Game Changers: How 4 Popular Games Changed the World


Pic: cover detail from Wonderland by Steven Johnson/Penguin Random House ©

When we think about the narrative of human progress, we tend to focus on big technological breakthroughs and new ideas: It’s serious stuff, right? Maybe not. According to Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, a lot of these big, serious things actually came about through our never-ending search for new ways to amuse ourselves.

Wonderland is an abulously entertaining read full of freaky, WTF factoids about how and why humanity’s pursuit of leisure changed everything. In Johnson’s estimation, games and other diversions get us thinking about problems and our culture in different ways, leading to unexpected innovation. Here’s four facts from the book about familiar games and how they changed everything.


In the 13th century, Dominican friar Jacobus de Cessolis delivered a series of sermons on the proper conduct of royalty, merchants, clergy, and peasants. Cessoli’s lessons were popular enough to be hand-transcribed. A few decades later, they were collected and printed under two different titles: The Book of the Manners of Men and the Office of the Nobility, and The Game of Chess. In it, Cessulis used good chess strategy as a way of communicating his vision of society: a state governed by rules rather than royal fiat, and one in which every group have an important role to play. Cessulis’ radical idea, and others like it, proved highly influential throughout Europe.

Monopoly The Landlord’s Game

Monopoly, the game that celebrates capitalism at its most ruthless, was inspired by (or a rip-off of, depending on who you talk to) another game with a totally different message. In 1904, women’s suffrage activist Lizzie Magie invented The Landlord’s Game: a Monopoly-like children’s game meant as a critique of unfettered capitalism. Magie’s game offered two modes of play, one in which the players won by buying up real estate and earning cash, and another in which participants shared the cash. Magie hoped to use The Landlord’s Game to educate children about the unfairness of the market economy. Instead, it was bootlegged and eventually sold in a slightly different form to Parker Brothers as Monopoly: a game that has taught generations of children the joys of dominating the economy for fun and profit. Magie received no credit for her invention, which I guess kind of proved her point.


In the 1500s, Italian medical student and hardcore gambler Girolamo Cardano was suckered in a game by a con artist using loading dice. Cardano sliced the thief’s face open and ran for the hills. The incident got Cardano interested in the idea of using mathematics to predict the results of dice throws. Cardano eventually published his work in a guide for gamblers, but it didn’t make it to print for another century. By that time, another compulsive gambler, French aristocrat Antoine Gombaud had written to math genius Blaise Pascal looking for advice on using math to improve his own dice game. Gombaud’s request inspired Pascal and colleague Pierre de Fermat to invent what we now know as probability theory. Their innovation proved to be extremely useful in other scientific fields like astronomy.

The Rubber Ball

Ball may be life, but until Columbus’ voyage to the New World, “life” didn’t have much bounce. That’s because rubber wasn’t known to Europe, or anywhere else except South America. Spanish conquistadors were astounded by the gravity-defying bouncing balls that native peoples used in their games. In 1528, Hernan Cortés kidnapped two Aztec men and brought them to the court of Charles V to play one of their ball games. Their rubber ball fascinated Europeans, who eventually saw a potential profit to be made in the elastic, bouncy substance. They were right: Rubber proved to have numerous commercial applications. Unfortunately, the profits made by European rubber famers were earned on the backs of enslaved native peoples.