Why Do People Play?

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a silly question. After all, it’s fun to play, and what more of a reason does one need?

But why is it fun? Why has Nature provided our species with an activity such as this that is fun, so that we’ll want to engage in it all our lives? Why is play so central to us?
    
Actually, you may not be so sure that play is, in fact, so central, certainly not all our lives. So let’s start by determining whether it is. Before that, we have to find out what we’re talking about. So I will deal first with the question:

What is the definition of play?

Here is what the online dictionary says:

    Play
    1. a dramatic composition or piece; drama.
    2. a dramatic performance, as on the stage.
    3. exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.
    4. fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness: I said it merely in play.
    5. a pun.

That’s quite a diverse set of definitions for one little four letter word. Unfortunately, each element of that list presents problems. For example, consider #1. Let’s look up the definition of “drama”. Lo and behold, one of its diversity of definitions is - “play”! Another is “the quality of being dramatic” - which in turn is defined as “of or pertaining to the drama”, which offers little enlightenment vis-a-vis #2. Apropos of #3, we find “amusement” and “recreation” listed as synonyms, which makes one wonder what the “or” is for in #3. 

In short, not only does this one word suffer from a variety of definitions (not at all exhaustive, by the way), but the definitions suffer from circularity. In fact, what we are encountering is an age-old problem: the impossibility of accurately or fully defining a word by means of other words, themselves not possible to accurately or fully define. In fact, we can’t even give a definitive definition of “define”, because no attempt at a definition is ever exhaustive - that is, no definition is ever “finite” (a word embedded in the word “definition”). All end up either incomplete - there being always additional examples and subtleties that fall outside a given definition - or circular or self-contradictory. The ancient Greeks knew this well; just read Plato’s dialogues, which are almost all demonstrations by Socrates - at the expense of humiliating his interlocutors - that words cannot be defined by other words. His pupil, Plato, understood this well, gave up the enterprise, and postulated that there must be an actual meaning for each and every word, but that it is beyond our comprehension - it resides, effectively, in some ideal realm.

So what, then, are words? It turns out, upon closer examination, that words are symbols used to represent something we identify as common to all members of a set of experiences1. It is part of the human evolutionary heritage to be able to use our minds to form groupings of experiences having something we see as common to all of them, and to invent symbols - language - to denote that commonality. The use of a symbol to represent a group of experiences is a powerful shorthand, enabling human beings to remember and deal with a vast number of experiences that would otherwise tax our minds with an unmanageable amount of separate pieces of information. Each and every one of us does this all our lives with our own individual (and ever-growing) set of experiences, so that every word in our individual languages adds more nuanced references to its meaning as we grow older. In short, no word means exactly the same thing to any two people (as our frequent difficulty in communicating reveals to us), but the more shared experiences we have, the more likely it is that we will be able to communicate via language effectively.

This means that we have to replace the question I posed earlier by a different one, if we are to make progress in understanding why people play. We have to ask:

What varied set of experiences are symbolized by the word “play” in our common discourse and, more important, what is the common element these experiences have that the word “play” is meant to symbolize?

Mind you, when I discuss this question, I am certainly not in a position to do more than answer from my own experiences, and from those experiences I have observed other people to denote by the word “play”. There is no way, of course, that I can even guess at the experiences that people remote from me, or in other cultures, or in other times, have designated by that word, and I can only speculate that their use of the word “play” symbolized a commonality similar to the one I have observed in my own experience.2

So let’s start looking at a bunch of such experiences. I’ll focus on ones where people use the specific word “play”. Here is my list; I chose to include concrete instances rather than generalizations, but it is easy to generalize from these instances:

    - to play with blocks
    - to play basketball
    - to play with a new idea
    - to write a play
    - to play with one’s hand or fingers
    - to play the piano
    - to play a role
    - to play dead
    - to determine what’s at play in a given situation
    - to play video games
    - to play war games
    - to play the stock market

These examples are nothing if not diverse. They apply to situations that can involve people of all ages, in all sorts of settings, in groups or singly.

By the way, looking at this list, you can see that the dictionary definition I cited at the beginning of this essay (and indeed any other definition you might find) does not come close to covering all these instances. 

Also, and more significantly, the list makes it clear that there is little basis for the widespread notion (especially among people who write about play, as opposed to people who engage in those activities) that play is somehow separate from the important, authentic activities of human existence and survival. Lots of the instances mentioned in the list are quite serious and real.

So what is it that these activities have in common, that the single word “play” symbolizes?  To get an answer to this, we have to detour and go . . .

Back to Basics

When a certain trait or behavior pattern can be found in all people, regardless of their cultural background, at all ages, one has to consider it a part of the evolutionary heritage we all share – a part of what defines us as human beings3. Play being an activity that is consciously driven, we have to look to the mind’s workings to get a handle on what drives play in all its forms.

