To play ла млxи р, a traditional Mongolian game that translates to “Multicolored Turtle,” you don’t have to look attractive, but the elders kneeling around the board on plush rugs do.
Deels are bright loose-fitting tunics tied at the waist with silken sashes and decorative buckles, and the ladies wear dangling earrings, rings on each hand, and deels, colorful loose-fitting tunics tied at the waist with silken ribbons and elegant buckles.
Ts. Maanigumben, a schoolteacher and the eldest of the four players,
dresses in a red deel with gold spots and a black fur cap and covers the playing surface with a layer of shagai, polished and dyed sheep knucklebones in a variety of colorful hues.
Multicolored Turtle is unlike any other Western game, combining strategic play with ceremonial and storytelling elements. For Indigenous Mongolians, though, the game is both familiar and a pillar of their nomadic lifestyle.
The colors reflect the gemstones and components that define the cosmos in Mongolian riddles and legends, while the turtle is made up of 108 shagai, a revered number in Buddhism.
Red-trimmed bags of shagai hang from the wall in traditional ger dwellings,
to be used in up to 200 different shagai games. Mongolians use guns or traditional throwing weapons to shoot shagai at targets, slide shagai across frozen lakes to hit targets,
read fortunes from cast shagai, toss and grab shagai like jacks, and flick shagai off small launching boards to knock down stacks of more shagai.
When a couple marries, they are showered with shagai presents, and the bones are occasionally interred alongside the dead.
However, shagai games like Multicolored Turtle are beginning to die away after centuries of bringing Mongolians together.
Many young people are losing the rules as they travel to cities and turn to Western-based video games. “Anklebones are becoming less popular with modern families…
According to a United Nations program, “there is a lack of shagai activities during family time,” with elders in each of Mongolia’s 21 governmental aimags concerned about the reduction.
The disappearance of Mongolia’s Multicolored Turtle is only the tip of a global problem.
Traditional Indigenous games are going dark in Kenya, Brazil, Greece, Inuit regions, and throughout the world. Each extinction results in the loss of a piece of civilization.
According to a UN assessment, “the general population has very little, if any, knowledge of the scope and wealth of cultural heritage in terms of traditional games and sports,” yet there is no clear estimate of how many activities are at risk.
In 2007, the United Nations legally acknowledged Indigenous peoples’ right to “keep, control, defend, and develop” traditional games as part of a larger declaration on human rights.
The Open Digital Library on Traditional Games, or ODLTG, is an UN-sponsored program that intends to document, digitize, and share hundreds of competitive sports.
It’s tough to comprehend the project’s enormity.
Organizers will catalog every game now in existence, as well as every game that has ever existed—and that’s only the beginning.
They will employ technology to build a Noah’s Ark that will transport cultural games into a future where they can be played by millions of children using mobile phones, Xboxes, and other devices, while they stop the bleeding of knowledge by creating a worldwide gaming crypt.
Inventors and designers can then tweak them to fit cross-cultural tastes and current trends.
Ironically, the technology that has displaced traditional children’s games around the world may be the best hope for keeping those games relevant for future generations. ODLTG has been developing and leveraging the latest video gaming software and technology for years,
while silently hoovering up datasheets on games like Multicolored Turtle.
Games appear and disappear all the time, but the overall trend is one of loss.
Some have already vanished, but tantalizing hints remain. The rules of Senet (or “zn.t n.t b”), a grid-based board game that hieroglyphs suggest was played by ancient Egyptians for 2,000 years, continue to stump anthropologists.
Others, such as capoeira (a mix of dance, music, and martial arts that evolved among Angolan slaves in Brazil in the 1500s), are becoming increasingly rare as more people devote their time to monolithic digital blockbusters like Fortnite and Free Fire.
With more people at risk every day, the ODLTG began dispatching more than 100 personnel in 2015 to meet with local cultural experts and scour the streets of a few trial countries.
In Brazil, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Greece, and Kenya, the crew gathered video, photographs, and text descriptions of 68 games, with more on the way from Morocco, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
The ODLTG is establishing a space where what those ethnographers have documented can blend into nuanced digital worlds and be accessed through virtual- and augmented-reality interfaces by bringing them together with software developers. The ODLTG’s corporate partners—first Tencent,
a huge Chinese videogame corporation, and now Venture Gaming, a Tencent affiliate with operations in China and the United States—provide access to developing technology to the project’s diversified gaming DNA.
