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7 Games People Played in Colonial America

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Colonial days were rough. If you wanted food, you had to slaughter it or spend a year coaxing it out of the dirt. You could die from an infected hangnail. Not to mention King George was all up in your business. Booze, as we’ve mentioned, was a favorite way to ease the stress of being a Revolutionary. But fun came in non-liquid varieties, too. Many of the better colonial games are explained in the book Colonial Games, Pastimes and Diversions, for the Genteel and Commoner. (Which one are you?)

Below we have a variety of popular colonial amusements, some good and some just god-awful. Regardless, if you broke out any of them at your Fourth of July bash, we’d consider yours a Flossy bash, indeed.

You Should Probably Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party

1. Question and Answer

The amount of fun to be had in “Question and Answer” only depends on how smart (or, let's face it, dirty) you and your friends are. It involves writing oblique questions and all-purpose answers on separate cards, and passing them out randomly. You can make them as silly, dark, or esoteric as your company desires.

Questions like, “Would you kiss anyone who asked you?” “How often do you lie to your spouse?” “Have you ever punched a cow?” are ultimately paired with answers like, “Ask your mother.” “When I’m frustrated by my zipper.” “It’s too erotic to do every day.” Pretty much whatever order you put those in, it’ll be fun.

2. Ring Taw

We all had marbles, but not many of us knew what we were supposed to do with them. I mostly used mine as a sort of primal scream therapy for my father, when he had some emotions linked to “stepping on marbles” that he had to work through. But marbles, as indicated in countless Norman Rockwell paintings, is an actual game—and it’s really quite fun!

There are many ways to play marbles, but the most popular marble game in Revolutionary days was Ring Taw. It’s kind of like playing pool: You use your big Shooter marble (or Taw) like a cue to knock your friends’ marbles out of a drawn circle of dirt. You get to keep all the ones you knock out, even if it means taking some poor kid’s entire stash.

3. Ninepins

Most cultures bowl in some way, shape or form. You know, some version of throwing a rolly-slidey thing with the intention of knocking down a group of standy things.

In colonial times, folks mostly used the version favorited by the Dutch settlers, called “Ninepins.”  (The mental_floss store carries a great lawn bowling set, perfect for backyards or just impressing your friends with your knowledge of Dutch sporting history.) It was remarkably similar to modern bowling, complete with beer and abuse heaped on competitors that starts out fun and becomes hostile by the end of the night.

You Probably Should NOT Play These Games at Your Flossy Fourth Party

If you’ve read old books, you have some idea of the long attention span of our forefathers, and their willingness to slog through baffling, mind-numbing detail. This sometimes applied to their party games, too. The following games, which are real examples of the amusements of the day, might be better saved for Halloween. Partially because they’re creepy, and partially because the rules are rather mysterious.

4. The Simpleton

To play The Simpleton, all guests form a circle around another player and pretend to engage in different careers (painting walls, writing books, smelting … that which ought be smelt). Then, the player in the center pretends to play a flute, and sings a song about Margaret, who does not love him. And then … well, the original text can explain it better than I can:

“When he ceases to sing, to take up the trade of one of the players, that player must play in his turn on the flute, moving his fingers, as if holding one, but without being obliged to sing; and when the conductor of the game takes up his song again or takes another trade, the player on the flute must quickly return to his: if he mistakes, he gives a forfeit to the master of the game.”

You got all that? Now stop badmouthing television. It may be the only thing keeping you from playing a pretend flute while your in-laws milk an imaginary cow in your living room.

5. King of Morocco

Or perhaps you’d rather trundle your way through the always-popular pastime, King of Morocco? It was one of the games of the era that helped unmarried couples cope with the seething undercurrent of sexual tension that gnawed the seams of civilized society. It involves a man and woman walking solemnly across from opposite corners, holding candles. They meet, and recite the following.

The Gentleman: Have you heard the frightful news?
Lady: Alas!
Gentleman: The King of Morocco is dead.
Lady: Alas! alas!
Gentleman: He is buried.
Lady: Alas! alas! alas!
Gentleman: Alas! alas! alas! and for four times, alas
He has cut his throat with a piece of glass.”

Then "both end their walk with a solemn air, and ... run gayly to their places."

Phew! Let me…let me just catch my breath for a second. That was hot.

Never, EVER Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party…Seriously

Just don’t do it. Channel your rage into something less deadly.

6. Cockfighting

This was big back in the day. With human beings dropping left and right from either sickness or war or … a good stiff breeze, they weren’t about to worry about a couple lentil-brained chickens scratching and pecking each other to death. Nowadays we prefer our senseless bloodshed to result mostly from zombie interference. Let’s keep it that way.

7. Dueling

It’s wrong to say the colonials considered the structured murder of one another over a disagreement a “game.” It was more of a sport. The rules (the ones put forth here are from a code used in 1777) were extremely important, as they elevated the activity, making it civilized instead of barbaric.