One of the characteristics of the mind is awareness – the ability to recognize and record the environment (both external and internal). All animals possess some degree of awareness, as it is the mechanism by which they interact with their environments to survive.

A key aspect of awareness is often overlooked. Consider the nature of the interactions between the environment and a particular living being. The environment bombards an animal with an unimaginably large volume of physical information, which land on receptors provided by Nature and which have to be processed by the animal’s “awareness system”. (I hesitate to use the word “mind” for that system, as we customarily do not endow, say, insects, with a “mind”.) Nature has provided the awareness system with the ability to organize this tsunami of information into patterns that give form to the inputs and allow them to be organized and processed. We do not know how this takes place, but the obvious ability of animals to interact with their environment in a way that seeks to enhance their survival is evidence that it somehow does.

With human beings, an additional factor enters into play: self-awareness, which enables our species to be aware that we are aware, and thus to think about the things we are aware of4. We are constantly thinking about how we perceive and interact with our environment, about the totality of elements that make up the world as we see and understand it. The particular form each of us thinks our world possesses is our world view and, in its totality, is specific and unique to every individual.

The process of designing a world-view can be compared to building a house. It begins with the creation of a framework, within which particular parts take form. As we consider this or that aspect of our framework, we fill it in with ever refined detail - the finish work. The larger framework is the key to everything else: it represents the way we compartmentalize our experiences, group them for further inspection, something we must do if we are to engage the vastness of the cosmos. Imagine trying to think of furnishing and using a house if all we have is one vast room within which we want to carry out all our activities. (Or let me put it this way: if we did try to think of that, the first thing we would do is compartmentalize our activities, and think about “where we want to put our sleeping area”, “our cooking area”, etc. - building imaginary rooms without walls.)

Nothing is more important to human survival and success than the process of constructing frameworks for thinking about our world. Without a framework, there is only a mass of disorganized inputs – what seems to our minds to be utter, incomprehensible and unmanageable chaos. Frameworks are what give us the ability to comprehend our environment and interact with it to our advantage. They give us a place within which to fashion the “finish work” – to devise the detailed, day-to-day activities that will constitute our lives. They give us stability in an ever-changing world; it is relatively easy to re-arrange the details, introduce new ones, discard old ones, given the existence of a framework that we can be confident still stands. We can move the furniture, repair it, paint or re-upholster it, change its uses, throw it out, replace it, add to it, change the function to which we put the room – but we rarely tear down the house and build a new one with a different frame. It is a task of too much complexity and cost to contemplate, unless driven to it by some extreme internal or external necessity. So too with the framework of reality that we construct. We struggle all our lives to fit our experiences into our world view. We tinker here, adjust there, make allowances, look for ways to adapt – but it is rare for us to throw out what we have been accustomed to and start all over with a wholly new concept of how the world is organized.

Self-awareness, thinking about ourselves and our surroundings, is inextricably intertwined with the mind’s ability to create frameworks within which to organize and comprehend experience. The first and most important step each of us takes in determining what each of us considers to be “reality” is the conscious construction of frameworks for grouping experiences. We have no clue about how the mind does this. We don’t know where self-awareness comes from, or how it operates to build frameworks. But we know that we are self-aware (we know that we know), and we know that we must be able to build frameworks all our lives in order to enable us to affect our environment.

Practice makes perfect

Let’s consider the monumental creativity required, on a life-long, ongoing basis, to construct useful frameworks within which to conduct our lives: to design them, modify them to meet ever-changing circumstances, and occasionally consider re-constructing them from the ground up. This is the creativity with which all of us, all human beings, are endowed from birth, and which guides our activities constantly – whenever we consciously focus our minds on how we conduct ourselves from day to day.

We know that the key to developing and advancing people’s creative abilities is to give them the opportunity to exercise those abilities as often as possible, and the more we do so, the better we become at it5. The wisdom everyone gains with age is precisely the increased adeptness at examining a situation and placing it in the context of a framework that we have steadfastly worked on all our lives - a framework that includes, indeed assumes, the willingness to recognize when it has to be modified. 

Since the conscious construction of frameworks is the creative process that holds the key to our ability to survive effectively in our environment, and since every human being is endowed by Nature with the ability to carry out this process, one of the basic needs every person must possess is the need for opportunities, wherever they can be found, to practice it, in order to constantly improve at the task. It is not enough to be born with the ability to design frameworks for ourselves; we must also be born with an innate passion to constantly practice this process.

To put it into more dramatic language: every human being is born a creative genius6 at the art of design, and every human being is born with an unquenchable thirst for practicing that art.

So that’s why we play!!

We have now stumbled onto the feature that is common to all the experiences I listed in the opening of this essay7, that are symbolized by the word “play”. It is this: every one of them involves practicing the art of framework design. Let’s look at the items in the list, one by one.

