Mind-extending brain teasers, puzzles and games have long been used to entertain and educate, and fun has often masked underlying moral or public health messages. Julia Nurse examines examples, from simple race games that led players through a virtuous or vice-laden maze to dangerous gaming manoeuvres used as warnings about contemporary health issues.
This old Sanskrit Game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi), known to us as Snakes and Ladders, was originally a way of teaching the importance in life of both fortune and misfortune, including disease. Each square has a number and a legend featuring the names of various virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).
The Game of Chance is a simple race game in which players compete to win tokens, on a journey involving forfeits with contemporary significance that are sometimes more puzzling than others. In this late 18th century variety of the game, winning was only possible by landing on the trickster, Harlequin.
The prize in the Game of the Goose from 1848 was the golden egg. Players would have to navigate a moral obstacle course en route that echoed contemporary social hazards: costly delays at the Inn, potential drowning down the well, getting lost in the maze, incarceration in prison, and if particularly unlucky, death.
The heroic warrior Guan Yu (d. 220 CE) uses the game of Go to distract himself as his surgeon, Hua Tuo (active 3rd century CE), operates on his arm. Considered one of the four essential arts for cultured scholars in ancient China, this strategy game is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day.
The Mansion of Happiness is an 18th century board game specifically aimed at moral virtue. Only by navigating around the board through a series of virtues (justice, charity, industry) and vices (ingratitude, cruelty, idleness) is it possible to reach the final stop: happiness. Enlightenement views about how to live well were encapsulated within this game.
Pictograms have long been used as a more visual form of communication. In this 19th century lottery advert, they are used both to entertain and to spell out the instructions on how to enter the lottery to ‘Catch Fortune’.
The hazards of gambling are clear to see in this Victorian illustration of a gambler in despair having lost all his chips. The moral crusade against gambling occurred throughout the 19th century but attempts to legislate and control gambling debts failed to curb its continued practice.
This puzzle taught how to avoid ill health and raised money for a worthy cause – the Infant’s Hospital in Vincent Square, London. This game acknowledges the link between poor housing and poor health. Each of the holes represents a barrier to ‘good health’. They include pneumonia, lack of sunlight, crowded housing, bad diet and meningitis.
The ‘Penrose stairs’, or ‘impossible staircase’ is a two-dimensional puzzle featuring four 90-degree turns that form a continuous loop with no discernible start or end. Although the staircase is conceptually impossible, it does not interfere with our perception of it. Conceived by the mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose in 1958, it inspired the work of the artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.
The idea of gaming also played a role in health education. ‘The Game of Health’ is an educational pamphlet published in Glasgow around 1927. Posing as a team, the captain is at the centre as the ‘brain’ and as skipper of the opposing team, ‘Disease’ commands a host of probable forms of infection. The nation was thought to be in poor physical health at the time, prompting efforts to raise general standards of health, particularly in schools.
Also aimed at children is this safe-sex book cover which was designed in 1997 for use in schools in Houston. Using the familiar gaming format, the aim of the game is to be the last non-HIV carrier on the board by avoiding landing on the spaces ‘Hooker’, ‘Pusher’ and ‘Little Action’. The lower the player’s score, the less contact is had with ‘sex’ and ‘drugs’. The higher the score, the more likely high-risk sex has been had.
The strategic symbolism of chess pieces offered ideal analogies for AIDS prevention posters in the 1990s warning about the need for sexual protection. The King determines the fate of the game yet his movement is restricted making him vulnerable in the middle of the board. By protecting himself – in this case by wearing a condom – he is safe and wins.
About the author
Julia is a collections research specialist at Wellcome Collection with a background in Art History and Museum Studies. She currently runs the Exploring Research programme, and has a particular interest in the medieval and early modern periods, especially the interaction of medicine, science and art within print culture.