Helen Levitt. New York, 1940. Gelatin silver print. (The Albertina Museum, Vienna/Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne)
Art critic

How many games do you know? What about your children?

Probably dozens. We play them on our phones or on consoles. The grown-ups catching the train to work are fiddling with Mini Metro and Snake VS Block. The kids are deep into Fortnite, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto 5 and who-knows-what-else. The options, increasing every year, are astounding.

These games are often social. They’re sophisticated. Some are violent, some educational, some utterly pointless but weirdly satisfying and addictive. There’s a lot more you could say about them, and a lot to debate. But one thing is certain: They’re very different from the games children used to play.

Those games — the old ones — are dying out, and rapidly.

This occurred to me late last year, as I stood in front of a 16th-century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called “Children’s Games.” Owned by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and recently displayed as part of a once-in-a-lifetime Bruegel retrospective, “Children’s Games” shows a town square and its connecting streets, colonized by more than 200 children, all engaged in different games.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Children's Games,” 1560. Oil on panel, on view at the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum). (PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

Scholars have counted more than 90 games in the Bruegel picture. Some show children playing at adult activities (shopkeeping, getting married); others are more straightforwardly childish (somersaults, handstands, tiddlywinks, mumbletypeg). Some look complicated (the devil chained, dethroning the king); others are instantly familiar (rolling a hoop, hide-and-seek). Some are quiet and contemplative (blowing bubbles, balancing a stick on one finger); others are barely organized forms of brawling (buck-buck, running the gauntlet).

Before Bruegel’s “Children’s Games,” no one had given over a painting of that size entirely to children (the panel is about 45 by 62 inches). It’s classed as one of his handful of “Wimmelbilder,” or “busy pictures,” which were characterized by an encyclopedic cast of figures, none overlapping, all engaged in miscellaneous activities, against a background with an elevated horizon. People are still trying to figure out why Bruegel painted it.

Some art historians think the children’s activities double as little allegories, each with a moral message. But it might also be that the painting is simply a celebration of childhood play, described with a uniquely Bruegelian combination of thoroughness and exuberance.


"The Royal Pastime of Cupid, or Entertaining Game of the Snake," London, Robert Laurie and James Whittle, 1794. (Yale Center for British Art)

Playing was a popular subject at the time in humanist circles, and games were regarded, as they often still are, as an extension of classroom learning. “Instruction and Delight: Children’s Games From the Ellen and Arthur Liman Collection,” a small show at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., through May 23, demonstrates the persistence of the idea that games should be educational.

The exhibition displays British board games from the Georgian and Victorian eras. Ornate and gorgeously colored, they’re lovely to look at — although preferably at a certain distance. If you get close and try to read the instructions, which are printed on the boards in challengingly small fonts, it can all get a bit confounding.


"Laurie's New and Entertaining Game of the Golden Goose," London, Richard Holmes Laurie, 1831. (Yale Center for British Art)

Many of these games double as textbooks of various kinds: You think you’re playing something like Snakes and Ladders, but in fact you’re being not-so-subtly drilled in math, or in the main events that occurred under the British sovereigns, or in a roll call of desirable destinations on a classic Grand Tour.

I suppose you have to admire a culture that was so intent on turning education into a pastime. But isn’t there something a bit off about being forced to learn while simply trying to have fun? Who wants to have to recite the fundamentals of photosynthesis while clambering up a tree?

In Rabelais’s great 16th-century story “Gargantua & Pantagruel,” the giant Gargantua spends his childhood playing: “He was always rolling in the mud, dirtying his nose, scratching his face, and treading down his shoes; and often he gaped after flies, or ran joyfully after the butterflies.” At one point, Gargantua rinses his hands in wine, picks his teeth with a pig’s trotter, spreads a green cloth over the table and embarks on an epic spree of card games.

Like a boy piling up pebbles, Rabelais names every game Gargantua plays: more than 200, filling three columns per page over 2½ pages: Flushes, Primero, Grand Slam, Little Slam, Trumps, Prick and Spare Not, Hundred-up, Penny Points, Old-Maid, Cheat, Ten-and-Pass, Thirty-One, Fair and Straight, Three-Hundred, Beggar-My-Neighbor, Odd Man Out, Turn the Card, Poor Jack, Lansquenet, Cuckold, the Loser Wins, and so on.

