A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Games are often seen as a form of entertainment, an enjoyable way to pass time and create memories with friends and family. However, they also play a significant role in the physical, mental and psychological development of children, and are particularly important in the formation of the child’s social personality. This is especially crucial when it comes to promoting values of communication and belonging, as well as personality traits such as a sense of team spirit and positive competition. Play is essentially full of implicit and explicit connotations that mirror many aspects of contemporary social, cultural and political life. For this reason, researchers often consider popular games to be an important resource for studying societies and cultures.
Humans are evolutionary social beings who depend for their survival on the accumulation of knowledge. Throughout its existence, humanity has constantly strived to adapt nature to improve quality of life, and to ensure continuity by overcoming threats and fears that could affect chances of survival. To that end, certain mediums were necessary to transfer knowledge between generations, so that knowledge accumulation would help establish advanced and developed societies. Historically, games have been regarded as an important tool in the human learning process. This explains the universality of certain traditional games around the world; despite the difference in names, the concept of game play is the same across many cultures and the nature of its practice is shared.
In Yemen, popular games have a number of characteristics that highlight their cultural specificity.1 Among these are originality, creativity and adaptability, since they emerge from society itself and are often intertwined with local history. Many of these popular games adapt to the surrounding environment and often take place in harmony with existing social values and class systems. Game characteristics differ from one season to another, from one class to the other, and their names, rhythms and aesthetics change from region to region. Local games enrich children’s worlds through imagination, humor, pleasure, and create a sense of purpose that fulfills children’s psychological and physical needs.
The importance of popular games in child development and their impact on the cultural structure of society
Play is a fun sensory and mental activity in which children can have unique experiences while discovering their abilities and nurturing their curiosity. Even more so since the world of play is one where children rule, it allows them to express their desires and achieve a sense of self-realization. Most importantly, playing is a way for children to put their energy into activities that enrich their development, rather than stifle it.
Popular group games in particular encourage children to face their social fears and open up. Through group play, children gain skills like sharing, taking turns, building team spirit and other cooperative skills.2 Some popular local games are divided into girls’ games and boys’ games, while others are gender neutral. In general, many boys’ games often focus on competition and physical performance, such as ball games, while girls’ games tend to promote mental focus, discipline and mastery. Below I give a few examples of popular games and discuss their psychological and social implications.
The Green Hat is a game where a group sits on the ground and forms a circle. One main player circles around the group singing, The green hat… and the rest of the children reply, What is in it? Then the player sings back, green raisins, as he/she runs around the circle. The group answers back, Give it to us, but the player continues circling and singing, The fox is rolling, with seven laps in its tail. The player then has to drop the hat behind one of the children sitting in the circle. The child then jumps up and chases after the player. If the player is caught before sitting in the circle, the child wins, if not, the child loses.
One of the interpretations of the game is that the circle represents solidarity. The breach of the circle suggests that the cause of disintegration of any group is betrayal and treachery, which is symbolized by the fox. With the battle between good and evil, the possibilities remain open for its continued existence until every child turns into a fox, and ultimately the circle, like society, falls apart. The idea becomes that no player in the game wants to be that fox because whoever leaves the circle becomes an outcast.
Although the game is humorous, concentration is still needed to win the game. The least attentive player lags behind, which encourages the player to stay alert and be prepared to move at the right moment. Often played by boys and girls, it helps build mutual self-esteem and encourages girls to compete with boys. The lyrics of the song imply that the game may have originated from an agricultural region, because green raisins are most likely found in regions where grapes are grown.3
In Where did the cabinet fly? each player takes a position determined by placing a stone. Every player then stands above his or her stone which is labelled ‘home’, and one main player stands in the middle. The main player sings, Where did the cabinet fly? and the group responds, Fly, then the song continues back and forth between the player and the group:
After dinner and fire … and fire
I found a thorn … a thorn
I took out a nail … a nail
The main player then points to one of the stones and says, “No one take this place”, and names it. Every player then leaves their current position and chooses another stone, provided that no player choses the selected stone, otherwise he or she will lose. The game encourages the players to stay alert and act in critical moments that require fast thinking and reactions.
Berbera (Hopscotch) is a game more common among girls. The players draw a pattern of squares, then toss a stone and carefully hop through the squares to retrieve it from where it landed. The player then throws the stone again, and continues hopping through the squares until finally landing on two feet on the last square. If the player loses balance, the next player follows, and so on. When the losing player’s turn comes again, she restarts from the square where she last lost. The game ends by crossing all the squares.
There are many forms and names for hopscotch, such as Waqal and Shedlo. The main challenge of the game is physical balance and fitness. Besides physical skill, the game requires mental focus in dealing with the obstacles. Once again, it is not always physical strength that determines victory, but rather the ability to adapt and overcome obstacles, many times alone. Sometimes with a one leg hop, other times on two feet.
Bride and groom is a form of make believe played by boys and girls. The game is often played in a team of four boys and four girls. The girls choose a bride from their team, and the boys chose a groom from theirs. Then the two teams collect objects to furnish their future house, such as empty tin cans and fabrics. The wedding percussion music is performed by banging on the tin cans and walking the bride to the groom. Imitating real life traditions, the groom then delivers the dowry and unveils the bride. The game reflects children’s aspirations and desires to play out their expected societal roles in the future.
Five stones is an old game that is more common among girls. It starts with throwing five stones on the ground so that they land apart. The player then takes one of the five stones and throws it up in the air and picks up one of the four stones on the ground at the same time, before catching the falling stone with the same hand.
