It’s not surprising that this is a bit difficult to explain. I don’t think there are many people with my job. But it’s getting less difficult than it used to be, more likely to lead to people naming a real-world game they remember hearing about, less likely to result in people skeptically saying “what, and you make a living at that?”
It’s exciting: more and more people are aware of this sort of work because there’s more and more of it going on. Which is only to be expected - public play has always been around, but it’s had highs and lows, lulls, decades of vast growth, and so many different forms.
Mob football, from the 1300s onwards
To play mob football, gather everyone from your village. Split into two teams – perhaps you can find some sort of geographical dividing point? East against west, people from up the hill against people from the bottom? If there’s no logical dividing line, maybe just play against a neighbouring village.
Pick a "goal" for each team – something a mile or two away, perhaps.
Now, gather with a ball in the middle of the village, throw it up in the air, and race to get the ball to your team's goal. The first team to succeed wins.
In the Middle Ages, football was huge. Not huge as in popular (though it was): huge as in, the games were enormous. Villages all across England (and Scotland) took part in massive daylong matches – often on Shrove Tuesday in England, or around New Year in Scotland.
There would be one ball, and two goals, and only one real rule: get the ball to your team’s goal as soon as possible, just once.
These games are fascinating not just because of their stories – though there are wonderful stories, of people jumping into rivers and swimming, or hiding for eight hours straight, or burying the ball, or dropping it over a bridge to a prearranged crowd who scatter out frantically, all potentially hiding the ball but only one person holding it for real – but because they show public play in one of its key forms: as part of a festival, a regular event, a thing for a community to do together.
Vapours, early 1600s
Gather up four or five of your friends. Have a conversation, taking it in turn to speak - but each time you add to the conversation, you have to disagree with the person before you.
Medieval and early modern life revolved around fairs and festivals: recreation was communal and public. And although those fairs and festivals were only rarely explicitly connected to a game, they were still places for play – as we can see with Vapours.
Vapours is a game that turns up in Ben Jonson’s 1614 play Bartholomew Fayre, thus:
Here they continue their Game of Vapours, which is Nonsense. Every Man to oppose the last Man that spoke, whether it concern'd him, or no.
This game isn’t a big public event like mob football, of course: it’s just something that some people are playing. But they’re doing it in the middle of Bartholomew Fair, a massive celebration that started on 24 August and ran for up to two weeks. There was trading and celebration and eating and drinking and poor behavior and music and plays and – as Jonson teaches us – people playing in the middle of it all, a natural part of the celebrations.
Pell-Mell, 1500s and 1600s
Find a long alley, paved or grassy, and put a metal hoop at one end. Get a reasonably sized wooden ball, and try to hit it through the metal hoop in as few shots as you can.
Do this in the middle of a city. If you can’t find a suitable alley, build one.
Pell-Mell is a bit like a simpler, linear croquet, a game for towns and cities. In London it was originally played in - of course - Pall Mall: in fact the name Pall Mall comes from the game. When Pall Mall became too busy to play in, the game went elsewhere: The Mall in St James's Park was laid out for people to play (hence – once again - the name). In Pepys' diary he goes to watch a game in April 1661:
I found my mother alone weeping upon my last night's quarrel and so left her, and took my wife to Charing Cross and there left her to see her mother who is not well. So I into St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele, the first time that ever I saw the sport.
It’s fascinating because it’s a game that’s now completely forgotten, but its nature – played by the wealthy and powerful, in public, with a very particular layout that had to be purpose-built – means it’s had an abiding impact on the shape of cities where it was played. (And on the language – shopping malls are called shopping malls because of Pell-Mell.)
The Garrat Elections, 1700s and 1800s
To play the Garrat Elections, you’ll need a small village with a public square. First, decide to put someone in charge of the public square. Next, have an “election” for that role. And why not hold that election on the same day as the real parliamentary elections?
Invite all sorts of people to run for election, people who couldn’t normally be part of an election in the 1700s – mostly working-class men, and even some women. Ask them to give their speeches in a different part of London, making an impassioned plea for why you, and only you, should hold this invented and almost entirely powerless position. Finally, lead a procession through London and the fields around it to the small village, followed by thousands – who then cast votes for the next Mayor.
