The Bond of Competition

Games are an essential part of the human experience. For thousands of years, humanity has engaged in play for all sorts of gain: education, practice, entertainment, and perhaps most important of all, strengthening social bonds. Few activities engage people as much as facing each other across a game board or cooperating against an opposing team. Life may be filled with endless competitions, but it is through games that we carve out space for ourselves to win or lose without risking our safety or relationships. In this way, games are the only competitions that bring us closer together.

Early game theorist Johan Huizinga called the space carved out for games a “magic circle.” New York Times game maker Sam Von Ehren, in writing about game creation, says of this circle, “When we are inside [it] we are “playing” the game. We’ll only do what the rules of the game allow. We will try to win. When the game ends, we leave the circle and return to normal. The magic circle is what separates a game from reality” (“Why Do People Love Games?” June 11, 2020).

Japan has played games for a thousand years and more. From chataranga descendent shogi and the strategic go, to the many rules they innovated for the cards (carta) early Portuguese sailors introduced them to, to the teams cutting the strings of an opponent’s kite in an annual contest, pre-20th-century Japan found many ways to engage each other in friendly competition.

In this exhibit, the Japan Information & Culture Center wants to give you the chance to experience some of these classic games, to sharpen your skills if you already have them, and to rediscover the ways they bring us together as people.