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. 
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The Neurobiology of Play

Taking Play Seriously, by Robin Marantz Henig, appears today in the New York Times Magazine.  Henig draws on ethology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology to highlight advances in research on play.  Play strikes many of us as deeply essential, but what the heck is it for?  It’s not precisely clear. 

Today I’ll cover some of the interesting developments about the neurobiology of play mentioned in Taking Play Seriously.  So John Byers first.  Byers is a zoologist at the University of Idaho who noticed that the developmental trajectory of play looks like an inverted U across many species, increasing during the juvenile period and dropping off during puberty.  This pattern corresponded quite well with the growth curve of the cerebellum.  The article summarizes the implications: 

The synchrony suggested a few things to Byers: that play might be related to growth of the cerebellum, since they both peak at about the same time; that there is a sensitive period in brain growth, during which time it’s important for an animal to get the brain-growth stimulation of play; and that the cerebellum needs the whole-body movements of play to achieve its ultimate configuration.

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Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchRetaining one’s balance in movement is one of the more complicated sensory and motor tasks that humans routinely accomplish.  Elite athletic activities make the task of maintaining bipedal locomotion all the more difficult; no other species, I would argue, not even the kangaroo or gibbon, engages in a repertoire of bipedal activities even remotely close to as varied as that of humans.  We walk, run, skip, hop, and combinations of all three; we kick while running, jump over a range of obstacles, cross balance beams and tight ropes, ride unicycles; some of our species even juggle soccer balls, play badminton and volleyball with our feet (no kidding, in Brazil I used to see futevolei — ‘foot-volleyball’ — on the beach… amazing), balance objects on our feet and a host of other activities.  And, in the example I want to start discussing, some of us even invert our bodies and become bipedal on our hands, sometimes to extraordinary effect.

In order to accomplish these sorts of tasks, we use our ‘sense of balance.’  I hesitate to call it a sense, though, because the systems of perception, forms of analysis that we do, and reactions that we use to preserve our equilibrium are actually a complicated system, a set of shifting constellations of interio- and exterioceptions, differently weighted and compared depending upon our environment and task, and a host of active patterns of physical compensation, most of them only vaguely conscious, at best, that keep us upright.  Equilibrium is a perceptual-motor system in the sense discussed by James J. Gibson (1979), perhaps even more baroque the visual perception system (his favourite example).

Minimally, a brief ecological psychology of balance would need to include at least the following: the vestibular system; information from the visual system including the horizon line, parallax, relation of centre of field of vision to visual references, and movement in peripheral vision; sensations on the soles of the feet as well as at joints and other forms of proprioception; sense receptors at the back of the neck as well as a sense of the head’s alignment in space and in relation to the body; the gravity-resisting muscles, usually those of the lower body, and the reflexes that move them to compensate for perturbations in balance.

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Avatars and Cultural Creole

Can video games change the way we think about culture?  Yes!  In the previous posts I’ve explored how the interaction and embodied perception that both designers and players use outlines an area of research for neuroanthropology.  And I’ve dropped plenty of hints that gaming can help us re-think culture.  Today I’ll continue to develop those ideas some more. 

Let’s start with a rather conventional statement on “culture” in relation to this new world of Internet, gaming, and all the rest.  Arturo Escobar, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and better, a Colombian!), has a chapter, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” which appears in the book The Cybercultures Reader.    Continue reading “Avatars and Cultural Creole”

Have & Have-Nots in Gaming: Linking Back

For those of you who think that there is no connection between my posts on video games and my posts on stress and inequality, I beg to differ.  Clive Thompson’s commentary, “Suicide Bombing Makes Sick Sense in Halo 3” helps us see how.  First he writes: 

The structure of Xbox Live creates a world composed of two classes — haves and have-nots. And, just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away — just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves. Since the game instantly resurrects me, I have no real dread of death in Halo 3.

 Here we have a direct connection to being in the “wrong” class mentioned by Sapolsky, in this case, the have-nots who get killed so quickly it makes their head spin.  But Clive found his revenge by blowing himself and his enemy up with a plasma grenade—and believe me, the elite players hate to die needlessly.   Clive then makes a further point: 

Even though I’ve read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an “aha” moment that I’d never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

 Understanding that moment in the aha fashion, the feel of it for the player, is central to our understanding.  And there’s the link to the American Dream post, for Bob Herbert highlights the combined effect of the person caught without a dream in an increasingly difficult American reality.

MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline

By Daniel Lende

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG.  And what is that, you ask?  A  massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in this case the most successful one in existence.  It is run by Blizzard Entertainment, based on fantasy role-playing (i.e., swords and sorcery), and has more than 9 million subscribers worldwide.  These subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $14.99 if you pay month-to-month) and for that, Blizzard says, “thousands of players adventure together in an enormous, persistent game world, forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” in the realm of Azeroth. 

Blizzard has built a game that appeals to both causal and persistent players, though most of its monthly income is derived from people who put in lots of hours (Ducheneaut et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/281).  It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/magazine/17lootfarmers-t.html) to help create some of the in-game wealth that rich players can then utilize in achieving higher and higher levels and better and better items and spells.  Besides the joys of “leveling up” and coordinating massive attacks on either mythical monsters that no one hero can slay alone or on other “guilds” of human players in Azeroth, research has shown that “in keeping with current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend real-life relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also use others merely as a backdrop (Williams et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/338 ).” 

They also piss each other off.  One of the main draws of Wow is PvP, person versus person play.  Just as with first person shooters, there is plenty of fun in the single-player game, the mastering of a particular level or killing a “boss” (a hard monster or enemy), but a lot of the persistent fun is in making those rag dolls fly—in winning “the game” when playing against others.  A new art form has developing in filming these encounters: “the proliferation of players, clans, Web sites, and community forums for creating, consuming, and commenting on WoW movies is remarkable” (Lowood 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/362 ).  The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube. 
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