I’ve recently come to see play as a powerful concept for analyzing our behaviors. As I explained recently, play is a very old and robust capacity in many kinds of animals, apparently rediscovered several times.
In non-social play, an animal might play with their body or an object. When they feel safe and satisfied, they carve out a distinct space and time, within which they feel a deep pleasure from just trying out many random ways to interact, all chosen from a relatively safe space of variations. Often animals seek variations wherein they and their play objects reach some sort of interaction equilibrium, as when dribbling a ball. In such equilibria, they can successfully adjust to random interaction variations. Animals may end play abruptly if an non-play threat or opportunity appears.
In social play, an animal again waits until safe and satisfied, and feels pleasure from a large variety of safe behavior within a distinct space and time. The difference is that now they explore behavior that interacts with other animals, seeking equilibria that adjust well to changes in other animals’ behavior. Babies and mothers interact this way, and predators and prey act out variations on chasing and evading. Cats may play with mice before killing them.
These sorts of play can serve many functions, including learning, practice, and innovation. In addition, social play requires social skills of boundary management. That is, animals must develop ways to invite others to play, to indicate the kind of play intended, to assure others when play continues, and to indicate when play has ended. As with grooming, who one plays with becomes a signal of affiliation. Animals can work out their relative status via who tends to “win” inside play games, and communicate other things (such as flirtation) indirectly via play.
As humans have developed more kinds of social behavior, have better ways to communicate, and extend youthful behaviors into our whole lives, we have more ways to play. We can nest some types of play within others, and can create new types of play on the fly. Common features of most human play are some sort of safety prerequisites, a bounded space in which play happens, a feeling of pleasure from being included, a habit of exploring a wide range of options within play, limits on acceptable behavior, and special signals to initiate, continue, and end each play period.
For example, in mild-insult verbal banter play, we must each feel safe enough to focus on the banter, we and our allies are not supposed to threaten or interfere except via the banter, we are supposed to create each new response individually without help, responses are supposed to vary widely instead of repeating predictably, and some types of insults remain off limits. People may get quite emotionally hurt by such banter, but play can only continue while they pretend otherwise.
Another key feature of most human play is that we are supposed to only play for fun, instead of for gains outside of play. So we aren’t supposed to play golf to suck up to the boss, or to join a band to attract dates. Thus we typically suppress awareness of benefits outside of play. Most people find it hard to give coherent explanations of functions of play outside “fun.”
This seems to be one of humanity’s main blind spots regarding our motives. In general we try to explain most of our behaviors using the “highest” plausible motives we can find, and try to avoid violating social norms about appropriate motives. So we can be quite consciously clueless about why we play. That hardly means, however, that play serves no important functions in our lives. Far from it, in fact.