The Garrat Elections ran intermittently for almost two hundred years: vast extravaganzas of drama, political speechmaking, parades and mass voting, all for a mayorship that didn’t really exist, presided over by officials from a non-existent bureaucracy. It was part festival, part political commentary: a drunken satire on the electoral process by those who were excluded from it. Tens of thousands of people voted (many, many, many more people than lived in the tiny village of Garrett).
It followed in the tradition of the festivals and parades and huge communal events that also manifested in mob football and Bartholomew Fair. But there was a key, and really interesting, difference: the whole process was run and funded by the pub owners of Garrat and nearby places like Battersea, Clapham, Wandsworth.
And this is a great example of a broader fact – that the role pubs took in public play was immense. There’s a legacy of this in pub quizzes and bingo and karaoke nights, but for centuries they ran everything from elaborate make-believes like the Garrat Election to indoor pub games to sports. Which brings us to the next game…
Team Football, pretty much all the time, everywhere
To play team football, gather together a team - probably people who hang out in the same pub as you. There's a good chance the pub will have land for you to play on as well. If that doesn’t work, maybe try getting together with people who go to your church?
Then make up some rules. Probably you need to kick the ball into something, but other than that, do what you like. Whatever field size you want. However many people you like on a team. Maybe let people pick up the ball if you want? Or tackle each other? Or kick each other on the shins? Or not! Totally up to you.
If you ever play against a team with different rules, just figure out what rules to use for that particular match - perhaps go with whatever the host team says? You know, if you feel like it. Or don’t. Either way.
It seems now that games like football and cricket always had within them the seeds of a Proper Sport, that they were in some way different from all the other, sillier games where people run around fields and throw things and tag each other and jump up and down. But it could easily have been different. You know the game Prisoners' Base, the chase game where you tag opposing team members and they have to go to stand in "prison" in a corner of the field until someone from their side frees them? Given slightly different circumstances, it could have been the game to take over. Joseph Strutt, writing in 1801, reports seeing a game with “12 gentlemen of Cheshire against 12 of Derbyshire, for a considerable sum of money, which afforded much entertainment to the spectators” (as reported in this history of baseball).
At the start of the nineteenth century, most of the games that we now think of as sports didn't have any sort of formal ruleset. Different teams had different rules, and they varied not just across the country but from village to village and even from pub to pub within a village. And it was often a pub that created a team, and gave them somewhere to play.
And then, over the slow course of the nineteenth century, everything changed. People could travel around more; the options for recreation multiplied, everything from hot air balloon ascents to concerts to exhibitions to light shows. And football began to move towards one ruleset.
The process of moving to a formal rule system was pretty complicated, and took years (decades!) of negotiations. The Football Association rules, for example, came out of an awful lot of arguing and involved a last-minute schism over when you were allowed to kick opposing teams in the shins. the limited-shin-kicking contingent became the Football Association, and the kick-all-you-want group became rugby.
Alongside this formalisation (which happened to other sports as well, of course), we started getting professional football players, and regular ticketed matches; the games became less and less something that you'd just play with your friends as an adult, and more something that you'd watch.
The Laughing Game, 1900s
Sit in a circle with some friends. Say “ha”. The person to your left should now say “ha ha”. The person to their left should say “ha ha ha”, and so on.
Continue until someone laughs. That person loses.
The nineteenth century also saw an awful lot of parlour games: things for people to play of an evening, sitting around with their friends.
A surprising number of these games are about not laughing. Say “ha” without laughing. Pretend to be a cat without laughing. Look a t someone without laughing.
And a lot of them are about kissing: if you lose a game you have to pay a forfeit, which might involve kissing someone else, or pretending to kiss someone else, or choosing another player to kiss someone else. It doesn’t really matter how it works, just that there’s a lot of kissing.
And some of them are amazing and very dumb! “Are you there, Moriarty” is a game where two people lie on the ground, blindfolded, with rolled up newspapers in their hand. One of them says “are you there, Moriarty?”, and then they try to hit each other with the newspaper.
Here’s a key thing: if you look at fictional representations of parlour games, you see them in – well – parlours. 17th century plays might show a game like the Laughing Game taking place outdoors, or a group playing Blind Man’s Bluff in a forest – remember Vapours, played at Bartholomew Fair? – but in the nineteenth century these very similar games have shifted into private places. See this, for example, from the Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody:
AUGUST 20. — I am glad our last day at the seaside was fine, though clouded overhead. We went over to Cummings’ (at Margate) in the evening, and as it was cold, we stayed in and played games; Gowing, as usual, overstepping the mark. He suggested we should play “Cutlets,” a game we never heard of. He sat on a chair, and asked Carrie to sit on his lap, an invitation which dear Carrie rightly declined.
