Taking Play Seriously

When I lived in Nigeria, I used to cross the city of Calabar to visit the defunct zoo, taking food for the animals—a constrictor snake, some crocodiles, a male drill monkey—still trapped in cages.  Jacob, a large juvenile chimpanzee, lived in that zoo in a cage roughly ten feet by ten feet.  As I walked onto the zoo grounds, Jacob would greet me with an exuberant pant-hoot and I would respond back (my Intro to Anthro students are endlessly amused when I demonstrate my pant-hooting skills).  Though I carried food for him, what Jacob most wanted to do was play with me. 

Jacob loved to play tag first, swinging back and forth across the front of his thickly barred cage, sticking a hand out to see if I could catch it.  We would rush back and forth together, Jacob generally favoring the role of being chased.  Then we’d settle down for some tickling.  Believe me, being tickled by a chimpanzee is, I am sure, rather what my boys feel when I get overly excited about tickling them. 

Jacob’s fingers were powerful, and his arms more so, but I made myself laugh in the chortling sound of chimpanzees.  If he got too strong, I could simply let out a sound of pain and he’d stop.  Then we’d get started again, because of course I loved to tickle him back.  I remember times, our heads together, pressed against the bars, his hand at the back of my neck, my fingers digging into his ribs.  It was such fun, yet I never could quite shake the thought in that moment that he could crush my head so easily against the bars. 

Jacob’s grooming was actually much worse.  He was not a good groomer, approaching it with a lack of delicacy that had me hiding any new scabs as Jacob had the urge to pick every scab away even if fresh blood came blushing out.  But grooming, like play, was our way of having a relationship.  I remember so clearly when I came to the zoo just on the verge of a serious malaria attack.  I was exhausted and I slumped down beside the cage, in no mood to play.  Jacob settled beside me on the other side of the bars.  He tried first sticking his hand out to see if I’d play tag, but then groomed me more gently than ever before. 

Jacob was my best friend in Nigeria.  Playing with him came to mind as I read “Taking Play Seriously” by Robin Marantz Henig over the weekend.  In the opening parts of the article, Henig addresses evolutionary thought about play.  Comments like “play is the biological equivalent of a luxury item,” simply because it doesn’t fit into a simple cost/benefit analysis, reveals where some of evolutionary thought remains.  That approach is often bracketed by assumptions like “play requires that an animal be stress-free and secure” (rather than play being a way for an animal to be stress-free and secure). 

These assumptions come out of the dual British traditions of utilitarian analysis and life as “nasty, brutish and short.”  Play has a hard time fitting into either tradition, which has made it such a bugaboo for evolutionary theory.  But these assumptions block a more robust evolutionary view, the same way that assumptions about the “fight-or-flight response” limit our understanding of stress (a position I critiqued in my post on stress and the work of Michael Blakey). 

Thankfully, as Henig recognizes, a new view is emerging.  One emerging consensus revolves around play as a “central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.”  In an earlier post, I covered how play plays into neurobiology, arguing for play as a “preferential way to achieve this skilled engagement with ecologically and socially complex environments… If a species’ social environments are complex and its foraging strategies are complex, there is likely a selective advantage for brains whose related pathways can work together in producing contingent yet appropriate responses.” 

Today, what I want to emphasize is the role of play in social relationships and in coordinating attention and activity.  These two roles, beyond the impact of play on brain development, set the stage for my last point, that play helps us build culture.  I mean this in much the way I covered in Avatars and Cultural Creole, that play is one behavior that helps individuals achieve emergent cultures.  But that emergence wouldn’t work unless play builds and builds upon skilled engagement, social relationships, and coordinated behavior. 

It would seem patently obvious that play is a social activity and thus is important in social relationships.  But in evolutionary research, all is not patently obvious.  So here’s some work to use.  Diamond and Bond (2003) argue, “The likelihood of complex social play appears to increase when delayed reproduction is accompanied by persisting relationships between adults and post-fledging juveniles.”  Or a stronger statement by Palagi et al. (2004) on chimpanzee play: 

Like grooming, play might have an important role to limit aggression and increase tolerance around food (immediate benefits). Immature animals showed a higher frequency of play in the pre-feeding than in any other condition (feeding, post-feeding, and control). During high excitement periods social play probably represents a safe mechanism for immature subjects to test their personal abilities (self-assessment), the strength/weakness of playmates, and the degree of cooperation/competition with them (social-assessment).

 Elsewhere Elisabetta Palagi has argued that “social play can be viewed as a balance between cooperation and competition” and “bonobos apparently cope with competition and social tension via 2 different mechanisms of conflict management: play to prevent tension, e.g., prefeeding, and sociosexual behaviors as appeasement and reassurance mechanisms once a tense situation emerges.”  Particularly striking is the statement that “play signals unlikely when the playmates strongly differed in age and in rank position.”  In other words, you play sports with your friends and family, as part of social relationships, but not with people like George Bush (either one…).   

Similarly, Pellis & Pellis, in their chapter Play and the Development of Social Engagement, write that “play is instrumental for the ability to engage in appropriate social interactions” and “play facilitates the development of an affective system that is capable of dealing with the vicissitudes of social interaction.” 

With the emphasis on skilled engagement and play as a way to learn about and negotiate social relationships, it should not be surprising that joint attention and coordination also are an important skilled component of play.  As Mouse Trap relates about the work of Michael Tomasello, “The authors concluded that, at least at this developmental period, children with autism seem to understand the social components of situations that call for ‘helping’ behaviors and engage in helping behaviors, but only when such help does not require interpersonal cooperation. However, when cooperation is required to complete the task, these children are less likely to correctly engage with another partner, possibly because the unique ‘shared’ component of cooperation. That is, cooperation requires shared goals, shared attention, and a shared plan of action, processes that seem to be affected in children with autism.”  These skills represent some of the “prerequisite cognitive and motivational skills and propensities underlying social behavior.” 

But play can be pushed even further!  Colin Allen and Mark Bekoff have argued for play as important in the development of morality.  In the abstract to their 2005 paper, they write: 

There is much to learn about “wild justice” and the evolutionary origins of morality – behaving fairly – by studying social play behavior in group-living mammals… Careful analysis of social play reveals rules of engagement that guide animals in their social encounters. Because of its significance in development, play may provide a foundation of fairness for other forms of cooperation that are advantageous to group living. Questions about the evolutionary roots of cooperation, fairness, trust, forgiveness, and morality are best answered by attention to the details of what animals do when they engage in social play – how they negotiate agreements to cooperate, to forgive, to behave fairly, and to develop trust… Numerous mechanisms have evolved to facilitate the initiation and maintenance of social play, to keep others engaged, so that agreeing to play fairly and the resulting benefits of doing so can be readily achieved.

In sum, at a neurobiological level and at a behavioral level, play is about fun that provides a wealth of benefits.  A wise man once said to me that happiness is not an end in itself, but something that comes as an outcome of what we do.  Play is certainly that—often fun in itself, but full of plenty of evolutionary-relevant doing.

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