Jan 16 The Main Players

I've recently started working/playing with Betty Adamou and the talented team of game makers at Research Through Gaming.  Here's my first blog I wrote for them:



Would love to know what you think about The Main Players!

I’ll just start it off with…I’m on a mission. And that is to establish clear terminology and develop a conceptual definition for the elusive notion of play.


As I dip into the sea of research that’s available, I need to first ask myself, who are the main players? By looking at an array of disciplines and seminal ethologists and theorists such as Gordon M. Burghardt, Robert Fagen, Johan Huizinga, and Roger Caillois, the borders, if any, that lie between play and non-play will be delineated, and the language for discussion will be clarified.


To begin, an examination of historical perspectives on play, and the attempts of researchers to characterize the definitional criteria that determine which actions can be called play, will inform a working definition of the term, and provide a sketch of the field as it has progressed.


The act of playing and the reasons for participating in such an activity continue to be difficult to define. The case is that every subject ‘knows’ what it means to play, just like they ‘realize’ when fun is being had, but to identify the criteria for concisely including or excluding an act as play requires more than just a feeling. In the past century, scientists and philosophers have dug deeper to find the source, meaning and function of this activity. Perhaps it is purely an essential developmental mechanism in mammals, as the German psychologist Karl Groos (1861-1946), in the late 19th century, theorizes in his book The Play of Animals. Groos’ work suggests that playtime is a period in one’s life that gives validation to immaturity and youth. As he puts it, the “animals do not play because they are young, but they have their youth because they must play” (Groos 1896: 67). The attention on the word ‘must’ is important in this context for it connotes a mandatory act, one that is essential to the developmental processes leading to a healthy animal.


The definition of play as merely a result of unrequited energy was introduced by the German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) and supported by the British evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). In the eighteenth century, Schiller was the first to suggest that play is essentially the aimless expenditure of surplus energy. In other words, he believed that this superfluous release of energy accounted for ‘purposeless’ activities in the animal world, both human and non-human. Schiller links the essence of play with life in his argument for the conditions for play:

“It is true that Nature has given even to creatures without reason more than the bare necessities of existence, and shed a glimmer of freedom even into the darkness of animal life. When the lion is not gnawed by hunger, nor provoked to battle by any beast of prey, his idle strength creates an object for itself: he fills the echoing desert with a roaring that speaks defiance, and his exuberant energy enjoys its self in purposeless display. …An animal may be said to be at work, when the stimulus to activity is some lack; it may be said to be at play, when the stimulus is sheer plenitude of vitality, when superabundance of life is its own incentive to action” (Schiller 1967: 207).


Spencer further developed Schiller’s notion of surplus energy and outlined issues, which have been criticized for suggesting that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Despite this weakness, Spencer is credited for being the first modern social scientist to give an explanation of play. He is also the first in the Anglo-American tradition to consider further research into child play and child art.


The discussion of play in the social sciences begins with Johan Huizinga (1872- 1945), founder of modern cultural history and author of the seminal Homo Ludens (1938), who emphasizes that play is a primary formative element in human culture: In fact, we simply cannot live without it. According to Huizinga, “Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’” (Huizinga 1955: 28). This definition could readily be extended to include games. Huizinga’s boundary between human and nonhuman animal play is slight and subtle. For while culture influences play and cultural competence is a prerequisite to understanding play, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men” (Ibid, 1).


From the realm of sociology, French philosopher and writer Roger Caillois (1913-1978) examined the world of play. His book, Les jeux et les hommes (1958) translated to Man, Play and Games (1961), examines the means by which games become a part of daily life. Caillois places an emphasis on play’s importance in building character within cultures and institutions. He sees play as an essential element of individual social and spiritual development while also being “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money” (Caillois 2001: 5).


American symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) approached play in Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973), which uses his ‘thick description’ method, describing human behavior not in an isolated sense, but in the full richness of context. From this perspective, social play can even be a way to gauge or interpret power relationships within a culture.


