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Hangman (Game): History, Origins, Past, Present, and Future! 

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

We’re all fond of guessing games. But have you ever wondered from where such games originated? Hangman is said to have a shady history. This game has come under criticism, been reviewed, and reinvented to accommodate people’s expectations. 

Today, Hangman, along with its substitutes, happens to be a well-loved, fun, and even educational game. Let’s take a look at the history of Hangman and how it has developed over time. 

Hangman’s history and origins tell us that the game has a dark past. While it was appropriate during times of capital punishment, sometimes it is viewed as inappropriate today. The game has adapted over time and was even turned into a video game by Alan Miller in 1978. 

Hangman is used as an educational tool and even as the basis for creating similar entertainment and learning games. 

Not many people know much about Hangman. If you’re intrigued by what you have read already, read on to learn more. 

Origins of Hangman 

No one is certain when the game of Hangman came to be. Evidence indicates that it originated in the 17th century in Europe, around the time when hanging criminals through public execution was commonplace. A variation of this game exists in Birds, Beasts, and Fishes, a book published by Alice Bertha Gomme in 1894. 

The history of Hangman

Many say that Hangman reflects a true story. Back in the day, the execution of an infamous criminal was a public spectacle. People gathered around to watch a Hangman perform his duties – to execute notorious criminals by hanging them. 

With many criminals being illiterate, the Hangmen came up with a game to mock them. The criminals had to guess a secret word that the Hangman was thinking. This was known as the “Rite of Words and Life.”

Standing on a five-legged stool with a noose around his neck, the criminal would pick a letter. With each incorrect guess, the Hangman would chop off a leg from the five-legged stool. After five wrong guesses, all the stool legs would be chopped off by the Hangman, leaving the criminal to hang.

Countries began moving away from capital punishment. 

The execution of criminals by hanging them has been around since the earliest civilizations. Scholars believe that the death of the murderer Rainey Bethea, the last hanging sentence in America in 1936, led to authorities banning public executions in America. 

The reason is more than twenty thousand people gathered to witness the hanging, with hundreds of reporters and photographers waiting to cover this story. Other countries followed suit when many people began petitioning to have hanging abolished.

Hanging is still capital punishment in some countries today. Hence, people view a game of Hangman in these countries in a negative light, with players of the Hangman game regarded as insensitive. 

People adopted Hangman as a local game.

With a sense of light-heartedness, people have adopted the game of Hangman to be a fun guessing game that uses a pen and paper. Two people would play the game, setting a secret word and trying to figure it out. An incorrectly guessed letter translates into players drawing a part of the Hangman stick figure. 

Thankfully the person making an incorrect guess does not face the fate of a criminal. Instead, if a player cannot figure out the secret word, the other player can reveal that word, and a player can set a new game.

Alan Miller developed Hangman into a video game.

Alan Miller released Hangman as a video game in 1978. The developer replaced the traditional man with a tiny monkey that hung from the gallows by its arm. The game contained a little more than five hundred words, split into four categories. No guessable term was longer than six letters. 

It was a one or two-player game. If a person played the game as a one-player game, they were allowed eleven incorrect guesses. If two people played the game, the game could go on until a player guessed the correct answer.

People criticized Hangman for differing a little from the original pen-and-paper-based game, leaving reviewers unimpressed. It was re-released by the same developer in 1982 as Atari 2600, along with many other games. Reviewers then described the game as “passable.”

Hangman became effective in the classroom.

As Hangman gained popularity over the centuries, educators worked it into the classroom. Educators began to notice that not only was it an entertaining game for their students, but it was also quite effective in helping students retain vocabulary words. 

Researchers have done experimental studies to confirm whether or not this game was indeed effective. Students need to master four basic skills when studying English. These skills include writing, reading, listening, and speaking. Vocabulary forms the basis of being able to communicate using these four skills. 

After researchers conducted their studies, they determined that students who played Hangman in the classroom were motivated, retained their vocabulary words, had improved their spelling, and were focused.

Hangman banned

With centuries gone by, and people no longer aware of this game’s history, it continued to gain popularity. However, when people began gaining an awareness of this game’s history, they began to get offended. 

African Americans, in particular, were highly offended at this game. For them, Hangman triggered memories of their country’s shady past, when lynching (hanging without a trial) took place, and the noose was used as an image to threaten them and used as a symbol of hate. 

Furthermore, with youth hanging or attempting to hang themselves in the act of suicide, people shunned this game, and some people reprimanded those who initiated this game for being insensitive. 

Parents began complaining, and some schools took action immediately, banning Hangman. School principals then asked educators to come up with alternatives to the game of Hangman. 

Alternatives to Hangman

With a Hanging man considered gory and gallows being unappealing to many, people quickly implemented alternatives to appease those who had been offended. There is now a wide variety of other options from which to choose. 

The concept of the guessing game remains the same but differs in its implementation. The number of incorrect guesses allowed varies as well. 

Here is a list of just a few of the alternatives that people have created:

  • Spaceman: this includes a player creating a spaceship out of circles, semi-circles, and ovals when players make an incorrect guess.
  • Snowman: this includes a player creating a snowman – circles for his body, twig arms, and face when players guess an incorrect letter.
  • Monster: this includes drawing a monster – a body, horns, and the monster’s face when a player makes an incorrect guess.
  • Appletree: this includes a player drawing apples on a tree, and with each incorrect guess, the player removes an apple from the tree until no more apples are left.
  • The Mouse and Cheese game: this includes a staircase on which a player places incorrect alphabets. There is a mouse at the bottom and cheese at the top of the stairs. Players try not to let the mouse get to the cheese. 

Hangman appears on the web and in mobile apps.

Today, Hangman and its variations exist across the web and applications. The purpose of every app differs. Some apps offer a more educational approach in presenting the game, providing definitions of words, creating themes, and incorporating pronunciation. 

Developers design some apps to help you wind down and relax, providing entertainment. Students learning a foreign language are encouraged to download Hangman or similar apps to supplement their learning. Younger children are also encouraged to play Hangman or a substitute before dinner or after doing their homework.

The Future of Hangman

Hangman, along with substitute games, are indisputably here to stay. Creative people are always coming up with improvements for the game, keeping it exciting and fresh. 

And while there are always new, more advanced technological games on the market, a good old-fashioned, pen-and-paper guessing game is still a go-to for many people.  

Last Word

Knowing the history of Hangman may assuredly change your opinion of how you play the game. It also makes you mindful of the views of others around you. 

While this game may have developed from hanging people, it has turned into a fun-loving, educational, and entertaining game. It indeed continues to flourish today and is continued to be shaped by the opinions of those around us.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.