1. Writing a drama: The playwright seeks to build a representation of a reality that he has perceived, and convey it to others through a multi-media communication - verbal, visual, auditory. Audience response to a play is directly related to the degree to which the playwright has succeeded in convincing the audience that his representation can be meaningful to them – to them, not to himself, as he has already convinced himself, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to the effort of writing the play in the first place.

2. Drama: We attach the word play to all sorts of activities that are meant to represent aspects of the participants’ perception of reality. For example, when children play with dolls or with blocks, we are usually aware that they are constructing representational worlds for themselves, many of which seem to us quite odd and out of line with our representations, but to the participants seem quite useful. We tend to overlook the way adults are constantly engaged in drama, but it is an ever-present feature of adult life. The book Games People Play8 brought this feature to widespread notice.

3. An exercise or activity for amusement or recreation: This is the kind of activity most people nowadays focus on these days, when touting the value of play for children – the seemingly trivial kind of activity that isn’t “serious”. But oh, how serious it is to the participants! Just look carefully at any instance of such activities. Children at play are intensely focused on what they are doing, always. So are adults playing games – sports, cards, board games, gambling (playing the odds). So are people of all ages who play computer games.
    Why are they so focused, so passionate, so “addicted”? Because in every case, they are concentrating on figuring out what makes that particular activity “tick”, how it really works, how it is constructed, so they can figure it out and successfully negotiate it. They are looking to spec out the structure, so they can operate within it. They are studying, ever so intensely, the art of framework design.
    That is why people who play computer games, once they have mastered one game at a certain level, always want to advance to higher levels – or look for another game that is more challenging. That is why baseball players try their best to figure out the complex structure of the game and, if they want to make a living at “playing a kids’ game” (as so many professionals speak about it), they work hard to advance from one minor league level to the next, having figured out all they can about baseball at each level. That is why gamblers are forever trying to figure out just how the particular gambling activity works, so they can beat the odds, while professional card players, thanks to their focus and practice, usually do a better job at figuring out the design of a game than their less accomplished fellow players. That is why people trying to figure out something specific – say, the solution to a math problem, or an approach to some tricky situation – play with ideas. That is why people apply themselves so earnestly to a hobby, to what the dictionary defines as “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation”.

None of these “amusements” or “recreations” are taken lightly. They are all very serious indeed, sought after in one form or another by everyone, and extremely important to developing our most essential life skill. So . . .

Why is play fun?

If play is, at its core, such a profoundly important and serious activity, why is it fun? In the answer to that question lies the key to one of the most inventive aspects of evolution: Nature makes all activities that are essential to individual and/or species survival pleasurable to members of that species. It not only provides the tools for engaging in those activities, it makes sure that the members of the species want to use those tools. That’s where “pleasure” enters the picture, as a core aspect of evolution.

We realize this with the act of reproduction – it’s too obvious to miss. But now we find that Nature has done the same thing with respect to play. Without play, people can’t practice and improve their ability to build frameworks, the primary skill necessary to figure out how to affect our environment. To encourage people to practice this skill, it is made enjoyable, where I mean by “enjoyable” something we want to do because it is pleasurable, it’s fun.

This puts the word “fun” in a somewhat clearer light, one we are not accustomed to in our culture. The online dictionary tells us that “fun” is “something that provides mirth or amusement”; “enjoyment or playfulness”. In other words, “fun” means something not serious, something we enjoy (something that involves play!). But we now have a clearer look at the kinds of experiences we know must be represented by the word “fun” – namely, all those experiences that Nature wants to encourage us to pursue, in order to enhance our chance for surviving and living a good life, by making those experiences pleasurable and hence sought after.

Think of all the activities that you can symbolize by the word “fun”. Then, try to figure out why they are fun, why you as a human being are being told by Nature that these activities are important for you to pursue. You will come up with some valuable insights into aspects of human existence that may not be totally obvious in our culture. Which leads directly to examining the question:

Why does our culture frown on, and diminish in importance, activities that are fun?

As I have explained elsewhere (The Meaning of Education, Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA, 2018), self-awareness has led all humans to seek meaning in life, in addition to the primary goal of sheer survival. Since survival has been a difficult matter for the overwhelming majority of human beings from the dawn of our appearance on earth, only a few people could allow themselves the luxury of allotting significant portions of their energy, time, and resources to what the Founding Fathers called “the pursuit of happiness”. As Aristotle put it, a society could produce all the trappings of what we label “culture” only when it had enough excess wealth to allow a few of its members to be free to create things that were not essential to survival – “luxuries” such as philosophy, art, literature, science, etc.

