On this TED talk, Jane McGonical states that Lydians invented games a few centuries ago, as dice games they would play to forget about famine.

So, I take my inspiration from something that happened 2,500 years ago. These are ancient dice, made out of sheep's knuckles. Right? Before we had awesome game controllers, we had sheep's knuckles. And these represent the first game equipment designed by human beings. And if you're familiar with the work of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, you might know this history, which is the history of who invented games and why. Herodotus says that games, particularly dice games, were invented in the kingdom of Lydia during a time of famine.

She claimed this was in Herodotus writings. Can all of this be confirmed?

  • 1
    [Thanks for the edit, ChrisW.] We now have three potential questions here: Q1: Did Herodotus say this? @Yamikurone's comment takes us a long way down that road. Once we find that and confirm the quote: Q2: Was Herodotus correct in saying dice games were invented in Lydia? The question in the title however is problematic, i.e. Q3: Were games invented in Lydia? After all, if two puppies tussle over a stick, is that not a game?
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 7, 2014 at 2:05
  • Herodotus did say it (it is attributed to him): it is for example on the bottom of page 43 of paxlibrorum.com/res/downloads/histories_5by8.pdf
    – ChrisW
    Sep 7, 2014 at 2:08
  • I didn't address (and don't have the means to address) the idea of co-invention, where games were previously unknown to the Lydians before the famine, but at the very least the statement is misleading, since they were not the first society to play games. Sep 7, 2014 at 2:34
  • Thanks for the edit, ChrisW, didn't realize it wasn't clear before.
    – tpianca
    Sep 7, 2014 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


Dealing with the question of games (Yamikuronue has dealt with Herodotus thoroughly already) clearly we have no way of knowing who played games like Touch (what North Americans call Tag) in the prehistoric past. Neanderthals may well have done. But I think the sense of the question involves games with props, i.e. specially designed materials. A good source on the history of board games is H.J.R. Murray's A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess (OUP 1951).

Murray gives several examples of games that are much older than envisaged by Herodotus. "2,500 years ago". His earliest example is the El-Mahasna game board from pre-dynastic Egypt. It is conceivable (but not in my view likely) that the board wasn't used for gaming, but it is almost identical to later boards that clearly were.

I can't find a very precise date for the board. It's discovery was reported by Edward Ayrton in his Pre-Dynastic Cemetery at El Mahasna. He says that the graves ranged in date from the earliest pre-dynastic to the 1st dynasty. Modern estimates place that date to about 3111BC (see Dee Michael et al., An absolute chronology for early Egypt using radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modelling, Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Science, 469 (2013), 20130395 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspa.2013.0395).

Ayrton thought the game was a "sort of draughts". What about dice? Murray goes on to discuss other games such as t'au which are evidenced back to the fifth dynasty (roughly 2500 to 2300BC) which are likely to have used dice.

I think that clearly demonstrates the Lydians were not the first to invent games with props (and therefore games of any kind) even if Herodotus tells us they said they did.

  • There's room for another answer: did the Lydians invent games (even if they weren't the first society to do so, i.e. co-invention)? Did the Greeks get their games from Lydia? Were the Lydian's games used as a pass-time during famine (which was Jane McGonical's main point)?
    – ChrisW
    Sep 7, 2014 at 11:50
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    My strong suspicion is not. Lydia is surrounded by countries where there was game playing of various kinds and my guess would be that they absorbed games from around them (though they may have adapted some). Greek games probably didn't come from Lydia, but there's some detailed work to show that is the case. Alas, I don't have time right now for it but Murray's book might be a place to start. Sep 7, 2014 at 13:50

She makes the same claim in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. There, she gives a reference:

Rawlison, George trans., with Henry Rawlison and J. G Wilkinson. The History of Herodotus: A New English Version (New York: D. Appleton, 1861), 182 http://www.archive.org/stream/historyofherodot01herouoft#page/180/mode/2up

It can be confirmed by following the link provided that, assuming this is not a fake that somehow got into archive.org, the person writing under the name Herodotus indicated that the Lydians believed themselves to be the true creators of all games they share with the Greeks:

The Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Greeks, with the exception that these last do not bring up their girls in the same way. So far as we have any knowledge, they were the first nation to introduce the use of gold and silver coin, and the first who sold goods by retail. They claim also the invention of all the games which are common to them with the Greeks. These they declare that they invented about the time when they colonised Tyrrhenia, an event of which they gave the following account. In the days of Atys the son of Manes, there was great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia. For some time the Lydians bore the affliction patiently, but finding that it did not pass away, they set to work to devise remedies for the evil. Various expedients were discovered by various persons ; dice, and huckle-bones, and ball, and all such games were invented, except tables, the invention of which they do not claim as theirs. The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food, and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years.

(pages 181-183, heading 94).

So IF Herodotus is accurate in his account, and IF the Lydians are accurate in their telling of the story, then they invented dice, ball, and bone games, though not all games. The general shape of the story matches her account, but it's been embellished somewhat to make a point.

However, in the footnotes of the translation McGonical cited, the following note can be found:

The ball was a very old game, and it was doubtless invented in Egypt, as Plato says. It is mentioned by Homer (Od. viii. 372), and it was known in Egypt long before his time, in the twelfth dynasty, or about 2000 B.C, as were the [...] counters, used in a game resembling our draughts, with two sets of men, or "dogs", of different colours.

(p. 181)

Therefore, while it is true that Herodotus said this, it is doubtful that he was correct. Logically, it follows that if they didn't even invent ball and dice games, they did not invent all games.

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