Human beings tend to bury objects that they consider most important to their lives. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some people chose to buy games, including board games. Some of these artifacts have survived the centuries, leaving modern-day archaeologists with a puzzle — how do you understand a game when you have no idea how it was played? Ancient humans, it seems, were downright terrible at losing the manuals for their boxed titles.
Tracing the evolution of games and gaming could tell us a great deal about cultural exchange and evolution between two societies or within one society over time. In a few cases, archaeologists have gotten lucky and found the actual rules to the game. More often, they’re stuck trying to intuit how a game might have worked by comparing it with other games that we do understand, or analyzing how a title is portrayed in art. The only clues for playing the ancient Egyptian game Senet, for example, are in the tomb of Queen Nefertari.
Now, historians are using new tools to recover the rules for ancient games. Cameron Browne leads the Digital Ludeme Project. It’s a research project aimed at using computational techniques, including AI, to recreate the rules of board games. To do this, Browne and his team first break a game down into its constituent parts and elements, codifying them as units called “ludemes.” A ludeme is any game piece or rule that the researchers are aware of. Cultural information is also incorporated to help evaluate the plausibility of various evaluated rulesets. The system they’ve built for actually playing the games is called Ludii.
Modern AI techniques are used to create potential rulesets for games, which can then be computationally evaluated. AI agents are assigned to play games using proposed rules and to build movement lists. The data the AI agents collect in multiple playthroughs can then be evaluated to determine whether the end result is a playable game.
“With our system, we can put in the equipment, we can look for rules from the date [of the board’s creation], rules from the area, rules from the cultural context,” Browne told Vice. “Then we can piece together likely rule sets that might have occurred.”
The team has already had some success. This article describes a game known as latrunculi or Ludus latrunculorum, which scholars have had trouble deciphering. Other scholars have proposed their own rules, but Browne believes Ludii has defined a more likely set of rules for the game — and you can actually try it out, if you use the beta version of the application and select the appropriate game.
Training the AI data set on the rules of the thousands of known games and teaching the AI how game rules evolved and were transmitted over time in the situations we can trace already could help teach the AI how to map the most likely routes for cultural transmission in the past. Some games, like latrunculi, were played for centuries across the entire Roman Empire.
Our difficulty in understanding the games of the past sheds some interesting light on the battle to preserve games in the present. Efforts to preserve game data in machine-readable form and to make certain that the unique experiences of gaming are not lost to the ravages of time are not simply driven by piracy or an insane dedication to nerd-dom. The individuals who preserved humanity’s games from centuries ago were saving a valuable relic of their own time. Knowing how a society chooses to spend its leisure time and the sorts of games it finds amusing tells us something about the society, no matter what the type of entertainment is.
Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia