The History of Randomness in Games


Tarot cards and playing cards have the same origins, and the decks are almost functionally identical if you look into them. But these days, one is exclusively used for gaming, while the other is used exclusively for divination. But given the history between games and divination, this isn’t as odd as it seems.

In ancient times, games of chance were born out of divination. The first dice were made out of the knucklebones of cattle, and were originally used as a fortune-telling device. Eventually, people started using these dice to play games too. The first board games came out of this.

The similarities goes further than just sharing dice. The very concept of randomness was deeply linked to fate. Nothing was random, and ancient people had no concept of probability. Random things revealed the temperment of the gods, and the will of the universe. Divination and games of chance were simply two ways to reveal what the gods thought.

In ancient times, games of chance were more than just a diversion for children. Randomness and fate were two indistinguishable concepts, and winning a game of chance meant you were divinely chosen. Games of chance and divination were two sides of the same coin even, both used randomness to gauge the temperment of the gods, and the will of the universe.

The way we view randomness has changed a lot since ancient times.

Randomness used to be linked to fate. A dice roll wasn’t just random, it was chosen by the gods. That’s why the first dice were invented as divination tools. Ancient dice were used to gauge the temperment of the gods in fortune-telling rituals. Eventually, these dice were used for games of chance too, but the early view of randomness carried over to games too: divination and games of chance were simply two ways to reveal what the gods thought.

The link between divination and games isn’t as odd as it seems. One facet of this exists to this day. Tarot cards and playing cards have the same origins, and the decks are almost functionally identical. But these days, one is exclusively used for gaming, while the other is used exclusively for divination.

Dice have been the most important component in gaming for thousands of years, and arguably still are today. Dice have been reinvented time and time again, with the earliest dice being made out of the knucklebones of cattle. They’re in almost every ancient cultures, from ancient egypt, to ancient vikings, and even in the bible.

Casting lots was a dice game mentioned in the bible many times, and it was often used for important decision making: as a way to ask god for his input on a decision.

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Proverbs 16:33

For example, the land of the 12 tribes of isralite was devided with lots.

In mythology, Zues, Posiden and Hades turned to lots to divide the world: Posiden got the ocean, Hades got the underworld, and Zues got everything else.

Ancient people didn’t just use randomness for religous decisions: the acient athenians used random chance to choose the people in some state offices. And they were seen as being equaly valid as those who were voted in. It wasn’t just convenient to say random choices had the authority of the gods behind it, but people truly believed random chance had signifiance. Today we view random chance as being fair, but back then it went beyond fairness: it was backed by the divine.

In Roman times, their dice were lopsided and irreguarly shaped: they did this on purpose as a means of shaping fate. They had a fortune telling system, where they rolled multiple dice, and each collection of numbers had a fortune associated with it. By using lopsided dice, they were more likely to avoid the worst fortunes.

This is fascinating, since it means they had some knowlege about probability, yet still believed in dice as being fully determined by fate.

And these dice weren’t just used for divination, they were also used for games. Taberna, a similar game to backgammon, used lopsided dice too. But in games, it was because lopsided dice were the culturally accepted way to make dice. They still believed fate would overcome the irregularities of the shape.

But not all thinking from that time were quite so ungrounded. Aristotle wrote about probability and chance, not from a mathematical point of view, but from a philisophical one. Aristotle identified three types of events: certain, probable, and unknown. Unknown being anything random, like a dice throw.

But Christianity couldn’t accept that some events were unknown, because God knows everything. So when Artistole’s ideas became popular in Christian circles, the church refuted them.

Christianity was a big factor in how people’s views of randomness changed in even bigger ways too: not only did the church oppose divination as a pagan practice, but it also thought games of chance were a sin, because the church had a very strict stance against gambling.

Cards and dice were both seen as sinful things for a long time. See, if you believed random chance was divine will, then gambling is playing with god, subverting his will by asking him to reward greed. As one article puts it, it “opens a void in the fabric of divine will.”

Because of this, playing cards kept getting banned, and at least 18 european cities outright banned them. But that didn’t stop them from becoming more and more popular.

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that mathematics were to formalize probability and chance in these kinds of games. See, even though people were surrounded by random chance and probability, it took a very long time for mathematics to be used to describe it, and the advances that did happen were extremely gradual. Ultimately, it was in this time period that people stopped seeing random outcomes, like dice rolls, as being governed by fate, and started seeing it as just probabilities. And this transition happened largely because of gambling.

Geronimo Cardano was a 16th century polymath and avid gambler. He actually made his living mostly off gambling. But he was a brilliant mathematician as well, and he realized math could be used to describe and predict random outcomes, like in dice or card games.

He wrote a book, The Book on Games of Chance, about the patterns he learned from his gambling. He also wrote about a few ways to cheat at his favorite games, but it was mostly a treatise about probability. After this book, many of his contemporaries expanded the subject.

In Aristotle’s teachings, the opposite of chance was nessessity, but for modern games of chance, we view the opposite of chance as being player agency. See, when you stop seeing fate as being a factor, games that are entirely luck based stop being interesting. So, in order for games of chance to hold our attention, we’ve decided a player must have some say in how the game turns out.

See, two things have happened because of this shift. One is that older games that used to be seen as purely games of chance, like blackjack, has seen its players develop increasingly elaborate strategy to combat the luck involved, and give players agency regardless. These days, counting cards is a commonplace strategy.

The second is that new games being designed center decision making.

Older baord games like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders actually involved zero choices to be made: from start to finish, everything is determined by luck. But interestingly enough, that doesn’t stop children from assinging meaning to these games anyways. While adults can see through it, children actually see dice rolling as a skill. And that’s an instinct we age out of largely because of the education we go through.

Sometimes, randomness is something to be protected. In Casinos, they go through great lengths to ensure their dice stay as random as possible, to an almost superstious level. Dice are machined to hundreths of an milimeter, their pips are filled with a substance with the same density to make sure each face is the same weight. And then after that, these dice are retired after only a few hours of use, because wear might effect how the dice roll.

Ultimately, randomness in most games designed today is seen as an equalizer. It gives less skilled players a chance to win, and keeps games exciting for more skilled players.

Every game has a source of uncertainty involved: a game with no uncertainty is just a puzzle. So designers today think a lot about how much uncertainty should come from randomness, and how much should come from player interaction.

And all of this asks, will our view of randomness continue to change? And will it continue to effect the way we game?

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