Tencent is investing in somatosensory games (which use player gestures to control on-screen action, similar to the Nintendo Wii), on-demand cloud-based streaming games (which allow players to play without having to download or buy specific gaming devices, similar to Steam),
the higher graphic resolution, and sophisticated artificial intelligence systems.
For example, a student-led ODLTG project at China’s Communication University lets viewers put on a set of goggles and enter a detailed digital reconstruction of the Qing Dynasty circa 1644.
Calligraphy adorns the wooden walls above an intricate hand-carved writing desk, and participants recite poetry and shoot arrows into elegant long-necked clay pots in a boisterous traditional game of tou-hu, or “pot casting.”
Traditional gaming aspects are also appearing in current Tencent properties, such as the sought ethnic ensembles in the smartphone app Love Nikki-Dress Up Game! and capoeira challenges in QQX5, a popular Chinese dancing game.
“The colonisers’ biases are present in most games. They practically never consider the colonized’s point of view.”
Rik Eberhardt, the MIT GAME LAB’s programme manager
According to Rik Eberhardt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was asked by UNESCO to provide advice for the ODLTG, the project was inspired by a desire to safeguard traditional games, but the biggest winner may be the West’s popular gaming community.
Eberhardt is the MIT Game Lab’s programme manager. He spends a portion of each workday in his cramped office, which is caged in by the hundreds of board games that line the walls and are stacked floor to ceiling.
He claims that far too many of the games stacked in his office involve activities that mirror a set of four colonial values: exploration, expansion, annihilation, and extraction, either subconsciously or deliberately. “Most games carry the colonisers’ biases,” Eberhardt argues.
They practically never consider the colonized’s point of view.” Popular games like Stratego, Risk, and Monopoly are all caught in a paradigm based on defunct global empires, an artificial blinder that obscures the limitless possibilities.
“It’s difficult to think about Indigenous perspectives if you don’t have them in the room while you’re designing,” she says.
But, as Eberhardt points out, “the links between objects, the relationships between rules, and the reasons for rules might all be extremely different.”
Indigenous values will be infused into the Western gaming culture thanks to the ODLTG.
This will be made possible by a public-domain database that encourages direct participation from the widest range of gamers possible—elder Mongolians kneeling in a ger, an Ivy League academic game researcher,
a Kenyan pre-teen with only a broken Apple phone, and Californian high schoolers tinkering with the latest gaming system’s back end.
If they succeed, a user in the Inuit Nunatsiavut community near the Arctic Circle,
for example, will be able to upload data on a traditional Inuit ear-pulling contest,
which is a painful tug-of-war in which rivals are attached ear-to-ear until one submits.
The information can then be downloaded by another user in, say, Nuremberg, who can use it to arrange an ear-prickling competition—or created a new,
hybrid version that can be published for even more users around the world to play with or tinker with.
Eberhardt explains, “It’s about not letting go of anything.” “Taking into account the old and traditional, as well as the new. It’s all worth something.”
However, they must properly leverage the creative potential of the world’s 1.2 billion young people to truly accomplish that sense of joy, vitality, and unlimited variation.
Even though it is still in its early stages, the ODLTG holds a lot of promise,
particularly for aspiring developers who are assisting UNESCO and Tencent in prototyping the initial games.
In 2017, students at the NuVu School for Innovation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chris Preller, and Rachel Siegel waltzed between the outsized TV monitor and their computer coding stations,
shoulders bobbing to Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” and mouths full of microwaveable mac and cheese.
Preller and Siegel had been watching capoeira videos. While appreciative bystanders yelled and played a pounding beat on Brazilian berimbaus,
bare-chested men did handsprings, somersaults, and whirled like dervishes, throwing precise volleys of roundhouse kicks aimed to pass harmlessly within an inch of their partners.
Preller sought to bring the distinctive sense of capoeira to internet competitions against opponents in Korea or Iceland.
She imagined onscreen avatars imitating her actions in real-time, with an automated grading system and a user group that could watch the live stream and forms a welcoming community.
