From Pall Mall to the Treasure Hunt Riots: how games have shaped our cities

Boys play football in the streets of the Garden Gloria neighborhood of Praia Grande, Brazil, in 2014. Image: Getty.

The games people play in a city are shaped by that city – and they shape the city in turn.

Most people, if you ask them, can remember a game they played as a kid that depended on the very precise shape of a very particular part of their home town – steps that were the perfect height for jumping into a flowerbed, or a basketball hoop you could just about chuck something through from the library window.

Play isn't just fun, or important for its own sake: it's also one of the key ways that we understand and interact with the world around us, and the games we invent depend on tiny precise details of what that world is like.

So, naturally enough, a hundred or more years ago, the games you could play in London were different to the games you can play there today. Streets were lit by gas, and lamp-posts had crossbars, so that the people who lit them had somewhere to rest their ladder.

That meant that children could throw ropes over the crossbars and use the lamps as makeshift swings. Look back a hundred years before that – or a hundred years before that – and everything was different again.

But the traces of these past games don't just vanish. Take Pell-Mell, a game played in the 1500s and 1600s. Pell-Mell is a bit like croquet, but a lot simpler – there's just one big hoop on a stick at the end of a long alley, and your aim is to get a ball through this hoop in as few hits as possible.

The name comes from the Italian word “pallamaglio”, which means “mallet ball”, and that's pretty much all the game is: you take a mallet and use it to hit a ball. In some versions, when you near the end of the course you're allowed to swap the mallet for a giant spoon so that you can flick the ball into the air.

Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes & Customs, published 1891. Image: Project Guttenberg.

It was never that all popular as a game, at least in England. But it was still popular enough that there were a few purpose-built courts, and in London, the fancy place to play was a specific alley near St James's Park – just about where Pall Mall is now. Yep, Pall Mall is named after this mallet-ball game; in the 1660s, the road was built on the site of what had previously been a Pell-Mell court.

Sometimes games have a more fleeting effect on their landscape. For example, there's the 1904 Treasure Hunt Riots, which cause a good few ruined gardens but no ongoing changes to city infrastructure.

The Riots – written about at length by Paul Slade here – came about as a result of a promotion by a newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch. The Dispatch decided it would be a good idea to hide medallions all around the country (but particularly in London), and award cash prizes to the people who found them. They printed clues to medallion locations in the paper – keeping it all quite vague, of course; it'd be no fun if people solved the puzzles too quickly. 


The obvious-in-retrospect downside to this was that the huge array of really vague clues turned every paving stone, garden or pathway into a potential treasure trove. Hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic puzzle-solvers dug up front gardens, parks, museum grounds, and pavements all across the city.

Rival solvers got into fights, sometimes – with each other, or with the owners of the land they were digging up. There were arrests. There were grave warnings to the paper from the Department of Public Prosecutions. (Nowadays the hundred-year-old damage is, of course, all gone, though we might be down a couple of delicate trees.)

In 18th century Wandsworth, a tiny public common gave rise to enormous fake elections in which – on the day of the general election – 80,000 participants would vote for candidates running, under made-up names like Squire Blowmedown and Lady Twankum, for the almost entirely imaginary role of mayor of Garratt. We make up games to play in the places that we live.

But the places that we live change in response to the games that we invent, too. Sometimes the changes help us to play. Sometimes they hinder us – “NO BALL GAMES” signs, say, or tiny obstructions bolted to street furniture to deter skateboarders (in the nineteenth century, the equivalent was the “hoop nuisance” – angry pedestrians across London complained about children rolling hoops along the pavement).

But either way, the changes happen; and our games, shaped by the city, shape it in turn.

Holly Gramazio is a game designer and half of Matheson Marcault.

The Now Play This festival, a part of the London GamesFestival, takes place at Somerset House from 1-3 April.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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