What is Play?

by Phil on March 21, 2011

The following is an edited version of a reply I emailed to a friend/colleague as part of a conversation we were having about play. I thought it summed up some of my thinking quite well, so I’m sharing it here (I’ve added some headings for ease of reading and some links to references).

Defining Play
Unfortunately there are a number of definitions of play (though a great many with commonality), coming from a number of disciplines, with their own agendas. This has made it difficult to write about play in general … and I note your comment on development, which is the rhetoric of education when talking about play (see Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, 1997).

Two things I’ve come across regarding that are:
1. Variability is Important
Play is infinitely variable, both in its enactment and its description. This seems to be the only thing that everyone agrees upon. Curiously enough this also seems to be descriptive of, or parallel to, evolutionary principles as put forward by Stephen Jay Gould with regard to quirkiness, redundancy and flexibility being necessary for evolutionary adaptability (see his book Full House). These ideas seem to be far more compatible with play than development does. This is especially so when traditional notions of development are so heavily influenced by Piagetian thinking about stages of development towards mature adult thought/cognition. That is that the childish mind is somehow incomplete and immature and needs to align with the adult mind that is better, more complete and can only do that over time, improving with refinement. The playful mind is just an infantile stage on the way to maturity. To 19th and 20th century thinking this seems to make sense (though this doesn’t explain play in adulthood). But from an evolutionary perspective, why wait so long?

Neurophysiology has found that there are 1,000 trillion synaptic connections in the neonatal brain, which have reduced to 500 trillion by the age of ten (see Kotulak, Inside the Brain, 1998). One hypothesis is that we are born wired to cope with a huge range of variability, but as our circumstances show what is or is not necessary, the variable connections that don’t get used get culled to those that experience has shown us what we can get away with (this will vary depending on the circumstances we are born in to, which is actually very useful evolutionarily – essentially it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it‘). So from an evolutionary perspective the greater the range of experiences we can have before the age of ten, the better able we will be to deal with variability as adults, we start adaptable, then diminish – the more simple our environment the more simple we become – this seems directly opposite to Piagetian thinking.

2. Play is a Primal Drive
Other neurophysiological studies have shown that play is wired into the primitive brain (subcortical) and operates as a drive, just like the drive to eat or reproduce (see Pellis & Pellis, the Playful Brain, 2009). This suggests some sort of evolutionary advantage. Studies in the same field seem to correlate with observations over the centuries that play is about seeking ambiguity … seeking out ‘imbalance’ so therefore it has been suggested that play is an evolutionary adaptation to ensure flexibility of the organism to deal with potential variability in the environment.  We are driven to seek out novelty and stimulation in our environment and when the environment can’t provide it, due to it’s poverty or our experiences having exhausted any available novelty, we create novelty, by adding arbitrary rules (as in games), or breaking rules (as in stealing cars), or making the world novel and ambiguous (as in fairground attractions or drug taking) … we’re driven to it.

I’m not clear what the reward mechanism is for play, but if it is a drive, I dare say there is something similar to being sated in sex or apatite. This would explain why play is enjoyable … even if on occasions it is scary, painful or disorientating!

I also think you’re right about the significance of Csikszentmihalyi and in particular his theory on ‘flow‘. It bears remarkable similarity to the Yerkes-Dodson law of 1908 that stated that to operate at maximum cognitive efficiency a subject had to be not too bored, nor too anxious (a balance between skill and challenge perhaps). Experiments with rats who were deprived of play as juveniles, have shown that they were emotionally unable to deal with novel situations as adults, becoming paralysed by anxiety (Stuart Brown gives a disastrous human example of this in his book Play). Again if play is a drive to seek out the novel, it would make sense as an evolutionary adaptation to not be paralysed in the face of potentially dangerous/life threatening situations.

If play (as an innate drive) provides a reward for balancing skill with challenge, then this would explain why Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ is so rewarding, and why we would seek it out.

Dealing with anxiety in the face of novelty or the unexpected suggests emotional control. This would also make a lot of sense with regard to Damasio‘s theories regarding the role of emotion in rational thinking. That is that rationality with no emotion is as bad or worse than rationality with too much emotion – in other words we need emotion to be rational – it just needs to be balanced emotion. So again, play has an important, though indirect, role in rational thinking.

Play = Learning = Play?
I’ve been trying to think about how this fits with learning. I’ve always felt that we are born with an innate drive to learn, to explore, to experiment. I’ve felt that this drive is strong until we enter formal education and slowly but surely it gets beaten out of us. Learning becomes a dirty word and despite any innate desire many of us become repelled by the notion of having to learn somthing. But the desire for fun (or play) remains strong – after all play is ‘not’ learning, or so we’re lead to believe. I’m beginning to wonder if they are in fact one in the same thing. Because play requires the search for novelty, which in an environment that we quickly gain a degree of mastery over we have to be creative and imaginative to introduce novelty. Is this creative and imaginative modification of the environment to explore novelty similar to (or the same as) what we call learning? 


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

pat kane March 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Phil, thanks for sending me this, a great reminder of the core evolutionary/adaptive benefits of play. I think what’s interesting about the ‘drive’ theory of play is the extent to which our need to exert mastery over ambiguity is exploitable by so many institutions – not just a resource for education to mine, but also for marketers, politicians, product designers… See some interesting debates I got involved in about year ago around the concept of “playbour” http://www.slideshare.net/cucchiaio/playbour which is remerging in the discussions about Gamification and its discontents http://www.slideshare.net/dings/pawned-gamification-and-its-discontents


Kevin Field March 22, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Hello Phil and Matt,

It has taken me sometime to get to grips with the terminology being used but have found Phil’s article and the links provided by Pat fascinating. The idea of ‘Playbour’ is a concept totally new to me but the more I think about my own behaviour and video games the more I come to agree that it is totally different to a traditional idea of play.

Thanks chaps


Kevin Field March 22, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Apologies, I meant Pat not Matt!


Phil March 23, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Thanks Kevin, Thanks Pat,

Not sure whether playbour offers much to the discussion (just another narrowly framed rhetoric?), but thanks for highlighting it anyway.

I did however enjoy Sebastien’s critique of gamification and even more his slides on how to get it right http://www.slideshare.net/dings/meaningful-play-getting-gamification-right – some really excellent observations on meaning, mastery and autonomy, that are not only relevant to play, but also to learning.


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