In truth, death wasn’t necessarily the goal in dueling—the general idea was that the violence could be stopped after serious blood was drawn, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to fire for a foot or drive your sword into a shoulder. However “children’s play,” or firing in the air, was strictly forbidden.

Other Rules:
- The challenged has the right to choose his own weapons, except if the challenger doesn’t know how to use that weapon. The challenger cannot argue with the second choice no matter what.

- “Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection to be considered as by one degree greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regarded accordingly.”

- The challenged chooses the place, the challenger chooses the distance, and the seconds (friends roped into this mess) fix the time and details of the shooting.

There are many, many opportunities during the preparation for a duel that apologies are allowed, even urged. A simple, “All right, dude. I’m sorry. I was just mad she dumped me for you,” could have saved countless lives.  Remember this at your party.

You’ll find much of the stuff you need to accommodate these suggestions for your Flossy Fourth Party at the mental_floss online store!


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"American Mall," Bloomberg
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Unwinnable Video Game Challenges You to Keep a Shopping Mall in Business
"American Mall," Bloomberg
"American Mall," Bloomberg

Shopping malls, once the cultural hub of every suburb in America, have become a punchline in the e-commerce era. There are plenty of malls around today, but they tend to be money pits, considering the hundreds of "dead malls" haunting the landscape. Just how hard is it to keep a mall afloat in the current economy? American Mall, a new video game from Bloomberg, attempts to give an answer.

After choosing which tycoon character you want as your stand-in, you're thrown into a mall—rendered in 1980s-style graphics—already struggling to stay in business. The building is filled with rats and garbage you have to clean up if you want to keep shoppers happy. Every few seconds you're contacted by another store owner begging you to lower their rent, and you must either take the loss or risk them packing up for good. When stores are vacated, it's your job to fill them, but it turns out there aren't too many businesses interested in setting up shop in a dying mall.

You can try gimmicks like food trucks and indoor playgrounds to keep customers interested, but in the end your mall will bleed too much money to support itself. You can try playing the bleak game for yourself here—maybe it will put some of the retail casualties of the last decade into perspective.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Why the Soundtracks to Games Like 'Mario' or 'The Sims' Can Help You Work
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When I sat down to write this article, I was feeling a little distracted. My desk salad was calling me. I had new emails in my inbox to read. I had three different articles on my to-do list, and I couldn't decide which to start first. And then, I jumped over to Spotify and hit play on the theme to The Sims. As I listened to the upbeat, fast-paced, wordless music, my writing became faster and more fluid. I felt more “in the zone,” so to speak, than I had all morning. There's a perfectly good explanation: Video games provide the ideal productivity soundtrack. At Popular Science, Sara Chodosh explains why video game music can get you motivated and keep you focused while you work, especially if you're doing relatively menial tasks. It's baked into their composition.

There are several reasons to choose video game music over your favorite pop album. For one, they tend not to have lyrics. A 2012 study of more than 100 people found that playing background music with lyrics tended to distract participants while studying. The research suggested that lyric-less music would be more conducive to attention and performance in the workplace. Another study conducted in open-plan offices in Finland found that people were better at proofreading if there was some kind of continuous, speechless noise going on in the background. Video game music would fit that bill.

Plus, video game music is specifically made not to distract from the task at hand. The songs are meant to be listened to over and over again, fading into the background as you navigate Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom or help Link save Zelda. My friend Josie Brechner, a composer who has scored the music for video games like the recently released Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, says that game music is definitely written with this in mind.

"Basically, successful video game music straddles the balance between being engaging and exciting, but also not wanting to make you tear your ears off after the 10th or 100th listen," Brechner says. Game music often has a lot of repetition, along with variation on musical themes, to keep the player engaged but still focused on what they're playing, "and that translates well to doing other work that requires focus and concentration."

If you're a particularly high-strung worker, you might want to tune into some relaxing classical music or turn on a song specifically designed to calm you. But if you want to finish those expense reports on a Monday morning, you're better off choosing a fast-tempo ditty designed for seemingly pointless activities like making your Sims eat and go to the toilet regularly. (It can help you with more exciting work responsibilities, too: Other research has found that moderate background noise can increase performance on creative tasks.)

These types of songs work so well that there are entire playlists online devoted just to songs from video game soundtracks that work well for studying. One, for instance, includes songs written for The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Super Smash Bros., and other popular games.

The effect of certain theme songs on your productivity may, however, depend on your particular preferences. A 2010 study of elementary school students found that while calming music could improve performance on math and memory tests, music perceived as aggressive or unpleasant distracted them. I was distracted by the deep-voiced chanting of the "Dragonborn Theme" from Skyrim, but felt charged up by the theme from Street Fighter II. There's plenty of variety in video game scores—after all, a battle scene doesn't call for the same type of music as a puzzle game. Not all of them are going to work for you, but by their nature, you probably don't need a lot of variation in your work music if you're using video game soundtracks. If you can play a game for days on end, you can surely listen to the same game soundtrack over and over again.

[h/t Popular Science]

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