Play, Human and Animal

A recent review of Play Matters reminded me of one of the unanswered questions in the book: why is it that I insist on qualifying play as a form of human expression, if there is so much research on animal play? Why do I disregard animal play? Here’s a short answer to that question.

Play Matters is not the work of an ethologist. I am not interested in animal play as I am not interested in child’s play: these are well-defined, fascinating and important areas of research, but not for me. I want to study adult play – and currently, I want to study adult play with computers. I have said it often, this is a Romantic work, and that comes with a certain degree of anthropocentrism.

This is not to say that we cannot study adult play without thinking about it’s biological origins: Jaakko Stenrosbrilliant PhD thesis provides an excellent argument that builds on the biological condition to play, and extends it to look at all forms of play and playfulness.

But what do I gain by excluding animal play? Or, why do I think that animal play is related, but also different than human play?

One first argument could be that humans can control the urge to play and apply it outside the contexts of play – that is, humans can be playful without playing. While we can see the play activity in many animals, I doubt we could see playfulness, as it is a contextually-aware attitude towards specific elements of the world (though this could be counter-argued by looking at the cultural activities of apes and dolphins, for example – I still think that we read too much into our analysis of these animals’ actions, which is a form of covert anthropocentrism: let’s make those animals more human by defining some of our actions according to our human measure and epistemology).

The second argument, and the most important for me (but also the one that will most likely annoy those readers who do not buy the Romantic background of my ideas) is that play is expressive, it’s a specific mode of being in the world that produces the expression of an individual. By playing, we reflect (and rebel against) the world as we see it. It’s an act of creativity that puts our own being at stake. In this sense, it overcomes the biological reasons to play (excess of energy, training for adulthood) to become, like language, an instrument for human expression.

Is this enough? No, of course it is not. Animals play, and I would be surprised if we could not extend these ideas to mammals: the best research on this is, in my opinion, Hanna Wirman‘s, but one should also read Kars Alfrink on designing games for pigs. Hypothetically, the dolphin equivalent of Miguel Sicart would argue that dolphins play to be dolphins, and so that dolphin version of me would write (dictate?) the dolphin equivalent of Play Matters, and that would make sense.

But what I am interested in, what Play Matters is about, is humans. Why and how do we use play, what effect does it have in culture, in society, in the tools we create for playing, and the tools we appropriate for play. Play Matters is, in fact, a specialised book on animal play, an exclusivist one, a book that focuses on one animal only, the human.

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