On the origin of playing cards in “non-game” play


It is easy to take things for granted in any medium, and games are no exception. We take for granted that established genres and control schemes are well known to us because we grew up with them, but are alien or confusing to newcomers. We take for granted that certain references and jargon will be known to our audience. We take for granted that even the most ubiquitous and familiar tools were once invented by someone and never existed before that moment.

We take for granted certain roles that games play in our lives and the assumption that these will always take certain forms. Imagine a group of recently-admitted college students, stressed and looking to unwind in a night of alcoholic debauchery among their peers. The students are all new to the school, so alcohol provides a useful social lubricant, and one student suggests a drinking game to further lighten the mood and allow the new peers to communicate on less formal terms. Perhaps you imagine one of them taking a deck of cards from their pocket for a round of King’s Cup or Asshole. Well, if this scene were taking place at an academy in Tang China, instead of a deck of cards they would be shuffling a collection of carved, wooden fish and would have to have very big pockets.

Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle is a combination drinking game poetry-creation system. In this game, a stone bowl holding various carved fish is placed at the end of a long hall. Players “fish” using red silk threads and when two fish are caught, the poems carved onto their sides are combined and read aloud. Some combinations of poetry may require the player to be penalized and drink a certain amount of wine. The game’s name is itself a commentary on the court education system, as getting into the prestigious Hanlin Academy was referred to as “getting onto the head of the giant sea turtle” and the rules specifically call on recent graduates to drink more than other players.  The wooden fish were created specifically for use in this satirical metaphor, but they didn’t lend themselves easily to other games. They were big and clunky and took a long time to carve. The invention of paper cards allowed players to easily construct similar decks for other poetry games, and to satirize other systems that didn’t have a built in marine life reference.


But this wasn’t all cards could be used for. Just as these cards could be used to replace the more expensive and less-portable fish, they could also be shuffled, given numbers, and drawn to recreate the randomness of dice. The first of such games is known to us by name only. The rules of this “game of leaves” is not known, only that it was very popular with nobles, artists and scholars of the Chinese court. Within a few centuries, this game evolved into the first recognizable playing cards. It was this form that would travel to Europe through the silk road and, timed perfectly with the invention of new printing techniques, would lead to their mass production. The first four Tarot decks appeared almost simultaneously in Florence, Paris, Basle and Siena in .

The cards’ origins as a way to use randomness for the creation of poetry and their use in social functions is reflected in how these games were used as they spread out from China. Carl Jung would famously note of the Tarot deck’s use as a tool for psychoanalysis, but he was far from the first to do so. Spanish and Portuguese colonists and sailors brought the hip new playing cards to South America, where they were adopted into traditional games of the indigenous people living there. Peruvian shamans created a variation of the Tarot called Naipes (“naipes” is just a Spanish word for “card” but in this case also refers to a specific card game of Peru) that utilized images from Peruvian art and mysticism. The role of the shaman in these communities often revolved around mental health. The naipes deck would be drawn from to determine what questions the “patient” would be asked. The deck is stacked in favor of the therapist. While ostensibly a tool for divining the future, naipes readings involve asking “what could cause this result to happen?” rather than saying “this will happen.” Mathematically it is impossible to do a naipes reading and not get at least one card that portrays a “bad fortune” and asks the player to identify possible sources for this. As the players were not aware of the probability involved, the deck would seem to “magically” guide them towards thinking about issues that were troubling them, even if they came into the reading not thinking about anything negative in particular. Since the player is the one providing the context and meaning based on the matched card, it ends up being accurate for that player, furthering the perceived power of the deck as a tool for mystical insight. Just as the randomly matched Tang poetry cards would create poems of deeper meaning, the randomly matched images of the naipes deck would be used to create deeper ideas for the player.


Any tool can be used by an artist or designer for new purposes. Cards were an elegant method of creating portable randomness and quickly juxtaposing ideas or images, and from there came an unimaginable wealth of new ideas and games. Even today, there is no shortage of ways to use playing cards, even within the confines of established methods of play. We still have social games, therapy games, storytelling games, probability games and countless more all portrayed in card form. Cards Against Humanity owes some of its existence to Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle,. and if we can get tarot, naipes, the “game of leaves” and the 52 bicycle deck all from the same basic set of cards, imagine what we could get out of another tool too many of us take for granted. The invention of cards allowed anyone the chance to make games cheaply and instantly. People who couldn’t afford game pieces, boards and dice intricately carved from rare materials could easily procure cards. As a result, we ended up with people from every background in almost every culture whipping out new card games and deck designs at an almost exponential rate. This is what attracts me to programs like Twine, zzt, and even RPG Maker. Those programs are the closest thing we have to this sea change in terms of digital games. An elegant way for anyone to design digital play without having to have a lot of computer space or power for “carving fish” as it were.


Dobkin, Marlene. “Fortune’s Malice: Divination, Psychotherapy, and Folk Medicine in Peru.” The Journal of American Folklore 82, no. 324 (1969): 132-141.

Dummett, Michael A. E., and Sylvia Mann. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Lo, Andrew. “The game of leaves: an inquiry into the origin of Chinese playing cards.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63, no. 03 (2000): 389.

Tao, Zongyi. Shuo fu,. Taiwan: Taiwan Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1972. 



This entry was posted in Video Games of the Oppressed and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the origin of playing cards in “non-game” play

  1. Pingback: Tarot and What Is Winning Anyways? | Video Games of the Oppressed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s