The rule requires that none of the other stones that have not yet been picked up are touched or moved. Once all five stones are in the player’s hand, she throws the stones again and repeats the process, but this time taking two stones at a time, then three, then all four at once. In the last stage, she throws the stones onto the ground and throws the fifth stone into the air while forming an arch with her other hand, and throwing the stones through the arch one after the other.
The main challenges of the game are concentration, accuracy, speed and individual skill. The use of stones in the game is a way to engage with nature, and the process of counting and catching teaches the players the importance of command and focus. The players ability to distribute attention between various things is a life skill that is carried on later in their lives.
The Egg is a game which consists of two teams and is common among boys and girls. One team holds a ball, the ‘egg’, and pursues the members of the other team. The aim is to throw the ball at any of the other team members; if the other team escapes and the ball falls on the ground without touching any of them, then the ball moves to the other team. This goes on until one of the two teams manages to hit all the other team’s members, and one by one the players are taken off the field. Focus, speed, team spirit and targeting the opponent are all skills and behaviors that encourage the player to play as part of a collective. The game promotes team spirit and working towards a common goal against an opponent.
Ball, also called Kubba in some regions, is the popular term for the game of football. It is more commonly played among boys who are divided into two teams. Like classic football, each team tries to pass the ball using their feet only, without touching it by hand or deliberately injuring the other team. The aim is to reach the opponent’s goal and get the ball into it, provided that the ball does not leave the marked play area. The game encourages physical activity, competitiveness and coordination amongst the team.
In Broken Telephone, children sit in a circle, and the first player whispers a word in the ear of the second, who in turn repeats what he/she heard to the third, and so on until the word reaches the last player, who says the word or sentence out loud to the entire group. In the end everyone is surprised by how the message changed as it was transferred between them. In a way the game conveys the idea that the transmission of information is subject to misunderstanding or distortion as it travels.
The development and influence of popular games on society and politics
Societies go through several stages of development and change, whether political, social or economic, and each stage influences the development of games. In Yemen, the introduction of industries such as automobiles, electricity and telecommunications, led to the evolution of popular games. One example is the Electricity Game. The premise of the game is that players chase and tap each other until one player says “Electricity!” and freezes on the spot. Afterwards other players avoid the “electrified” player until he/she is saved by a releasing player and is brought back into the game. The rules of the game imply its educational purpose, warning children against the dangers of contact with electricity. Similarly, the Telephone Game appeared around the time telephones were introduced. The game consists of two plastic cups or two metal cans connected by a thread. The first child talks through one side and the second child listens from the other side. Likewise, the automobile industry gave birth to car and wheel games, many of which were made from reclaimed everyday materials such as cans and cardboard boxes.
Materially, games such as those with rubber bands appeared at a time when rubber became more widely used in various industries. As a result, children created different rubber band games, shooting the bands towards and through different objects. The game required balancing motor skills and eye–hand coordination at varying levels of difficulty. From then onwards, darts and balloon games followed suit, with the emergence and availability of these products. Other games such as marbles gained popularity as well, especially marble games played outdoors. One marble game begins by placing the marbles at a specific distance from the players, who in turn have to use the main marble ball to target other marbles scattered on the ground. The task is to hit the marbles one by one into a small hole dug in the ground.
Although many popular games are of local origin, others are adapted from different cultures. These include card games such as UNO, and board games like Carrom, the latter being one of the most popular games among children and adults alike. Carrom is a square wooden board with one hole in every corner. The game is played using small wooden discs and a main plastic ‘striker’ disc. The discs come in three colors, with each color corresponding to a different score. The player’s task is to use the striker disc to push the wooden discs into any of the four holes. Once all discs are in, the score is counted, and the player with the most points wins.
In addition to the above examples, popular games were also influenced by political and historical events. One case is the Abdullah al-Sallal game.4 During this game, two players hold each other’s hands and jump in a circular movement in opposing directions while chanting: Abdullah al-Sallal … went down to pray … in black shoes … and a brown scarf… Oh daughter of the Imam go now … Get out of the house … You no longer have servants … Nor hostages. The other is the Moon game, where players repeat, Come on with me to the moon. We go up … The moon has opened its doors to us … whether the army came with their cannons … or followed us with their tanks.
In recent years, the ongoing war in Yemen has heavily influenced popular games. In the past, simple martial arts games such as Swords and Sticks were common among children. More recently, fireworks are in high demand in the market, despite having been available in the market before the war. Water and bead pistols, as well as sniper games, also acquired more popularity in response to the current situation. Often children revive these games as a way to deal with their fears and understand the circumstances of war, such as sounds of explosions or sniper attacks. These games then allow them to reimagine the experience of fear as play, despite the risk of embracing violence.
All across Yemen, many popular game names differ from one region and dialect to another. Often names are derived from local expressions or adapted from foreign terms. Some game’s names and song lyrics include obscure expressions, which are either derived from imported games that were brought through the diaspora, or during the colonial era, or invented to complete the rhyme in a song.
Today, with the development of technology and the introduction of electronic and digital games, many traditional games have disappeared. Popular games no longer have the same momentum as they did in the past, except in regions where such technology is not yet pervasive. For many generations, popular games played a great role in shaping imaginations, developing capabilities and instilling principles of belonging to a community and country. Despite these technological changes, popular games still leave us with a certain nostalgia for a beautiful past, which we hope to return to.
 Aref al-Haqi, Children’s Games in Yemen.
 Faruq Abdul Hamid, Child Education: Philosophies, Goals, Sources, and Means.
 Aref al-Haqi, Children’s Games in Yemen.
 The first president of the Yemen Arab Republic in the North after the revolution of 26 September 1962.