Click to play our newest game, yahtzee!


History of Carnival Games

Carnival games have a rich and compelling history.
Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Carnivals have a rich history dating back at least to the Renaissance period. In the 1800s, carnivals began in the United States with traveling showmen and simple magic tricks or games of change. Those games gradually became more sophisticated as shows stayed in a town for days or weeks at a time. In addition, improvements in technology and logistics allowed for games to be transported easier and developed better. Most people today are familiar with their favorite carnival games, but they might not know the history behind them.


Carnival games originated in the royal courts of the Renaissance time period. They began with card games, tricks and sports activities. Once they arrived in the United States, carnivals were all just traveling shows. Throughout the 1800s, carnival performers visited rural towns and villages throughout the country. They were usually simple vaudeville, circus or magic shows. The performers only included modest guessing games without many prizes.

Chicago World's Fair

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair brought the carnival to mainstream attention. The world fair set up a number of games and established the first Ferris wheel. Fair games were located along the central Midway Plaisance. They included freak shows, games of chance, wild west shows and burlesque shows. These established the standard game types that are played today. In fact, the term midway to describe the center of the fairgrounds originates from the Chicago Midway.

As carnivals became more sophisticated throughout the years, their games became standardized. This partly reflected the need to provide familiarity to carnival goers and partly to standardize the manufacturing, logistics and management. One popular game is balloon darts where the participant tries to pop a water balloon with a dart. Other games put participants in competition with one another by shooting targets with water to propel cars across a finish line. Most games are honest, but carnival operators can easily manipulate them.


It is hard to pinpoint the exact origins of prize giving at carnivals. However, it is extremely prevalent today. They are used to reward players for excellent skill and to create an incentive to play the game. Carnival goers can win meals, stuffed animals, toys, posters and other items. Often times, the prizes are cheap consolation items, such as rubber balls and plastic knick knacks. The harder the game, the more valuable the potential prize will be. Carnivals are famous for awarding massive stuffed animals that are hard to find anywhere else.

Our Passtimes