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The Controversy Over Play

Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article about the scientific discussion over play in both humans and other animals (mainly mammals apparently!), namely: what is the biological purpose of play?


If we are to believe Johan Huizinga, that all of human culture arises out of play, then questions about the function of play are not simply curiosities, but central to understanding some of the very things that we use to define ourselves as human.


  1. Bob wrote:

    My first impression is this– Play, as this article concerns itself, really has very little, if anything at all, to do with games.

    Play as an abstract activity can be channeled by two main means– the toy, or tool, and the game, or rules. Toys have no rules, and are the grounds for consequence-free experimentation, but therefore also have no real intrinsic value other than lessons-learned, though untested. Games, thanks to their rules, have the clearest of consequences and therefore are not really arenas for absolute, unrestricted freedom, but instead for gainmanship and success, the existence of which is made possible by the restricting possibility of failure.

    In other words– With toys, you’re allowed to do anything you want, except win or lose. With games, you are allowed to do nothing except win or lose. That’s the essence of play, at its most naked level. But this article doesn’t really have anything to do with that. Instead, it’s talking about play as a social activity, which is something else entirely.

    Now, play as a socializing act, especially in growing up, is certainly invaluable, but it’s somewhat troubling for me in games. In my opinion, when the real-world descends upon a game, and adds social and intrinsic values onto its otherwise abstract consequences, it stops being a game and becomes something else– a sport. Suddenly, winning and losing take on new dimensions that exceed the boundaries of the so-called magic circle– wagers of money and tests of power have absolutely no part between the individual and the game. The essence of a game is that once it’s over, the consequences you played for no longer have any intrinsic meaning– after all, it’s just a game. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for team-sports and multiplayer activities to turn into pretty serious affairs, where feelings, reputations and livelihoods can be hurt pretty badly.

    Of course, this is all pretty unavoidable, when you get right down to it. Winning and losing are part of the universal human lexicon in everything from war, politics and business to art, romance and religion. Competition is one of the deepest, most rewarding human drives, but it’s also quite possibly our ugliest one, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of its its direct opposite– compassion. Games need to teach us how, when and why to lose, as well as win, and that’s a lesson which needs a certain amount of hand-holding to get across. As long as the players are responsible and good-natured, games can be kept intact as methods of early socialization, but only as long as kids are reminded the most important thing– it’s just a fucking game.

    Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why single-player games occupy a much more trusted place in my heart. There’s no such thing as competition.

    Sunday, February 24, 2008 at 6:19 am | Permalink
  2. Charles Edward wrote:

    I agree with Bob that this article has almost nothing to do with games. In fact, it focuses mostly on play fighting specifically.

    However, I found this early quote to be a little unsettling:

    “Brown told her that while video games do have some play value, a true sense of ‘‘interpersonal nuance’’ can be achieved only by a child who is engaging all five senses by playing in the three-dimensional world.”

    So video games don’t have ‘play value’ because they lack ‘interpersonal nuance’? That’s hard to swallow. I mean, clearly I’m biased, but I think there’s a lot more value to play than just the social aspect. Plenty of children play by themselves, is that play less valuable?

    On the whole, this entire article seemed a bit off at every step of the way. It also had no clear thesis. “Play is important…maybe…but definitely, just not sure why still”

    To me, play seems like an easy thing to wrap up. I don’t understand the difficulty in it being “sometimes good and then sometimes troubling”. It’s a place for taking risks, duh. It’s a training ground: sometimes for muscle memory, sometimes for social risk taking, sometimes for meaning making, sometimes for storytelling. It’s not explicit training, it’s just a sandbox for having fun. This article never talked about play being fun…isn’t that a little strange? “Kids wear smiles to indicate their willingness to enter the play sphere”…give me a break. They’re just having fun. So are the dogs, the goats, the baboons, they’re enjoying themselves. Their guard is down, so of course they might get killed if suddenly ambushed.

    This whole article was filled with “duh” moments and an author who seemed amazed at the most banal of findings.

    Either way, I’m upset that the article almost immediately discounted video games as play. I guess play still means running around outside. For 11 pages, this really said almost nothing of value.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Whatever theoretical/temperamental differences you have with the article, I don’t think that you can say it has nothing to do with games. ‘Play’ can certainly exist without ‘game’ (at least in this language), but you cannot have a game without play. Therefore anything said about play has some bearing on games and their design.

    The reason I posted this was because I thought it was interesting that science can’t really settle on a reason why we play. It seems to be completely extraneous, biologically speaking. This flies in the face of folks like Daniel Cook, who believe that they’ve unlocked the secret of player’s desires, or Jane McGonigal, who thinks that the purpose of games is to make people happy.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    You can certainly have a game without play. You can have a book without literacy, or a film without viewership, or a play without an audience. Just because nobody’s around to hear a tree when it falls down in the forest doesn’t mean it didn’t make a sound when it fell.

    Games remain independent of play as long as an outsider understands its rules, or even simply acknowledges they exist. For example, I’ve never played Chinese Checkers. I’ve never seen anybody play Chinese Checkers. I’ve never had a conversation with anybody about playing Chinese Checkers. I’ve never even seen or read any fictional accounts of Chinese Checkers. The only proof I have that Chinese Checkers exists is that I’ve seen it on store-shelves. Therefore, I can remain certain that Chinese Checkers is a game, despite the fact that I may quite probably go the rest of my life without ever playing, observing or being told about it. The game remains, on its own, without play.

    What about fictional games, as well? Did Calvinball exist only when fans of “Calvin and Hobbes” started playing it in real life, or did it exist as soon as Bill Watterson invented it on the pages of his comic-strip? In my opinion, a game’s life begins as soon as it is concieved, and at least when its rules are written out explicitly. Design is where a game finds life– play is only where it finds purpose, and there’s nothing wrong with a purpose-less game, is there?

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles Joseph wrote:

    A game is not its rules anymore than a play is its script. It’s semantically convenient to equate the two, but ultimately it’s incorrect.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  6. Bob wrote:

    You’re looking at this from the actor’s point-of-view, though. As a writer, I would argue that a play most definitely is its script, but that’s another debate entirely.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles Edward wrote:

    I agree that games and play go together, of course. I just felt like the article focused on studies around play fighting and that usually has very little to do with most games. Not to mention the author discounted video games as being any sort of legitimate part of the conversation

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  8. The article also didn’t mention anything about constructivism or Jean Piaget’s take on the importance of play within a child’s development. That’s like writing about theater without mentioning Shakespeare.

    On a side note, I believe an important part of child development is having play occur within a competitive social space among more able peers. And this is where games come in. Lev Vygotsky was a champion of this idea (and worth noting that Bob once acted as Vygotsky in our child dev class, complete with Russian accent).

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Charles Joseph wrote:

    What is it with folks on this site dissecting articles instead of discussing the ideas behind them?

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  10. Bob wrote:

    Isn’t that the same thing?

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  11. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Case in point.

    Friday, February 29, 2008 at 4:46 am | Permalink
  12. Bob wrote:

    Oh, I almost forgot– Charley, it was wasn’t Vygotsky. It was Jean Piaget, acutally, and I did a French accent. Granted, the man was Swiss, but French accents are funnier.

    Friday, February 29, 2008 at 5:42 am | Permalink

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