Serious Play from Peregrination to Cultural Change: A Bateson-Gadamer-Harris Hypothesis

The girls are in the next room. Over and over I hear, “Let’s pretend.”, “Say.”, “What if . . . ?” They do not say, but I imagine them to be saying, “Let X =  .”  There are two phases in their pretend game, deciding on and decidingin. First they must decide on the game. Once they are in the game things change considerably. As Bateson so engagingly noted, that the playful bite does not denote what bites normally denote. There is an inherent difference in the playful nip and the angry bite. The many differences between rough and tumble play-fighting and serious, angry fighting are now well know from the work of people such as Harlow, Goodall, McGrew, and Blurton Jones. The frame of play does not simply mark, or place in quotations, events that are inherently the same and essentially unaltered other than in their context. What happens inside the frame is structurally different what occurs outside the frame. It is an analog, a simulation of that which occurs outside the frame, but is typically not, for good reasons confused with what happens outside the frame. Whether playing a game of hopscotch, reflecting on Lear’s fate, or squinting n the glare Van Gogh sun, our involvement is different from that outside these special frames. A game, a play, and a painting are all different from the everyday in the same way. They are involving and absorbing,drawing us in and compelling our attention for a little while at least. When we are done, we turn away from the frame back to our everyday existence.

Overview of the argument: The thesis  explored here assumes that all life forms are inherently conservative and that change is slow, uncertain, and dangerous. It is also, however, given sufficient time, also inevitable. Change is thrust upon us. We dodge it when we can, resist it always – even now, in our own apparently novelty hungry culture we resist real change. This is continues to be true in that remarkable extension of biology called culture. Evolutionary theory takes these assumptions for granted at the level of phylogenesis. I consider the implications of this conservatism at the level of ontogenesis and cultural change – or, rather, how mammalian and especially human species capitalized on an innovation that itself became an engine of change without changing the necessary conservatism of life. This innovation was play. Play and its derivatives – art and aesthetics – is a form of experimentation and as such, is the R&D of mammalian life. As such, it is framed, compartmentalized, isolated, and trivialized, as are its novel products. It is this last feature that is critical for my argument. One of the reasons novelty is dangerous is that many of its consequences are unforeseeable. A strategy that provides a short-term advantage may also conceal one or more long-term disasters. Thus, even when playful experimentation throws up useful novelties they will be bracketed out from everyday routines. This is as true of the play of kittens as of humans. Playful inventions are bracketed, but not necessarily forgotten. They often persist as a kind of useless memory load. They are not only useless, but among humans, at least, perceived to be useless. Has reader not commented at some time or other on some obscure skill as a residue of a “wasted youth”? Yet, especially to the extent that a novel skill is unique and potentially functional, it will often be remembered and possibly accessible should the more available everyday skills fail. This will not happen often but, given time, it will happen. On those rare occasions play will become temporarily unframed. I emphasize that it will be rare, for the everyday must fail badly and persistently before it will be abandoned. The failure of the old ways must be persistent so that novel ways are unframed repeatedly until the new has become a more familiar part of the everyday than the old. Thus, it is that conservatism itself consolidates novelty and change, almost unnoticed, insinuates itself into organic life.

That play is an engine of change is not a novel idea. Just how it functions, and the complexities of how it functions are, however, perhaps not very much appreciated. In what follows some of those complexities will, I hope, become more evident.

Some Features of Play: play is, above all, activity: spontaneous, exuberant, diffuse, extremely variable, sometimes inventive and frequently laden with affect. As organisms develop the play actions become less diffuse but remains variable and somewhat less predictable than non-play activities. In the very young infant play is organized around body parts and movements as well as around those of parents, siblings, and peers. Among humans, objects are incorporated into play from a very early age. This engagement of the body and its actions with one another and with the activities of others and with objects seems to be a very primary guiding value (sensu Edelman, 1989) of virtually all mammals, but particularly of social mammals and most especially of primates. Play is a particularly absorbing activity. Indeed, this property of absorption may be more fundamental than positive affect that is very often taken as a hallmark of play. However, much activity that is clearly play occurs without overt signs of mirth. There is much serious play, even among children in which they are obviously motivated, even driven, to pursue play, but with great seriousness. Perhaps the most serious of play is “deep play” in which the stakes are “irrationally high” (Geertz, 1960). In such play moods may range from elation to terror, but it is undeniably absorbing in all events. This quality of absorption links play very nicely with aesthetic activities such as dance and teather, and all the arts. It also links play to religious experience (Huizinga, 1950) and hypnosis (Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974) and perhaps even dreams. In recent years Tellegen and others have postulated individual differences in absorption as underlying differences in hypnotizability. This tendency to absorption is said to involve intense and sometimes protracted involvement with certain “engaging” stimuli (exploration) or ideation (play) and a reification of the imagined (Tellegen, 1978).

