From at least the sixteenth century, the English became the leading inventors of competitive team games. If we think of the present games of the world, almost all were invented or modified in England; cricket, football, rugby are the most famous.
As well as games, England became a great country for sports, horse-racing, dog-racing, mountaineering, hunting, fishing and shooting. Likewise the English were and still are great hobby-mongers. George Orwell noted that ‘we are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, cross-word puzzle fans.’ Yet the English were only part of a European pattern, for the French, Italians, Dutch also form part of a 'playful' civilization.
We might assume that this kind of enthusiasm for games is universal. Yet my first impression is that until a few years ago it was limited. I have been told that there were until recently no competitive team games in Japan. There were instead a number of activities which it is very difficult to classify. They are not exactly games, for they seem to have a solemn and ritual component. Hence they are often described with a term such as ‘martial art’. Even the famous tea ceremony is neither a game, a hobby, an entertainment nor a ritual, but a little of each.
These activities lie at an intersection between art, ritual and game in a way which makes them feel strange. They include a number which have the ending ‘do’ (ken-do, ju-do) which means ‘the path’ or ‘way’ and implies a semi-religious aspect, and others such as su-mo wrestling or pachin-ko (a kind of bagatelle) which do not feel quite like a game. There were no ball games in which teams ‘fought’ each other.
It is only in the last hundred years or so that the competitive team games of the west have bounced, kicked and batted their way round the world, creating an universal addiction. So everyone is mad about football and many other people are crazy about cricket. The recentness of this change suggests that games only work under certain political, economic and social conditions. A degree of political and social equality are both a cause and consequence of the development of team games. They can be suppressed as leading to disorder and they can soon become a form of political activity. The Indians took up cricket with added zest when they realized that they could beat their white masters at it, and also legitimately stand around in a field for hours without being told they were being lazy.
When they spread they can also be radically altered. When the Trobriand islanders of the Pacific took up cricket, they changed almost all the rules so that each side had dozens of players, dressed in war dress, and hurled objects at each other. In another part of New Guinea they have learnt to play football, but they go on playing as many matches as are necessary for both sides to reach the same score.