For sheer, demented exuberance, this inventory is a great moment in literature, comparable to Bruegel’s visual inventory in “Children’s Games.”


"The Royal Regatta: A Game," London, David Ogilvy, ca. 1852. (Yale Center for British Art)

Other, similar inventories exist, and have been compiled down the centuries. Reading them is somehow inherently delightful, like reciting the names of flowers: Pat-a-cake, Poison, Mary Mack, Cut-a-Lump, Kerplunk, Ghost-in-the-Graveyard, Dandy Shandy and so on. Sometimes these inventories include descriptions of how the games work, and sometimes the descriptions are in the words of the children themselves. In fact, that’s where it often gets hilarious, because (has your child ever explained the rules of a made-up game?) the explanations are often so involved and so esoteric that they quickly degenerate into gibberish.

Hundreds of years later, in 2019, are children still playing games like these? Yes and no. But perhaps the point of making these inventories, and the significance of thinking about them now, is not to catalogue what has been lost. A game is just a game — it’s not a timeless work of art. If it disappears, another will be invented to replace it. What these inventories do demonstrate is children’s extraordinary capacity for invention, and that’s worth reflecting on.


Helen Levitt. New York, 1940. Gelatin silver print. (The Albertina Museum/Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne)

This instinctive inventiveness is on show in the wonderful photographs of Helen Levitt, who took pictures of children at play on the streets of New York’s poorer neighborhoods — the Lower East Side, the Bronx and Harlem — during World War II. The Albertina in Vienna staged a recent Levitt retrospective, which I saw, serendipitously, immediately after viewing Bruegel’s “Children’s Games.”

Levitt’s photographs were made during a period of heightened interest in the psychology of children. They neither idealize childhood nor present children as victims of poverty or oppression. Rather, they hint at a capacity for irrational and anarchic invention in children that the adult world tends to ignore, preferring to tell itself more sentimental stories about childhood.

It’s probably a mistake to sentimentalize children’s games. We try to indoctrinate kids with certain kinds of “good behavior” (sharing, caring, taking turns) as they play. But in reality, children tend not to play nice. They just play.

The children Levitt photographed hold dead branches or toy guns. They sometimes wear masks. But, by and large, their props are few — presumably because of both wartime scarcity and ingrained poverty.

What is most remarkable is the children’s apparently unconscious inventiveness with their bodies, which squirm and twist into the most unlikely, ungainly and yet kinetic, expressive postures as they climb up the insides of delivery trucks, huddle under boxes or prepare ambushes.

These days, the repertoire of things children can play at, and be, has changed dramatically. Games are not things children invent anymore. Games are imposed on them by multinational corporations. And, just as fast-food companies employ food scientists to deliver the most addictive combinations of sugar, salt and fat, these corporations pay teams of people to invent games designed to keep children playing for as long as possible.

Parents concerned about the level of violence in some of these games can, if they want, find cuddlier alternatives on consumer websites such as Common Sense Media, which lists “Games That Support Kindness and Compassion” or “Apps and Games That Stop Sibling Rivalry.”

But you have to ask: Has it really come to this? “Games That Stop Sibling Rivalry”?

No wonder, I sometimes think, many children seem eager to be grown-ups. No wonder depression, anxiety, obesity and addiction are such chronic problems. We have made childhood itself so limited, so manipulated, so controlled. We crowd it out with organized activities, with toys cascading from bedroom closets, with game consoles and electronic devices loaded up with focus-group-tested software and “sticky” apps.

The characteristic postures of Levitt’s young subjects and of Bruegel’s children were wild and anarchic, so that they resembled weird and constantly morphing blobs against the surrounding architecture. The typical postures of our own children in their idle hours (if we dare let them have any) is in their stale-smelling bedrooms, hunched over small, glowing screens, their faces poignantly illuminated, their mouths hanging open.