Tag Archives: Play

My Play

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. (more)

Over the course of their lives Kahneman and Tversky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. .. Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. (more)

When tested in national surveys against such seemingly crucial factors as intelligence, ability, and salary, level of motivation proves to be a more significant component in predicting career success. While level of motivation is highly correlated with success, importantly, the source of motivation varies greatly among individuals and is unrelated to success. (more)

In recent posts I said that play is ancient and robust, and I outlined what play consists of. I claimed that play is a powerful concept, but I haven’t supported that claim much. Today, I’ll consider some personal examples.

As a kid I was a severe nerd. I was beaten up sometimes, and for years spent each recess being chased around the school yard. This made me quite cautious and defensive socially. Later I was terrified of girls and acted cautiously toward them too, which they didn’t take as a positive sign. In college I gave up on girls for a while, and then was surprised to find women attracted by my chatting sincerely about physics at the physics club.

Being good at school-work, I was more willing to take chances there, and focused more on what interested me. In college when I learned that the second two years of physics covered the same material as the first two years, just with more math, I stopped doing homework and played with the equations instead, and aced the exams. I went to grad school in philosophy of science because that interested me at the time, and then switched back to physics because I’d found good enough answers to my philosophy questions.

I left school for silicon valley when topics out there sounded more interesting, and a few years later switched to only working 30 hours a week so I could spend more time studying what I wanted. I started a PhD program at age 34, with two kids aged 0 and 2, and allowed myself to dabble in many topics not on the shortest path to tenure. Post tenure I’ve paid even less attention to the usual career rewards. I choose as my first book topic not the most marketable, impressive, or important topic, but the one that would most suck me in with fascinating detail. (I’d heard half the authors with a book contract don’t finish a book.)

So I must admit that much of my personal success in life has resulted less from econ-style conscious calculation, and more from play. Feeling safe enough to move into play mode freed me enough from anxiety to get things done. And even though my goals in more playful modes tended more to cuteness, curiosity, and glory, my acts there better achieved my long term goals than has conscious planning toward such ends. Yes, I did moderate my playful urges based on conscious thought, and that probably helped overall. Even so, I must admit that my personal experience raises doubts about the value of conscious planning.

My experience is somewhat unusual, but I still see play helping a lot in the successes of those I know and respect. While conscious planning can at times be important, what tends to matter more is finding a strong motivation, any strong motivation, to really get into whatever it is you are doing. And to feel comfortable enough to just explore even if none of your options seem especially promising and you face real career and resource pressures.

Playful motives are near and myopic but strong, while conscious planning can be accurate but far. Near beats far it seems. I’ll continue to ponder play, and hopefully find more to say.

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Play Blindness

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.

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Play Will Persist

We live in the third human era, industry, which followed the farming and foraging eras. Each era introduced innovations that we expect will persist into future eras. Yet some are skeptical. They foresee “post-apocalyptic” scenarios wherein civilization collapses, industrial machines are lost, and we revert to using animals like mules and horses for motive power. Where we lose cities and instead spread across the land. We might even lose organized law, and revert to each small band enforcing its own local law.

On the surface, the future scenario I describe in my book The Age of Em looks nothing like a civilization collapse. It has more better bigger tech, machines, cities, and organizations. Yet many worry that in it we would lose an even more ancient innovation: play. As in laughter, music, teasing, banter, stories, sports, hobbies, etc. Because the em era is a more competitive world where wages return to near subsistence levels, many fear the loss of play and related activities. All of life becomes nose-to-the-grindstone work, where souls grind into dust.

Yet the farming and foraging eras were full of play, even though they were also competitive eras with subsistence wages. Moreover, play is quite common among animals, pretty much all of whom have lived in competitive worlds near subsistence levels:

Play is .. found in a wide range of animals, including marsupials, birds, turtles, lizards, fish, and invertebrates. .. [It] is a diverse phenomenon that evolved independently and was even secondarily reduced or lost in many groups of animals. (more)

Here is where we’ve found play in the evolutionary tree:

playhistory

We know roughly what kind of animals play:

Animals that play often share common traits, including active life styles, moderate to high metabolic rates, generalist ecological needs requiring behavioral flexibility or plasticity, and adequate to abundant food resources. Object play is most often found in species with carnivorous, omnivorous, or scavenging foraging modes. Locomotor play is prominent in species that navigate in three-dimensional (e.g., trees, water) or complex environments and rely on escape to avoid predation. Social play is not easily summarized, but play fighting, chasing, and wrestling are the major types recorded and occur in almost every major group of animals in which play is found. (more)

Not only are humans generalists with an active lifestyle, we have neoteny, which extends youthful features and behaviors, including play, throughout our lives. So humans have always played, a lot. Given this long robust history of play in humans and animals, why would anyone expect play to suddenly disappear with ems?

