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We are all hardwired for play


We are all hardwired to play.

Just as evolutionary theories suggest that laughter is a survival mechanism for newborns to assure attachment and bonding so that they are cared for, there are also evolutionary reasons for play (Sutton-Smith, 1997).

Play is typically defined as having intrinsic goals that serve no other objective; play is freely chosen, spontaneous and voluntary; and in utilitarian terms it is inherently unproductive (Garvey, 1990). This intrinsic motivation is ideally what we would like to see more of in work. Often we view work as extrinsically motivated, where the activity is externally regulated based upon receiving a reward or avoiding punishment (Deci & Ryan, 2004).

Whereas work emphasizes certainty in outcomes, and is often not intrinsically motivated. “Biologically, its function is to reinforce the organism’s variability in the face of rigidifications of successful adaptation” (Sutton-Smith, 1997, 231).

Lev Vygotsky (1977) claimed that children begin to develop the ability to dissociate, or create imaginative microworlds in play. Objects used in play may assume some of the cognitive load, and transition the child from play as imagination in action, to the ability visualize and create mental representation from memory as imagination as play without action.

This is powerful, especially when used purposefully for instruction. The reframing of context though play can strengthen societies by uniting individuals through ritual activity and helping them achieve common goals (Huizinga, 1950). Toys, jokes, and games allow groups to face collective fears about cultural issues that might otherwise overwhelm the individual: bigotry, racism, rejection, terrorism, addiction, and poverty.

Games can structure play so that equity is created through rules, tools, roles, methods, and language, which gives everyone the opportunity to share spontaneous authentic experience and build connections (Corsaro, 1985) without having to experience the stress or tension of the outside world. In many ways it can be a time out. It can be respite from the world . . . A stepping into a magic circle (Huizinga, 1949).

But not all games facilitate play.

And not all activities are games. . . even when they are intended to be.

Play is in the eye of the player.

There are activities that we create for fun and competition, but these are not necessarily games.

Callois (1961) has a number of categories that help us to look at rules and experience, but without the reduction of consequence in the activity (punitive outcomes), many folks would be hesitant to place them in the genre we call games.

This seems to be the major drawback of the gamification movement — a leader board, or a competition, does not a game make.

Maybe games can be made up on the spot.

Some might call a discussion such as this academic gamesmanship.

I think it is important to point out that play is what creates games (Dubbels, 2010).

Not games creating play.

Games may attract people who want to be playful (Dubbels, 2009), but the context and way in which they are approached is what differentiates play from work.

Play is a mode of, or approach to, an activity.

Play places a social moratorium on consequence. When we do or say something that can get us in trouble, we will often claim that “I was just playing”.

Play works along a spectrum, from imaginative and discovery play to work.

It is all dependent upon the subjunctive mood, or ethos (see Ambiguity of Play by Sutton-Smith, and Play Groups, Corsaro, in Dubbels, 2009)

Games are a structured form of play (Dubbels, 2008).

But games do not necessarily facilitate play.

If we play monopoly with real money, are we still playing when it becomes high stakes?

I would not call that play. I don’t think that Geertz, Sutton-Smith, and others would call that play either.

What is important is our approach to an activity. At some point, play becomes work

We tend to develop identities around play, and want the reputation as being playful (Dubbels, 2009).

When we look at games, we are seeing a movement away from play towards work (Dubbels, 2011).

Play is a special form of learning, and often play evolves into activities with rule structures–these can be viewed as special cases of play, games, or something more serious (see Deep Play, Geertz in Dubbels, 2009).

I think it is really important to have play in mind when thinking about games, if you want gameplay.

Works cited:

Dubbels, B.R. (2008) Video games, reading, and transmedial comprehension. In R. E. Ferdig (Ed.),Reference. Information ScienceHandbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education.

Dubbels, B. R. (2009) Dance Dance Education and Rites of Passage—Lessons learned about the importance of play in sustaining engagement from a high school “girl gamer” based upon socio- and cultural-cognitive analysis for designing instructional environments to elicit and sustain engagement through identity construction. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations. 1(4) IGI Publishers.

Dubbels, B.R. (2010) Designing Learning Activities for Sustained Engagement — Four Social Learning Theories Coded and Folded into Principals for Instructional Design through Phenomenological Interview and Discourse Analysis. In Discoveries in Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations: New Interdisciplinary Applications.

Dubbels, B.R. (2012) The Importance of Construct Validity in Designing Serious Games for Return on Investment. Ludica Medica Special Issue. International Journal of Games and Computer Mediated Simulations.

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