All animals are funny, but some animals are funnier than others.
Aside from being a somewhat obvious riff (a polite way of saying “rip-off”) on George Orwell’s famously cynical line from Animal Farm, I do think there’s some truth to this statement.
In recent years, for example, there have been plenty of video games that have used animals as characters. Often, like in Sonic the Hedgehog or Animal Crossing, they’re somewhat anthropomorphized—animal characters doing typical human things like farming or running and rolling at blazing speed through levels collecting gold coins. But sometimes the animals starring in video games take on more realistic, and hilarious, form because their real-life actions and attitudes are inherently humorous. Both Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose Game, for example, offer players the opportunity to wreak mayhem as their animal characters maraud through the landscape—destroying, eating, and torturing the human inhabitants.
And yet animals have also long taken star turns in tabletop games as well. During the 1970s, one of my favorite games was Pig Mania, a quirky diversion that involved using two miniature plastic pigs as dice and earning points depending on how they landed. Hoofer and razorback throws scored 5 points; snouter netted 10 points; leaning jowler won 15 points; and makin’ bacon (when the pigs were touching) meant the loss of all points for that turn. Incredibly, The Strong owns game developer David Moffat’s prototype of this game, an under recognized classic in the history of game play.
During much of the 20th century animals did not often take central casting in games, but the Victorians loved animals. Toy makers frequently produced a style of jigsaw puzzle known as “dissected animals.” The name stems from earlier usage with maps that were cut along their borders to create “dissected maps,” but when applied to animals the term “dissected” has a particularly gruesome ring. But then again, the Victorians loved shooting, stuffing, and mounting animals, so perhaps the taxidermic connotations made these playthings more appealing.
Plenty of other 19th-century games also featured animals. Pigs in Clover, for example, invented in 1889 was the first handheld ball-rolling game and simulated the pastoral challenges of herding pigs. A few years ago we actually ported this pioneering porcine plaything to modern mobile devices, making it possible for anyone to download and play it. It turns out herding pigs is challenging and fun!
Geese too have had a starring role in the history of board games. We have numerous Fox and Geese games in our collection, and the Royal Game of Goose (sometimes called just the Game of Goose or the Jolly Game of Goose) is among the first specially created games of the modern era. We have multiple copies from the early 19th century, and while the content of the game—navigating the course of life as you wind your way through the body of a goose—has little if anything to do with geese themselves, there is still something oddly whimsical about a game shaped like a goose (and even funnier that it’s the “Royal” Game of Goose) that made it appealing to children and indeed any of us if we can recall the playful delights of childhood.
Article by Jon-Paul Dyson, ice President for Exhibits and Director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at The Strong National Museum of Play.