The Ball Game

I wear the title of Museum Educator on my clip-on badge Monday through Friday. On Saturdays I’m a suburban soccer mom cheering on the sidelines for my sons. Sports are a big deal to our family and many others across our state. The recent tragedy at an Egyptian soccer match has moved me deeply to reflect on how a game could possibly incite such passion in the players and fans. Much can be learned about the nature of a sport—and humanity itself—by studying the objects of the game.

The thought processes behind designing games, as well as the development of games throughout history, are elements of a new online high school course, The Art of Game Design, that the Museum created in partnership with the North Carolina Virtual Public Schools, funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation. The multimedia course uses two works of art at the Museum to teach about one of the earliest known sports, referred to as “the ball game.”

Ball Court Marker

Artist: Unknown, Ball Court Marker, circa 550-850

The game, which resembled soccer, was played by the ancient Mayans and may have been the earliest team sport. But this was anything but a friendly Saturday competition. The players’ survival depended upon the outcome—the captain of the losing team was sacrificed. It sounds like something out of The Hunger Games rather than our history books! Read this article from the Ball State University Museum of Art for more about the ancient Mayan game.

To learn more about the ball game, listen to the story behind the Ceremonial Ball Game Yoke in this video that accompanies the audio tour in the Museum. You can also visit this interactive Web site created by the Mint Museum. My inner soccer mom finds plenty food for thought in our Museum’s Ancient American Gallery and invites you to join me on your next visit in contemplating the power of games throughout history.

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