Learning & Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 406–413 | Cite as

Strategic interactions: Games of the Ju|’hoan



Three strategic games played by the Ju|’hoan—a board, a card, and a gesture game—complicate the rhetorics that suggest an evolutionary or psychological significance of play. They are mostly played by adults, although every individual adult does not necessarily engage in each game. The Ju|’hoan card and board game practices were transmitted through contact across large parts of Botswana and Namibia, while the gesture game n!àì has been known in other San communities. It suggests that the significance of strategic games is more likely found in its potential for social interaction (i.e., allowing to overcome cultural divides) than in evolution and psychology. Within the anthropological literature, strategy games were thought to be absent in egalitarian societies, such as that of the Ju|’hoan. Here, the roles of power, competition, and winning were thought to be disruptive and unwanted. A closer examination of the details behind the Ju|’hoan games shows that not only were strategy games adopted and adapted from neighboring societies but that the game of n!àì was developed by the Ju|’hoan into a competitive one. The evolutionary or psychological significance of play is informed by studies on individual play, children’s play, and games with informal rules. When considering strategic games throughout history, it is their role of facilitator rather than the playing practice itself that makes games relevant across languages, cultural divides, and sociopolitical boundaries.


Play Games Cultural transmission Social lubricant Khoisan Ju|'hoansi 



This study would not have been possible without the help of Rebecca Rivera and Mohamed Ibrahem in the video analysis of the game of n!àì. I am particularly grateful for the support of Richard Butler, Elizabeth DeGaetano, Michael Turner, and the American Museum of Natural History. Finally, I wish to thank the staff and management at Jack’s Camp, Botswana, especially Eugene Khumalo and Ralph Bousfield, for their generosity and kindness, but, most of all, the Ju|’hoan people, whose enthusiasm for this game has made this research such a pleasure.


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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of AnthropologyAmerican Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA

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