Part of the problem is that from the inside play feels like an activity without a “useful” purpose:

Playful activities can be characterized as being (1) incompletely functional in the context expressed; (2) voluntary, pleasurable, or self rewarding; (3) different structurally or temporally from related serious behavior systems; (4) expressed repeatedly during at least some part of an animal’s life span; and (5) initiated in relatively benign situations. (more)

While during serious behavior we are usually aware of some important functions our behaviors serve, in play we enter a “magic circle” wherein we feel safe, focus on pleasure, and act out a wider variety of apparently-safe behaviors. We stop play temporarily when something serious needs doing, and also for longer periods when we are very stressed, such as when depressed or starving. These help give us the impression that play is “extra”, serving no other purpose than “fun.”

But of course such a robust animal behavior must serve important functions. Many specific adaptive functions have been proposed, and while there isn’t strong agreement on their relative importance, we are pretty confident that since play has big costs, it must also give big gains:

Juveniles spend an estimated 2 to 15 percent of their daily calorie budget on play, using up calories the young animal could more profitably use for growing. Frisky playing can also be dangerous, making animals conspicuous and inattentive, more vulnerable to predators and more likely to hurt themselves as they romp and cavort. .. Harcourt witnessed 102 seal pups attacked by southern sea lions; 26 of them were killed. ‘‘Of these observed kills,’’ Harcourt reported in the British journal Animal Behaviour, ‘‘22 of the pups were playing in the shallow tidal pools immediately before the attack and appeared to be oblivious to the other animals fleeing nearby.’’ In other words, nearly 85 percent of the pups that were killed had been playing. (more)

Play can help to explore possibilities, both to learn and practice the usual ways of doing things, and also to discover new ways. In addition, play can be used to signal loyalty, develop trust and coordination, and establish relative status. And via play one can indirectly say things one doesn’t like to say directly. All of these functions should continue to be relevant for ems.

Given all this, I can’t see much doubt that ems would play, at least during the early em era, and play nearly as typical humans in history. Sure it is hard to offer much assurance that play will continue into the indefinite future. But this is mainly because it is hard to offer much assurance of anything in the indefinite future, not because we have good specific reasons to expect play to go away.

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Meaning Via Work Or Play?

Our culture celebrates variety and change. People who move from small towns to big cities often go on and on about how those small towns were hells where nothing happened and the ignorant locals liked it that way. Sophisticated city folks love to visibly embrace change and variety, bragging about their new clothes, gadgets, and exotic vacations.

Some tell themselves that this taste for variety is the natural human state. Yet kids have to be taught to like variety. Kids start out wanting to watch the same movies over and over, not wanting to try out new food dishes, and not wanting to move to new homes or neighborhoods. Also, as anyone trying to push a work reorg can tell you, adults don’t actually like to change their jobs much. And people tend to be pretty stressed on those exotic vacations; what they like is to brag about them before and after.

Similarly, our culture celebrates leisure relative to work. Most of our fiction is set in leisure, and we tell ourselves that kids naturally want to play, and must be forced to work. But in fact foragers don’t push their kids to work; adults wait until kids beg to be allowed to follow adults around and be taught how to do adult jobs. Furthermore, kids today worldwide actually like the meaning and autonomy that comes from mundane work:

[Mexico City’s] Centro Santa Fe mall [is] one of the largest in Latin America. … At one end of the mall is KidZania, a theme park for children that opened fifteen years ago, and has since spread to cities in a dozen other countries, including Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, and Istanbul. …

KidZania gives children between the ages of four and fourteen the chance to enact the roles of grownups in a lavishly realized, scaled-down world. … Children can work on a car assembly line, or move furniture, or put out a fake fire with real water. … Children receive a check for fifty kidzos upon arriving at KidZania, and can supplement that with the “salary” they earn for participating in an activity. The most popular of them, like training to be a pilot on a simplified flight simulator, are not as remunerative as the less popular, like being a dentist. (You peer inside a dummy’s mouth.) Children can spend their kidzos … at the mini city’s department store, which bears the name of a regional chain and is stocked with covetable trinkets. …

In Mexico, kids tend to spend their kidzos immediately after earning them; in Japan, it is difficult to persuade children to part with their kidzos at all. … “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. … Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way.” (more)

Here are some results from a 2002 paper on work vs. leisure, from a survey of 1942 Israelis in the years 1981 and 1993:

People can be divided by whether work or leisure is more important and central to their lives. Those who see leisure as more central see work as less central and vice versa. Leisure orientation has increased over time, and is more common among women, the young, and the unmarried. High school graduates are more leisure-oriented, compared to those with both more and less education.

