Last month, while at the Living Earth Festival, I had a chance to play an ancient board game from Hawaii called Kōnane. The game was inspiring—from a culture of sustainability perspective—on many levels.
First: the game is simple, very easy to learn, but requires skill. The game looks similar in design to checkers but pieces jump horizontally instead of diagonally and can only jump, not move (rules are here). But here’s the cool part: the goal is to not to acquire as many of your opponents’ pieces as possible but simply outlast your opponent, meaning whoever can play last wins. In other words duration not accumulation is the goal of the game (and thus, like all games, being a model of life and a reflection of important cultural values). If you want to try it out you can play against a computer player here.
Second: traditionally native Hawaiians made their own game sets, rather than buying them at Toys R Us. The pieces were from lava stone (dark) and coral bits (light) and the board from a slab of stone that they hauled back to their village (a feat in itself). And unlike modern games, the size of board depended on the maker. It could be 8×8, 12×12, or 20×20 if you wanted to lug that around (and like long games).
Plus, the building of this board was a rite of becoming an adult. Indeed, as one often played kōnane as part of the courting process, it was an essential rite! And of course, a well-designed board would show one’s skill (and marriagability) as would how one played the game. Too aggressive, or really bad at strategizing—that might warn off a potential mate. A smart player, but humble, and willing to help one’s opponent improve, well those are attractive traits in any culture.
What really is more sustainable than a board game—especially one built to last a lifetime? Minimal resources used (all 100% natural), time spent in community—interacting, learning, teaching, playing, and even sometimes courting.
Board games can help reinforce cultural values, whether positive values like cooperation or prudence, or negative values like conquest and acquisition, as some of America’s best known games Monopoly, Life, Risk, and Battleship reinforce. And thus, of course, we should be conscious of which games become prominent in our cultures.
One day, as resources and energy once again become scarce, expensive, and extremely precious, people will care for the chess, backgammon, go or kōnane set that they inherited from their parents, or perhaps made themselves from resources in their area. And as we’ll once again have more unstructured time due to less formal sector work and the decline of electronic media (we’ll have 4 hours back from the TV overseer alone!), this will mean many more hours for board games. Hours spent playing, chatting, telling stories, bonding with children, and perhaps even courting one’s future wife or husband.
Special thanks to Hawaiian Joe McGinn for teaching me Kōnane and sharing its rich history.
Originally written by Erik Assadourian in August 2011 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures blog.