After some species of wrangling, I sat on Gowing’s knees and Carrie sat on the edge of mine. Lupin sat on the edge of Carrie’s lap, then Cummings on Lupin’s, and Mrs. Cummings on her husband’s. We looked very ridiculous, and laughed a good deal.
Gowing then said: “Are you a believer in the Great Mogul?” We had to answer all together: “Yes — oh, yes!” (three times). Gowing said: “So am I,” and suddenly got up. The result of this stupid joke was that we all fell on the ground, and poor Carrie banged her head against the corner of the fender. Mrs. Cummings put some vinegar on; but through this we missed the last train, and had to drive back to Broadstairs, which cost me seven-and-sixpence.
So games like football became more formal and professional, taking on the trappings of a sport, and less physical games turned into something private. As Judith Williamson puts it in Consuming Passions, a really great overview of Victorian leisure habits:
“…'old' leisure activities had revolved around community activities, performed by set groups of people at set times of year, whether it was the village men playing a ritual football game every Shrove Tuesday or attendance at an annual fair. Now 'new' leisure permitted choices of activities by individual to suit their own preferences.”
Public play in England wasn’t having its best century ever.
The Treasure Hunt Riots, 1904
Hide or bury metal medallions all across London - each one redeemable for a cash prize. Now publish oblique clues to them in a newspaper that you own, giving people easily misunderstood hints about where they are. Hope that this will encourage people to buy your newspaper. Don't really think about whether it might encourage them to dig up parks and streets and other people's gardens.
This 1904 treasure hunt marked an early example of a public game as an advertisement – it was created and paid for by a newspaper, the Weekly Dispatch. There's a great write up of the whole thing by Paul Slade here – as Slade makes clear, there were earlier examples of treasure-hunt-style promotions, but none that got quite so out-of-hand.
The problems were at least partly down to the clues, which were… well, vague at best; no wonder so many people ended up in the wrong place, digging holes on public and private property in the middle of the night.
It didn’t put newspapers off games completely, though. In the 1920s, a different newspaper, the Westminster Gazette, ventured into games-as-marketing as well. They created Lobby Lud - an actor who would visit different towns around England, with clues about his location published in the paper. If you were the first to find him and confront him - while carrying a copy of the newspaper, of course! - you'd win a pretty substantial amount of money.
Thousands of people played. Thousands! Sometimes the railway companies would put on special trains just to deal with the mass of people travelling to whatever town Lobby Lud was visiting. Fifty thousand people turned up in Richmond Park! A novelty song about the game was released! Again, Paul Slade has an excellent and thorough essay about the game.
These games aren’t the same thing as the advertising-funded public games we sometimes see now – it wasn’t about creating awareness of a brand, for example; it was a direct (and pretty successful) attempt to drive sales. Buy a newspaper or you can’t play. And people did.
And then, slowly, over the rest of the twentieth century, public play continued to reassert itself.
Partly through fun among friends: “parlour games” began to move outdoors again, starting with innovations like the scavenger hunt, popularized by Elsa Maxwell in the 20s.
Partly through commercial games: team-building; scavenger hunts; even crossword puzzles are, after all a playable object often engaged with in public, on the train or on a bench.
Partly through artists experimenting with games: Fluxus ping pong tables, say, with holes and peculiar bats and new rules, taking something that was a sport and walking it back to just-game, shifting the rules, deprofessionalising even the most expert of players, forcing them into playfulness.
And partly through technology, of course. Artists created soundwalks on cassette as soon as the Walkman existed; game designers made games that know where you are as soon as handheld devices started to have GPS. Projects like the Playable Cities award-winners just aren’t things that people could have created fifty years ago. The possibilities opened up for public play over the last thirty or forty years are immense and exciting and strange.
The desire to play in public isn’t a new impulse, of course. But it’s finding new expressions, and new audiences; giving birth to new festivals and shows and gatherings and communities and installations.
Holly Gramazio is a freelance game designer. Her personal website Games and Things provides further information on Holly and her work, and she is @severalbees on Twitter.
Holly is speaking at the Making The City Playable conference, which starts today at Watershed, Bristol. Further information, including a live stream of the conference is available at the Watershed website.