It is also this quality of absorption that renders Gadamer’s notion of the player “being played by the game” most apposite. Gadamer argues that play can fullfil its function only when we as players lose ourselves in play. Gadamer also notes that, although few of us would define play by its seriousness, our comportment towards play indicates that we do implicitly appreciate the importance of taking play seriously. It is impossible to play with someone who does not take play seriously. Such a person, Gadamer points out, we call a spoilsport. At the same time, we are often embarrassed by the idea that we might be taking our play too seriously. Seriousness, though not a very obvious part of our understanding of play, is an important part of the way we experience play. There is also always a sense of otherness in play. Even when there is no other player involved there is always something responsive with which the player engages with moves that are always followed by unpredictable, surprising countermoves.

There are a number of conceptual conundrums that trouble play researchers. Play appears often to be activity without a goal, engaged in for its own sake. Play is also often its own focus. As Bruner puts it, play focuses attention on means not ends. It tends to turn attention around from the “business end” of the stick, as it were, and directs it to what it is we are doing. Thus, in the goal directed activity of charging after a Wildebeest, the lion’s attention is all on the wildebeest. In reaching for the banana, or seeking support for a simple ladder, the chimpanzee’s attention is captivated by the goal and not the means.

Rousseau was enthusiastic about the role of play for education and saw it as the first and truly natural form of learning. For Rousseau play was not merely something to be used artificially to make learning enjoyable, but something upon which development naturally depended. Thus, for Rousseau, even running and skipping had a natural developmental function. In his characteristic romantic vein Rousseau admonished us to Love childhood, promote its games, its pleasures, its delightful instincts . . . Childhood has its own ways of seeing, of thinking, of feeling, which are suitable to it; nothing is less reasonable than to substitute our own . . . Work and play are alike to him. (Emile)

Clearly, for Rousseau, play was a natural educator through which we become more fully what we are as humans. His ideas on play were extremely influential and the impact of Rousseau’s ideas on early childhood educators through his influence on Pestalozzi and Froebel has been considerable. The following quote from Froebel is probably held as a self-evident truth by all early childhood educators.

The plays of childhood are the germinated leaves of all later life; for the whole man is developed and shown in these, in his tenderest dispositions, in his innermost tendencies. The whole of later life of man, even to the movement when he shall leave it again, has its source in the period of childhood.

A common sense view of play is that it simply represents the expenditure of a certain amount of “excess energy.” Schiller was one of the few who speculated about the sources of play as well as of its uses. Schiller imagined that nature was over-generous in her endowment of life energy and hence animals of all sorts expend much unnecessary energy. He imagined that the lion was just bursting with energy that when not locked in combat with some would-be usurper of his royal prerogatives “he fills the re-echoing desert with his terrible roars and his exuberant force rejoices itself, showing itself without an object.” As it turns out lions are remarkable energy conservers, spending an average of 14 hours a day quietly staring off into the distance. The rest of the time they spend resting up from this arduous activity waiting for something to die or for somebody else to kill something so they can steal it. If truly pressed they will occasionally hunt. Lions seem to have been a particularly bad example for Schiller to have picked to illustrate his surplus energy notion. The surplus energy notion has, nonetheless, enjoyed a certain popularity. Spencer, writing from an evolutionary perspective, also subscribed to the surplus energy theory that he took to be left over energy from the struggle for survival. “Play is equally an artificial exercise of the powers which in default of their natural exercise become so ready to discharge that they relieve themselves by simulated actions.” This is clearly an early expression of the notion of “vacuum activity” popularized by the classical ethologists in the 1950’s. On this view, sometimes referred to as a “hydraulic model,” energy spontaneously produced by the organism is stored, building up sufficient pressure, if not discharged or released, to eventually discharge spontaneously. Perhaps there is something to the surplus energy notion. Some of the rare cases of primate communities in which play did not occur were also cases in which resources were so scarce that virtually all time-energy budgets were spent on foraging. As we will see there are potential costs involved in play.

