Everyone loves some form of friendly competition now and then. It’s why most homes have at least one board game, why bars have pool tables, and why the back page of every Muggle newspaper is devoted to the exploits of sports teams.
Wizarding folk are no different, with their own gaming traditions every bit rich and arcane as that of non-magical people. After all, the Department of Magical Games and Sports surely does something other than administer Quidditch matches and run the Triwizard Tournament every five years.
In some respects, to be sure, there are radical differences in the nature of these leisurely pastimes. Video games are wildly popular with Muggles, yet are essentially unknown to wizarding kind; this is, of course, because magic plays havoc with electricity. And in any case, when you can fly, Apparate and eat Chocolate Frogs all in one afternoon, who in their right mind would loll in front of a screen for amusement?
On the other hand, some games (in particular children’s games) are enjoyed by both communities throughout history; in the United States, young Modesty Barebone enjoyed a simple game of hopscotch in Fantasic Beasts. Lord Voldemort mocked Harry Potter for playing ‘hide and seek’ during a duel. The satisfaction of collecting cards from Chocolate Frogs would be understood by Muggle children every bit as much as magical children.
Where the style and nature of these games diverges is, naturally enough, when enchanted objects come into play. The popular Devon pastime of Shuntbumps is akin to the medieval Muggle practice of jousting, although played on flying broomsticks instead of horses. Gobstones resembles marbles to an almost uncanny degree, except the loser receives a faceful of foul-smelling liquid for their trouble.
Then, of course, there's chess.
Ron Weasley’s skill at wizard chess came in pretty handy when he, Harry and Hermione needed to win a high-risk outsized version. In the Muggle world, the noble and ancient board game (different only from its magical counterpart in that the pieces can’t move unaided, or indeed, hurt you as much) can teach us a valuable lesson whether magical or otherwise. Ron was pretty competent, even with a ‘battered’ set, demonstrating that a lack of riches is no bar to high attainment. Despite her striking breadth of knowledge, Hermione loses against Ron, reinforcing the idea there’s all sorts of different forms of intelligence. Finally, chess teaches players that sacrifices have to be made in order to advance in any complex endeavour – as when the friends sought the Philosopher’s Stone.
Playing cards seem to be as popular and widespread in the wizarding world as they are with Muggles, albeit with the added convenience of Self-Shuffling packs. And just like in the wizarding world, cards are often associated with a more louche, ribald, outré kind of player.
At a very basic level, consider Exploding Snap. It’s similar to the less incendiary Muggle children’s version, and the players best remembered for competing at Hogwarts were mavericks like Fred and George Weasley.
Playing cards’ faintly nefarious reputation was also in evidence when Hagrid (no stranger to controversy himself) played a few hands with a mysterious hooded figure at the Hog’s Head, before drunkenly blurting out secret information regarding the achilles heel of Fluffy the three-headed dog. Muggles’ fondness for playing-card related chicanery deeply fascinated Arthur Weasley when he got his hands on a marked deck, designed to fool unwary competitors and win bets.
For many Muggles, playing cards also carry a faint whiff of the occult – for some people it’s due to their relationship to the Tarot, while others attribute different ‘personalities’ to the four suits. We saw this reflected at Hogwarts in the many packs dotted about the Divination classroom, and when Harry encountered resident seer Sybill Trelawney shuffling along a corridor muttering: ‘Two of spades: conflict… Seven of spades: an ill omen…’
Moving on to outdoor pursuits, both Muggles and magic folk have historically shown an unaccountable keenness to explore the recreational potential of animal bladders. Famously, medieval Muggle football was played with a pig’s bladder. Wizards themselves were no slouches when it came to the resourceful application of modified urine sacs, batting a poor pig’s bladder back and forth over a hedge in the archaic sport of Swivenhodge (similar to Muggle tennis), or competing to lance an inflated dragon’s bladder atop a 20-foot high pole in the bizarre 12th-century German pastime of Stichstock.
Straightforward trials of speed are also as popular with wizards as they are with Muggles – one of the more famous international broomstick races runs 300 miles from Kopparberg to Arjeplog in Sweden, with the added excitement that the course passes through a dragon reserve (which has been known to burn out more than a few competitors over the years).
Certain games in the Muggle world seem arcane to the point of absurdity – bog snorkling for one, or chasing a wheel of cheese down a treacherous hillside. Magical folk seem to have acquired a little more sense over the years; consider (the now-banned) Creaothceann, an old broomstick-based sport where competitors battled to catch falling rocks in cauldrons strapped to their helmets.
The thread that runs directly though all games, wizarding and Muggle, from all over the the world is this: people love to compete, to outfox opponents, and to bring glory on their home team. Just remember, next time you’re in a heated debate about the relative merits of Quidditch over Quodpot (the American variant): it’s only a game.