In the area of developmental psychology, the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) views play as a vehicle for overcoming egocentrism. Play is described as a means of accommodating and assimilating reality, of learning about symbols in accordance with one‟s environment, and as an essential element in the preoperational stage which occurs between the ages two and six. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), the Soviet founder of cultural-historical psychology, states, “the essential attribute of play is a rule that has become a desire” (Vygotsky 1978: 99). Despite a divergence in concepts, both Piaget and Vygotsky view play similarly in that children use the activity for self-teaching.


Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) explored communication and metacommunication by describing the understandings of child development in shared playtime. These shared understandings or “play frames” are an essential aspect when dealing with communication because it is never a solitary act, rather, it is the transfer of information or messages from one entity to another. Metacommunication is an act of communication between two subjects that communicate something about the communication itself, or about the relationship between the two subjects, or both. The communicative act always requires a sender, a message, and a receiver. Bateson’s investigations into the process of dialogue and his semiotic approach can give insights into what is being perceived by the subject. Bateson defines play as, “a phenomenon in which the actions of play‟ are related to, or denote, other actions of ‘not play’” (Bateson 1972: 140). For Bateson, the boundaries of play are defined by metacommunicative acts.


Almost any behavior of which an animal is capable of may appear in play. A number of scientists have attempted to define criteria that can classify a given action as play.

Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988), a pioneering Dutch ethologist and ornithologist, originated the four aims of ethological analysis; causation, development, adaptive function, and evolution. This list has proven to be a landmark and efficient method in ethology, which others have used and modified to cater to their own methodology and research. Michael H. Robinson, former director of the National Zoo in Washington D.C., recalls the language during the time of the Animal Behavior Group in the 1960s as being “centred on the function and evolution of behavior and in fact, Niko’s ‘Aims and Methods in Ethology’ was a kind of State of the Union document that assessed progress, problems, and in some ways redefined the mission of Oxford ethology” (Robinson 1991: 100). Tinbergen’s ethological aims and methods were published in the Austrian journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie in 1963.


Tinbergen’s four questions, also known as the ‘four whys’, of behavior can be separated into two groups, the immediate (proximate) causes and the evolutionary (ultimate) causes. The first two aims belong to the immediate causes and the latter two with the evolutionary causes. Causation (Mechanism) is a logical place to start research because it asks what factors cause or control behavioral basic problems of performance in survival and reproduction (e.g. physiological, sensory, ecological). Following the root of the mechanical perspective is development (ontogeny). Developmental questions inquire into what behaviors evolve over time and how are they shaped by their developmental, ecological and social environments. The third aim is to study the adaptive function (adaption/survival value). Here, the researcher questions what impact behavior has, if any, on the animal’s survival and reproduction. The final avenue of research is evolution (phylogeny), which returns to the organism’s evolutionary origins and compares similar behaviors in related species, asking “Why did an organism evolve in this manner and not otherwise?”


Now that we know who the main players are in the concept of play it makes it easier for one to delve into the different mindsets of where it all stands and for the fun developer’s sake, how it can be continued. It has been helpful to me, being an artist, kindergarten teacher, and toy and game developer, to know about the history of play. Every theorist that I have mentioned has supported me not only as an inspiration, but also has given me insight on how to problem solve a usability or creative issue. I feel that this can be a good start to continue in a playful way not only with research but for creativity and one’s sense of being. I hope it will serve the same purpose for you too.



Bateson, Gregory 1972. Steps to an Ecological Mind. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Caillois, Roger 2001. Man, Play and Games. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Groos, Karl 1896. “The Play of Animals: Play and Instinct.” In Play: Its Role in Devolopment and Evolution. Bruner, J.S., Jolly, A., and Sylva, K. (eds.). New York: Basic Books: 65-67.

Huizinga, Johan 1955 (1938). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Robinson, Michael H. 1991. “Niko Tinbergen, comparative studies and evolution.” In The Tinbergen Legacy. M.S. Dawkins, T.R. Halliday, and R. Dawkins (eds.). London: Chapman & Hall: 100-128.

Schiller, Fridrich von 1967. On the aesthetic education of man, trans. E. M. Wilkinson & L. A. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Arlene Tucker is a Research Through Gaming Advisory Board member.

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