Brief History of Card Games for Learning


Sometimes looking backward can help us innovate forward. Humans have used card games throughout history and, some believe, even before human history where rocks and natural items stood for what eventually became cards. The appeal of card games is obvious. We as humans like social interaction, we like to classify and categorize items, we like patterns and we enjoy competition. Take a look at your own learning and development activities and exercises and consider how a modern, digitized version of a card game can fit with your learning audience. Consider how a card game can help you meet learning and performance objectives.

A good place to start is to understand a little about the history of card games in general and how they have been used for learning.

History of Card Games

The exact date of origin of actual card decks is elusive. Yes, we have evidence that playing cards began to appear in Europe in the late 1300s and early 1400s, but where did they come from before that? Is Europe the origin of playing cards as we know them today? Scholars think not.

Scholars believe that what we think of as playing cards originated in China during the Tang dynasty around the 9th century and then spread to India and Persia and then, eventually to Egypt and from there to Italy appearing around 1370s. But even that journey is suspect.

While we don’t know the exact history, one thing that is remarkable is the consistency of the playing card patterns and the longevity of those patterns. Among the early patterns of playing card were those probably derived from the Mamluk suits of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks, and these are still the four suits still found in Italian and Spanish playing cards today, and are sometimes referred to as the Latin suits.

As cards spread from Italy to Germanic countries, the Latin suits were replaced with the suits of leaves (or shields), hearts (or roses), bells, and acorns, and a combination of Latin and Germanic suit images and names resulted in the French suits of clovers, tiles, hearts, and pikes around 1480.

Tarot cards made their debut between 1440 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara, Florence and Bologna. These cards emerged when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. The original purpose of tarot cards was to play games but in the 18th century, the use of the Tarot decks evolved to the art of fortune telling.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, in 1799 in Britain, a book was published called Mrs. Lovechild’s Book of Three Hundred and Thirty-Six Cuts for Children. The book featured cut-out cards that could be studied by a child with the help of a frame that blocked out part of the word. That way, the child could practice spelling and pronunciation. While not officially labeled flashcards, this technique mirrors our modern-day method of using flash cards.

In fact, in the 17th century (1601-1700), a person named John Amos Comenius presented a systematic theory of games in education. He presented his theory in a book titled “Schola Ludus” in 1654 and thought that playing games was an ideal form of learning.

Two centuries later in 1834 it appears the creation of first actual learning flashcards was documented.  These flashcards were a set of phonics flashcards with words on one side and images on the other. The cards were created by an English educator. Some credit his cards as the first official flashcards. This is around the same time, 1832, that cards were beginning to be made in the US and, it’s been rumored that the US added the Jokers to the traditional card deck.  Also, Americans developed poker as the first documented game of poker was from 1833 on a Mississippi river steamer.

In 1908, the first copyright was filed for flashcards.  However, it seemed to take until the 1930s before educational institutions thought flashcards would be effective tools for instruction. Piaget who utilized card games in some learning activities for educational purposes.

Collectable card games have a murky origin as well. Modern collectible card games most likely start with baseball card collection in the 1900’s but much credit is given to the card game “Magic: The Gathering” as the first modern full-fledge collectible card game in the early 1990s. And the widely popular Pokémon card game was introduced in Japan in 1996 and the United States a short while later.

Cards Go Digital

As we move to computer-based card games, the first computer-based commercial solitaire game was released in 1987, and it was available for both PC (Microsoft) and Macintosh. It was actually a group of 8 different solitaire games and featured 16-color EGA graphics plus mouse support for dragging cards.  The year 1987 is the first year that Hyper-Card was available as a

The very concept of HyperCard was based on the idea of a “stack” of cards. The digital cards held images, numbers and information just like physical playing cards. They also held more information as they could be related to one another and contain data and even animated images. Many digital learning games based on cards were developed and distributed via HyperCard.

Fast forward to 2020 and a new type of interactive learning card design tool has become available. It is called the Enterprise Game Stack. This tool allows creators to design cards that contain text, animation, video and audio. The games are easily created using a spreadsheet and the game platform itself. 


Card games have had a rich history and, most likely, as soon as card games were developed, someone found out a way to make them into instructional tools to make learning a little more engaging. Card games are great tools for learning because they are so familiar to the learners. Almost everyone has played one form of card game or another and knows the concepts of dealing, shuffling, turn-taking and reveals. Consider integrating card games into your own learning toolkit. You won’t be alone, people have been doing it for centuries.  

Need your own game?

If you want to create your own digital card game to help increase engagement and combine corporate learning with a little bit of fun, contact us for a demo to learn how easy is it to create effective, impactful digital card games to connect learners over a distance, drive home key learning points and track learner progress.

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