Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 5
Perhaps because of the negative connotations, anthropologists don’t often use the terms play or playful in their descriptions of hunter-gatherer activities. They do, however, often use terms like good-humored and cheerful. My inferences about play and playfulness come primarily from researchers’ actual descriptions of hunter-gatherers’ activities, not so much from their explicit use of the labels “play” or “playful.”
Definition of Play
Before entering into the contention that play is a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence, I should state what I mean by “play” and “playful.” I am not providing a new or unique definition; I am relying on definitions presented by many play scholars, both classic and contemporary.
A first point worth making, toward definition, is that play in our species is not necessarily all-or-none. Pure play is observed more often in children than in adults. In adults, including hunter-gatherer adults, play is commonly blended with other motives that have to do with adult responsibilities. That is why, in everyday conversation, we tend to talk about children “playing” and about adults bringing a “playful spirit” or “playful attitude” to their activities. A second point is that play’s distinguishing characteristics lie not in the overt form of the activity, but in the motivation and mental attitude that the person brings to it. Two people might be throwing a ball, or building a house, or doing almost anything, and one may be playing (to a high degree) while the other is not. A third point is that play is defined not in terms of a single identifying characteristic, but in terms of a confluence of characteristics, all having to do with motivation or attitude and all of which can vary in degree.
Classic and modern works on play have employed quite a variety of terms to describe play’s characteristics, but I think they can be boiled down nicely to the following five: Play is activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) intrinsically motivated; (3) structured by mental rules; (4) imaginative; and (5) produced in an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind. No other author that I know of has characterized play with exactly this list of five characteristics, but these five seem to appear most often across authors and are most convincing to me. 8 The more fully an activity entails all of these characteristics, the more inclined most people are to refer to that activity as play. Let me elaborate briefly on each of these characteristics, as each is relevant to the discussion that follows.
Play, first and foremost, is what a person wants to do, not what a person feels obliged to do. Players choose not only to play, but how to play, and that is the meaning of the statement that play is self-directed. Players are free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game. In social play (play involving more than one player), one person may emerge for a while as the leader, but only at the will of all the others. Anyone may propose rules, but the rules must be agreeable to all. The most basic freedom in play is the freedom to quit. The freedom to quit ensures that all of the players are doing what they want to do. It prevents leaders from enforcing rules that are not agreed upon by all. People who are unhappy will quit, and if too many quit the game will end. So, to the degree that players are motivated to keep the game going, they are motivated to seek consensus on all decisions that affect the game and to keep their playmates happy in other ways as well.
Play is activity that, from the conscious perspective of the player, is done for its own sake more than for some reward that is separate from the activity itself. In other words, it is behavior in which means are more valued than ends. When we are not playing, what we value most are the results of our actions. We scratch an itch to get rid of the itch, flee from a tiger to avoid