This did not mean that the masses of people desisted from seeking meaning in life. Religions provided meaning for them, without sacrificing the daily grind that kept them alive. It is no accident that religion – holding a set of beliefs that transcend daily human experience – has always been part of the human experience, as it serves a noble purpose of providing meaning even to those who can’t seek it outside their struggle for physical survival. And, consistent with what I have been proposing, it is no accident that all religions are laced with activities that are “fun” – enjoyable, pleasurable, sought after. The fun part makes people, who otherwise would be bereft of the opportunity to satisfy their need for meaning, seek out and find satisfaction in religious experiences.

Before the modern era, society was permanently stratified into a few wealthy persons, and a host of people who could barely sustain their existence. This state of affairs had existed from the dawn of human existence, and continued unabated until about five hundred years ago. During all that time, the wealthy could have fun in all the ways Nature provided in order to enable them to build a wide variety of lifestyles within an equally wide variety of individual frameworks for reality. Wealth and fun were accepted as partners. By the same token, the rest of humanity had to hastily build whatever world views they could during early childhood, and pretty much stick with them throughout their hard struggle for survival. For them, as we just saw, the only fun activities were those connected with religion – which sought to provide as many opportunities as possible in festivals and holidays laden with spiritual and temporal meaning.

Things shifted in the modern era, when a middle class of some size came into being, consisting of people with some wealth, and hence some opportunity to take part in the creation of culture. The explosion of new frameworks, new world views, during the past five centuries that resulted is certainly the most notable feature of the modern era.

A dramatic turn of events happened with the appearance on the scene of the Industrial Revolution, which vastly increased the excess of wealth over subsistence and provided an abundance of what would earlier have been designated as “luxuries”. In industrialized countries, the percentage of the population that could now have meaningful lives as the creators and bearers of the culture increased dramatically. But the Industrial Revolution, paradoxically, increased the need for a huge percentage of the population to exist at the edge of survival, since machines were no less demanding of tireless labor than subsistence farms were.

The social difference, however, between Industrial times and earlier eras was this: before, the poor accepted their lot in the order of the universe (“The Great Chain of Being”) as inevitable, not to be challenged. The industrial era introduced the hope, indeed the ultimate promise, that the entire population could come to enjoy the luxury that only a few had previously possessed. This created a substratum of dissatisfaction in the poor that had to be combated by the more privileged culture-bearers.

The latter came up with a brilliant solution to this problem: the denigration of “fun”. The concept of a work ethic was born; there was no need for such a concept before, as everyone knew you had to work hard to survive. But now, with abundance on the horizon, the creative elite introduced the notion that great value is to be placed on hard work that was repetitive, robotic, and inimical to variation or creativity – work that was in no way “fun”, because it contributed nothing to satisfying human needs beyond sheer survival.

Which is why industrial societies increasingly removed fun from the daily lives of the substratum that supported those who could afford luxuries. And it is why, in addition to religion, the culture creators provided a variety of experiences that purported to provide meaning in addition to religion, and were promoted as fun for all: the modern equivalent of the Roman “bread and circuses”.

Fortunately for the human race, the Industrial Era was short-lived, a mere blip of time. The Post-Industrial age has made an increasing number of people strive to bring about . . . 

The return of play as the key to a meaningful life

The number of people in post-industrial societies who need to engage in subsistence drudgery is decreasing dramatically. Concurrently, the number of people who can now indulge themselves, throughout life, in the continuing creation and refinement of frameworks for their existence is rising. Play is being promoted by a growing number of people in all walks of life. Young people, “millennials”, know its value, and are experiencing it despite the rear-guard efforts made by powerful Industrial-era interests to suppress it.

Play symbolizes all the activities that are leading to the explosion of inventiveness and originality in every domain. It represents the efforts made by every human being to build a framework within which to find a place in the world, understand it, and function effectively within it. That is why people play – why children have always played before their life was reduced to drudgery and pain; why people of all ages have always wanted to play; and why everyone in Sudbury Valley School can play all their lives in a countless variety of ways and settings.

ENDNOTES

1.I use the word “experiences” to include things that happen to us, activities we undertake or observe, and objects we encounter. 

2.For example, Biblical Hebrew does not have a word for “play” - or at least we cannot identify a word in Biblical Hebrew that symbolizes the same commonality as we do when we use the word. Maybe there was one, and we just don’t “get it”.

3.This does not imply exclusivity; many traits are shared among a number of species. The ones that are exclusively human are those that differentiate us in the evolutionary scheme from all other species.

4.I have written more extensively on the subject of self-awareness, and its role in human development, elsewhere, particularly in The Meaning of Education, Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA 2018.

5.Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, discusses this at length, in particular in his chapter entitled “Ten Thousand Hours” (Little, Brown, Boston, 2008).

6.I use the word “genius” in the general sense exhibited by the online dictionary definition of the word: “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work”.

7.And any others I have encountered – too many to recount. 

8.Berne, Eric, Games People Play, Grove Press, New York, NY, 1964.

 

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