In Oxford’s English dictionary, play has over 30 different definitions, though the most prominent one is “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. But my question is- is that really all play is? Something to keep us amused for whatever period of time were engaged and participatory? I think play is a lot more, and I do not stand alone.
Play is a concept seen most prominently in adolescents of all species. Human babies throw their food and jingle the bells over their cribs before they can walk or talk. Boys play war and wrestle, while girls try on costumes and have tea parties. But, as noted earlier, we are not the only species who play. In fact, some phylogeneticists believe that play, and more specifically cooperative play is another defining characteristic of all mammals and can be used to help categorize animals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bp4vhO-vcNc
The reason why I am so passionate about animals is that I look at the world through a Darwinist lens. Every animal that exists has some trait, or most likely a slue of different traits that have made them more suitable to survive in this ever changing world than thousands of other competing species. So why is it that all mammals have maintained this trait, this inherent desire to play? Many animal researchers believe that play is actually a naturally selected, desirable characteristic, and that it can be compared to “studying for the game of life” – survival and reproduction. This is clearly supported by the ever-present evidence of boys wrestling, racing and playing war. Boys are known to pick on the smaller child, and assert their dominance if they can; all of these “games” preparing themselves to fight, compete and ultimately win in an aggressive world. Girls (as animals) once filled far different roles than they do now, and their survival, though also based on vigor, was largely dependent on the quality of their mates. Looking at the world in this way, it is not surprising that girls enjoy dressing up, and practice their role of primary caretaker on little dolls.
(Just an interesting idea that I will not delve into- these same animal researchers believe that dreams are akin to a virtual reality practice for life and that vivid dreaming makes mammals more likely to survive.)
So why do we “play” games? Gaming is often thought of as a waste of time- empty entertainment, lacking culture or substance like movies and art. However, looking at games through a “rules and fiction” lens- that games are in essence a set of easily understood rules from which enjoyment is drawn based on “these easy to use rules presenting challenges that cannot be easily overcome. Playing a game is an activity of improving these skills in order to overcome these challenges, and playing a game is therefore fundamentally a learning experience.” (Juul 5) A critical thinker can see why dozens of millions of people slave away at their computers and consoles day after day.
Thinking as the mamaologists do: As an adolescent, I am intrinsically and biologically programmed to play- to want to prepare myself for the world to come. However, we humans no longer live in the world of survival, but rather the world of success. Today it is not the fastest, the strongest or the meanest who survive, it is the smartest, the most diligent and the different. So how do we best prepare ourselves for this new world? What games do we play? As kids we play one massive, institutionalized game called school. This game has rules, it has goals, enforcers, competition, consequences and benefits. However, this game is also our job and there are some games we ADD children tire of quickly, and so we search for supplemental fulfillment elsewhere. We can go wrestle, we can go race we can play war and pick on the little guy, but that too is obsolete, because one does not need to fight or hunt to succeed in this world. And so when I come home from school, I plop down in my chair at my desk and turn on my computer and play a video game. How does sitting at my desk with a mountain dew clicking away prepare me more for the world? Why does it fulfill this inherent need to game within me? While there are some practical purposes for gaming like using video game simulators for combat in the army and race car simulators for NASCAR drivers, the purpose of video games is deeper than that. Looking back through the “rules and fiction” lens, games are also fiction. I am not preparing myself for this world but rather a different one. When I step in to West Bree, or move my knight to C5, I am learning, through playing, a new set of rules, establishing a new set of goals and improving a new set of skills to succeed. That once again looking through a Darwinian lens, we, the most adaptive creatures our world has ever seen, are excited by the challenge of these fictional worlds and want to play to be able to best compete in them. We gamers (as not all people find these games fulfilling) fulfill our biological drives of playing (preparing) and succeeding in the dangerous worlds of Middle Earth and Azeroth, when the game of school, preparing us for the game of life seem more daunting than well… a cave troll or a 4 move chess mate.
So, all in all, we all must play- and when we play games we do play- and learn; just with a new set of enforced rules and often in a different world.
“Everyone plays to win, but what world we do it in is a gamer’s choice” – Kinetix