Perhaps the first serious theorist of play was Karl Groos (1896) who, like Goethe and Rousseau before him, saw play as an essential developmental mechanism in mammals. For Groos play was not simply an incidental activity engaged in during play but was rather the very reason for a period of immaturity. We should not think, wrote Groos, that animals simply play as a luxury of youth but rather that they have a period of youth in order to play. Groos felt that play was a new kind of instinct that forms the basis for intelligence and, in the same way as the related instinct of imitation, replaced more primitive instincts. Groos believed that the mammalian and especially the human repertoire are so complex that we need an extra developmental period of youth to attain the “higher” final level of achievement. This notion of play as development practice has been an enduringly popular one (e.g., Bruner, 1973; Beach, 1945). For Groos play was an endogenous “tutor” continuing the task of development for organism requiring a flexible developmental trajectory.

[Primitive] instincts are not sufficient equipment for human life, and the child has to acquire imitatively, and experimentally, a number of capacities adapted to individual needs. These capacities are variable and inherited, and are capable of development far surpassing the most perfect instinct. This presumably must go hand in hand with the evolution of culture. For now rather than having a fixed set of instincts for a fixed niche in the environment people were now seen as having flexible instincts and may now enter a variety of niches.

There are some interesting implications for Groos developmental view of play. It is important to note that, for Groos, running is not simply pre-exercise for hunting, but represents a more general increment in body control (as it was for recapitulationists such as Hall.). Piaget put very similar ideas in much more explicit and positivistic terms.
For instance when . . . the child discovers free-fall he amuses himself by throwing everything on the ground. In this way, he exercises his new power, which will one day be integrated in his knowledge of the laws of the physical world.

Another advocate of play as preparation for future adaptive behaviour is Konrad Lorenz. The young raven experimenting with feeding behaviour on a new object does not want to eat; he wants to know if it is edible in principle. The information acquired by exploratory behaviour is objective in the most literal sense of the word.

Bruner, in a similar vein, suggests that play permits a focus on the act rather than the means. Most of Groos’s ideas would seem to have some currency today because his emphasis on function is compatible with the tenor of current evolutionary interests. Play presents a particular challenge to such interests because many definitions of play emphasize its lack of at least immediate benefit. On the face of it play seems to entail several sorts of costs by exposing the player to fatigue, injury, predation, and even disease. Since it is difficult to make a strong case for immediate benefits to counter the immediate costs it became conventional to argue for potential future benefits. However, there are a number of constraints on such models. Play cannot appear just anywhere in the life span. Obviously, from a reproductive fitness perspective, play cannot appear or peak at the end of the reproductive period. Play may increase monotonically from birth and may peak unimodally or multimodally. Preferably this should be earlier rather than later. To derive the maximum benefit from play, it has been argued, animals should play “as soon as they have developed coordinated movements of their bodies and limbs” (Wilson, 1972, p.165). However, this may be a bit too nonspecific. Particular forms of play may have particular functions. It may turn out to be optimal to practice closer to the time when they will be more obviously functional. One might rather then expect certain forms of play to appear or peak just prior to maturity.

Most functional theories of play appear to assume that the effects of play are fairly direct. Thus the rough and tumble play of weanlings is thought to somehow prepare them for adult fighting. Vygotsky’s educational argument that instruction and developmental guidance should move just in advance of current abilities may be worth consideration in this context. If this is a general rule of optimization of development and if play is a kind of endogenous “tutor” extending the zone of proximal development then it follows that play will precede functional activity fairly closely.
Groos also hypothesized that the amount of play was related to the ultimate level of complexity required. This certainly seems to hold in very general terms. Play is limited to vertebrates and play of any degree of elaboration seems to be largely restricted to mammals. A far as we know, no invertebrates play. Indeed, there are no documented cases of fishes, amphibians, or reptiles playing, with a single dubious exception of a Kimodo dragon that is said to have played with his shovel in his cage (Wilson, 1974). Many birds perform activities that seem to be structured like play, however. In organisms that play, a state of absorption accompanies play, which can be induced either exogenously by the environment, by social agents (exogenous tutors), by developing capacities or sensibilities (endogenous tutors). This absorbing sate focuses attention on the source of novelty in a manner similar to Bruner’s idea that play focuses attention on “means” rather than “ends.”