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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Passing Time

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

A game of Nine Men's Morris, Alfonso X of Castile, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, the World Health Organisation included Gaming Disorder, the uncontrollable and persistent playing of video and computer games, in its diagnostic International Classification of Diseases, as a "disorder due to addictive behaviour". Internet-based games have become a worldwide phenomenon, and a recent estimate claims that they involve some 160 million adults in the United States alone. For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to significantly impair a person's functioning, interaction with family and social groups, education or occupation over a period of at least 12 months.

Whether a disorder, or merely a bit excessive, games seem to have lost much of their charm, their relaxed, amiable competitiveness. The ever increasing number of people of all ages tied for hours to the computer screen, eyes glazed over, fingers racing erratically on keyboards or feverish twisting joysticks, is a concern, particularly when the content of many of the more popular games is extremely violent, and when the number of children, often very young, that are becoming addicted to them is vast. How can one not regret the distance we have travelled from a time when for most people games were a relaxation and a means of enhancing human relationships (rather than human-machine relationships), and required very simple low-cost equipment such as a ball, a game-board and dice, a stack of cards or a handful of colourful marbles.

But even simple games could sometimes be the source of concern and find opposition in certain quarters. In monastic and military houses in the Latin East, games were regarded as distractions, and dangerous as they encouraged betting which was particularly frowned upon both for its addictive nature and the loss of property it could cause. If not prohibited outright, they were severely restricted in the orders' rules. What is therefore somewhat surprising the is the fact that virtually all of finds of dice, board-games and game pieces that have been recovered so far in archaeological excavations have come from monastic sites and military order houses and castles.

The locations of some of these games boards and game pieces is interesting. They are generally found either in what appear to have been entirely exposed locations, or in apparently hidden ones. In the hospitaller castle of Bethgibelin (Bet Govrin) a number of game boards have been found, all located in highly exposed sites. Several are carved on the paving of the aisles and nave in the church attached to the castle. Who could have made them? The church is not so large that brothers from the adjacent castle, or parishioners from the neighbouring village could have played unseen during mass. And it hardly seems likely to have been a couple of bored priests wishing to while away their time between services. Another game board is equally exposed on a stone table in the castle refectory. As the orders had very strict rules regarding appropriate behaviour in the refectory, this too is something of a mystery.

More what we would expect, are the finds from the Hospitaller castle Belvoir, the Templar castle Château Pèlerin ('Atlit) and the Teutonic castle, Montfort. In these castles game boards have been located in places where the players could not be easily observed or where the evidence could quickly be hidden from possible discovery. At Belvoir a game board was incised on the underside of a large stone mortar. Players could quickly overturn the mortar if they thought they would be caught in the act. At Château Pèlerin a board game was incised on the plaster roof of the stable, and at Montfort game boards and dice were found on the edge of the lower ward of the castle, beside a tower of the outworks. These locations seem much more what we would anticipate, and draw me back to my own army service nearly a half century ago, when some pals and I would sneak out of base through an opening in the perimeter wire to play billiards in a nearby village.

* William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, 16:2. ** John of Joinville, 1963, p. 278/1908, p. 239. For a discussion of board games in the crusader period see Elizabeth Lapina, "Gambling and Gaming in the Holy Land: Chess, Dice and Other Games in the Sources of the Crusades", Crusades 12, 2013, pp. 121-32.

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