The high schoolers used an X-box Kinect, which employs a 30 frame-per-second camera to recognize and render shapes from its surroundings,
to capture body movements. It determines depth by firing a near-infrared beam and detecting the reflected light, resulting in a data stream of 9 million bits per second.
They sent the data stream into a visual design software called Processing, where they created avatars that danced and kicked along with the gamers,
using an API and computer models to smooth out the visuals.
The initial attempt was unsuccessful. The second did the same. The 25th did as well.
Even though their erasers were soon worn to a nub, Preller claims that kids didn’t feel the pressure in the same way that most adults would.
She explains, “We fooled around a lot and had a lot of fun with it.”
They were, in some ways, children having fun. And it paid off when they were able to turn around agile,
real-time avatars ahead of an international ODLTG delegation, opening the path for the world’s first intercontinental capoeira game.
Their initiative, which is currently being developed by UNESCO,
showed that two high school students could digitize the capoeira experience in a way that appealed to American video gamers.
The energy of Preller and Siegel will be amplified by thousands of young people uploading their regional games for reuse when the ODLTG goes public (the hoped-for 2020 launch was “stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Jingxiao Wang, a China-based UN coordinator).
The ODLTG is essentially two separate projects: one attempts to mainstream a never-before-seen landscape of different games that breach the colonial bubble,
while the other intends to develop a platform that reflects the UNESCO objectives of human rights, cultural respect, and equitable access.
It’s a delicate art of balance. Because they believe the ODLTG’s culture will be shaped by its underlying technology,
UNESCO’s multinational team is hard at work creating a platform where inclusiveness is more than a goal, but a must.
When Isabel Bernal, a data-access consultant based in Madrid, sat down to prepare guidelines, she drew up a long wish list of functions and capabilities.
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), multilingual capabilities,
ground-up inputs from people all over the world, and artificial intelligence to reduce content management labor are all on the library’s digital architecture agenda.
“It’s most thrilling to open up access to cultural content when it’s repurposed,” Bernal says.
Videos will be used in classrooms; toys and artefacts will be used as fodder for 3-D printing companies; location data will be used to enable traditional game tourism,
and coders will compete in hackathons to build the finest update to a traditional game.
After a failed attempt to publish the ODLTG on WordPress, Chris Gallant, a veteran of the videogame industry, was tasked with creating the platform.
Gallant’s specialization is Islandora, a type of software glue that joins a digital repository program called Fedora Commons to a digital presentation tool called Drupal.
You’ve probably used Islandora if you’ve ever visited the Baseball Hall of Fame website to admire the bat Babe Ruth used to hit 28 home runs for the Yankees in 1927, or if you’ve ever browsed researcher notes on whale lymphatic glands in the Smithsonian Institution research files, though it’s largely invisible to the end-user.
Gallant said the ODLTG is different from most digital repositories after working on it for approximately a year.
First, rather than professional academics, curation will be driven by “any old user” from the general public.
Gallant’s team is also fine-tuning artificial intelligence that analyses video and photos to make cross-national connections between games.
For example, if a Canadian uploads ice hockey, the system will suggest other puck-based games, such as Novuss, a Latvian tabletop game, or Carrom, an Indian billiards game.
One of the most vexing problems is the difficulty to develop an AI that can detect profanity across many areas.
“Different cultures will have varying degrees of sensitivity to particular things,” Gallant explains.
In America, a “puff” refers to a small puff of smoke, whereas in Germany, it refers to a brothel.
Meanwhile, in Holland, the word “poes” refers to a cat, but in South Africa, it is a derogatory term.
Rather than relying on a program to handle those complexities, the system marks potentially offensive words for later review by a network of regional experts who can assess content based on cultural understanding and then publish it with a single click.
Once the ODLTG is up and running, the public will be able to identify and upload the vast majority of games, and organizers believe that the creative output of the world’s youth will help them create a new generation of gaming that makes Fortnite look like Pong.
Though the potential upside is enormous, Qingyi Zeng, a Hong Kong-based UNESCO coordinator for the project.
Believes that success will be determined by whether people flock to the ODLTG and make it their own once the red carpet has been rolled out.
“Welcome to the world,” she says.