival solvers got into fights, sometimes – with each other, or with the owners of the land they were digging up. There were arrests. There were grave warnings to the paper from the Department of Public Prosecutions. (Nowadays the hundred-year-old damage is, of course, all gone, though we might be down a couple of delicate trees.)
In 18th century Wandsworth, a tiny public common gave rise to enormous fake elections in which – on the day of the general election – 80,000 participants would vote for candidates running, under made-up names like Squire Blowmedown and Lady Twankum, for the almost entirely imaginary role of mayor of Garratt. We make up games to play in the places that we live.
But the places that we live change in response to the games that we invent, too. Sometimes the changes help us to play. Sometimes they hinder us – “NO BALL GAMES” signs, say, or tiny obstructions bolted to street furniture to deter skateboarders (in the nineteenth century, the equivalent was the “hoop nuisance” – angry pedestrians across London complained about children rolling hoops along the pavement).
But either way, the changes happen; and our games, shaped by the city, shape it in turn.
Holly Gramazio is a game designer and half of Matheson Marcault.
The Now Play This festival, a part of the London GamesFestival, takes place at Somerset House from 1-3 April.
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