Money is just as important to both types, and both feel equally entitled or not to a job. Leisure-oriented people are less satisfied with their job, and they feel less intrinsic rewards from work and more such rewards from leisure. They care more about interpersonal relations at work, they feel less obligated to work to contribute to society, and they work fewer hours.

I recently watched two acclaimed movies, Still Alice and The Wind Rises, about people with strong work orientations. Such characters seemed quite human and sympathetic to me. And The Profit, a reality show about a guy who saves failing small businesses, is my favorite tv show in years.

If, as I suspect, the future will be much more competitive and push more people back to a work orientation, you might lament that to the extent you have strongly internalized modern cultural values. But I don’t think you can plausibly claim that because of this such future folk would be any less human than you, more self-deceived than you, or that they’d see their world as a hell. Beware too easily projecting your values onto others.

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On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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Grace-Hanson Podcast

Robin and I have a new podcast on the subject of play (mp3wav, m4a). Older ones are here.

Don’t be thrown by a bit of silence at the start of the m4a one. We also don’t have the time right now to figure out how to put it in better formats. Sorry about that. If anyone else does, and posts such files, I’ll link to them.

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Silly Is Serious

One of humanity’s biggest mental blocks is a reluctance to admit the functions of fun. Since we are intricately designed highly adapted and successful creatures, all of our major long-established behavior habits must have (had) important adaptive functions. And they must also be intricately designed, with many specific features that match the details of how such functions are best achieved. So, since we are inclined to spend a large fraction of our time on play and fun, such things simply must have important functions. Moreover, the details of our play habits must be intricately matched to good ways to achieve those functions.

But we also seem to be designed to talk and act as if such functions didn’t exist. For many common behaviors, we are conscious of some of their important functions, we plan how our behaviors can better achieve those functions, and we coordinate with others to realize such plans. For example, we say that nutrition is one function of eating, and we coordinate to ensure we get nutrition regularly.

But we usually treat play and fun differently. Not only aren’t we in the habit of coordinating to achieve accepted functions, we often object quite loudly to those who speak of there being such functions. We insist that we aren’t trying to do anything other that enjoy ourselves and have fun. We play an instrument or a sport because its fun, not to impress people. We dance because its fun, not to meet mates. We aren’t trying to get a promotion, no, when playing golf with our boss; golf is just fun.

Play and fun seem especially important for mating and friendship. So if you analyze the function of your play too explicitly in front of your mates and friends, treating such functions too seriously, you risk alienating and losing your mates and friends. You might be able to get away with such analysis if done jokingly, but only if it doesn’t hit too close to home.

You might think that this is only a minor problem, and that you and your mates and friends are mature enough to openly discuss the serious functions of fun. But my experience suggests that this is just much harder and more dangerous than you think. Give up and accept that, for the most part, you are human and humans are designed not to consciously understand such things.

I suggest that if want to understand the functions of your play, you split yourself. Analyze mating and friendship in a general way away from situations where those issues arise among your discussants. When situations arise when those functions are especially relevant, don’t talk, or even think much, about the functions of your fun. Just … have fun.

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Work, Play Extremes

Humanity’s mix of work vs. play has varied over the millennia. Farmers played less less than foragers, and with industry we’ve moved back to, and even past, forager levels of play. In the future, the work-play mix could move in either direction, possibly to extremes.

Pause for a moment to ask yourself: which extreme do you most fear, a mostly-work future, or a mostly-play future? Yes, all else equal play is probably better than work, but all else may not be equal – ask yourself what knowing that a world is mostly-work or mostly-play would tell you about the rest of that world.

Me, I more fear a mostly-play future. I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music, movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past. Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

Yes, there are things to fear about a mostly-work future. Mainly, the opportunity cost of fun not had. Play is often more fun, and even fulfilling, than work. Given a momentary choice, we tend to choose play over work, and for good reason. Even so, I’d expect a mostly-work world to continue to invest and grow, building to a larger population and capacity. So that if later that world devolves into most-play, at least more people will have more fun on the way down.

Notice that this issue suggests that status isn’t such a bad thing. Locally, the possibility of efforts to gain status seem to cause a market failure, as your status gains come at the expense of the status of others. This would seem to make us work too hard to gain status. But since we can more reliably gain status via work than via play, the existence of status pushes us toward work, and away from the more dangerous mostly-play extreme.

I’m not thrilled that the em future I envision is a mostly-work world. But it at least seems safer than the other extreme to which the work-play mix could have evolved.

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