Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 26
cultures. One of their conclusions was that the only cultures that seemed to have no competitive games, of any of the types they were studying, were hunter-gatherer cultures.79 In response to a question about competitive play in our survey, only two of the ten respondents said that they had seen any competitive play in the culture they had studied, and both of them said that they had “seldom” seen it. Several of the respondents noted that play among hunter-gatherer children is non-competitive not just because it is age-mixed, but also because competition runs counter to the spirit of cooperation that pervades hunter-gatherer bands. For instance, regarding Agta children’s play, P. Bion Griffin commented that the only consistent rule of the play he observed was that “no one should win and beat another in a visible fashion.”
In the most extensive descriptive account of the play and games of any hunter-gatherer group, Lorna Marshall pointed out that most Ju/’hoan play is informal and non-competitive, and that even their more formal games, which have explicit rules and could be played competitively, are played non-competitively. 80 For instance, Ju/’hoan children of ages 5 to 15, of both sexes, often play a game of throwing the zeni. The zeni consists of a leather thong, about 7 inches long, with a small weight fastened at one end and a feather at the other. The player hurls it into the air as high as possible with a stick, then tries to catch it with the stick when it comes fluttering down, and from that position hurls it again. The game is played with much skill by many, and it could be played competitively––for instance, by seeing who can hurl it the highest or catch it the most times in succession––but, according to Marshall, it is not played that way. Players try to do their best, but comparisons to others’ performances are not made.
Another Ju/’hoan game with rules is the melon game, played by women and girls. This game involves singing, dancing, and clapping, all according to specific rules, while simultaneously keeping a small melon moving from one dancer to another by tossing it backward, over one's head, to the next person in line. The purpose of the game is to keep everyone in harmony with everyone else and to keep the melon moving without dropping it. The game could be played in a competitive manner by saying that anyone who drops the melon is “out,” but it is not played that way. The goal always is cooperation, not competition.
Turnbull described tug-of-war games played in a partially ritual manner by the Mbuti during the honey season. Men and boys take one side of the vine rope, women and girls take the other, and they sing in antiphony as they pull. When the men and boys start to win, “one of them will abandon his side and join the women, pulling up his bark-cloth and adjusting it in the fashion of women, shouting encouragement to them in a falsetto, ridiculing womanhood by the very exaggeration of his mime.” Then, when the women and girls start to win, “one of them adjusts her bark clothing, letting it down, and strides over to the men’s side and joins their shouting in a deep bass voice, similarly gently mocking manhood.” Turnbull continues: “Each person crossing over tries to outdo the ridicule of the last, causing more and more laughter, until when the contestants are laughing so hard they cannot sing or pull any more, they let go of the vine rope and fall to the ground in near hysteria. Although both youth and adults cross sides, it is primarily the youth who really enact the ridicule. … The ridicule is performed without hostility, rather with a sense of at least partial identification and empathy. It is in this way that the violence and aggressivity of either sex ‘winning’ is avoided, and the stupidity of competitiveness is demonstrated.”81
The point of hunter-gatherer play is not to establish winners and losers, but to have fun. In the process of having fun, the players develop skills requiring strength, coordination, endurance, cooperation, and wit, and they solidify their bonds of friendship. If the focus were on competition, the pressure to win could reduce the playfulness and fun of the activity. Instead of cementing friendships, competitive games could produce arrogance in winners and envy or anger in losers, which would weaken rather than strengthen the community.