Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Sometimes the most interesting part of an article or documentary is a single sentence, often just an aside or a tangent, tantalizing in it's genius yet brevity. Now and again I'll pick up on one of these tangents while I'm reading, or watching TV, or otherwise wasting time, and I'll become absolutely hooked. I'll try to finish whatever it was that I was working on, but the effort is usually wasted; that one idea entreats, no, demands, that I drop everything else and focus in on it. The Idea. Capital letters because, by now, The Idea has become an entity in it's own right. The Idea is coercing, demanding; the only way to satisfy it's hunger is to give in to give in to The Idea's allure and follow it down the rabbit hole. Only after The Idea has been thoroughly explored, considered, and hashed out, will The Idea let me rest. Dormant, but never completely gone. Asleep, but sometimes woken by seemingly random triggers, just as ravenous as before.

Just a few days ago I was struck by one of these epic moments and, while it's probably the sort of thing that only I could get excited about, and there's no ultimate conclusion, I can tell already that I'm going to enjoy the ride.


A few days ago I wasn't very tired after work, and decided that the best way to fall asleep was to put on my headphones and listen to a podcast of some sort. (This is usually a pretty good solution - usually I learn something interesting. If not, I pass out.) It had been a few weeks since I last checked out New Books In History, which has a great collection of hour-long, interesting interviews focusing on pretty much the entire gamut of world history, perfect for satisfying at least one of my conditions mentioned above for late-night narratives.

Since my last visit, a promising episode on WWI had been posted, which I found impossible to resist. (I think documentaries about WWI are fascinating, The Great War was a tremendous, cataclysmic event, responsible for massive geopolitical upheval, and a dramatic change in attitude across the western world. Also, Blackadder.)

The podcast, which can be found here, had been playing for about 15-20 minutes or so when the interviewer asked Alexander Watson, the author of the book in question how he decided on the specific focus for his book. Watson responded that it actually wasn't his original intention. Initially, Watson was researching an idea suggested by his advisor, Niall Ferguson, involving the card games that soldiers played to pass the time in the trenches, and how the different games played by the opposing armies may have affected how they fought, and...


At this point I'm no longer paying the slightest bit of attention to the podcast, because I've been struck by The Idea. What inferences can we draw about a culture based on it's traditional games? In my mind, this is a huge question, with all sorts of offshoots. Is Go so much more popular in Asia than in the West because it centers around the idea of balance, a concept that is valued in Asian cultures but de-emphasized in the West? How is it that chess, invented in Persia, spread across Europe virtually unchanged, but became the dramatically different Xiangqi in China, and then evolved even more significantly into Shogi in Japan? Why did the Jewish culture, which has existed for thousands of years, never develop a distinctive game of its own?

I'm not a social scientist, anthropologist, or ludologist, and I don't have a very good idea of how to go about finding the answers for any of these questions, or any of the others I'm sure I'll think of along the way. But I'm going to give it a try anyway, and see where it takes me. I know how my mind works well enough to say that this idea is going to be floating around in my head for a very long time, quite possibly for the rest of my life, sometimes dormant, sometimes at the forefront. I think it's interesting enough to indulge.

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