Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 6
getting eaten, or work at a boring job for money. If there were no itch, tiger, or paycheck, we would not scratch, flee, or work at the boring job. When we are not playing, we typically opt for the least effortful way of achieving our goal. In play, however, all this is reversed. In play, attention is focused on the means more than the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends.
Play often has goals, but the goals are experienced as an intrinsic part of the game, not as the sole reason for engaging in the game’s actions. Goals in play are subordinate to the means for achieving them. For example, constructive play (the playful building of something) is always directed toward the goal of creating the object that the players have in mind; but the primary objective in such play is the creation of the object, not the having of the object. Children making a sandcastle would not be happy if an adult came along and said, "You can stop all your effort now; I'll make the castle for you." The process, not the product, motivates them. Similarly, children or adults playing a competitive game have the goal of scoring points and winning, but, if they are truly playing, it is the process of scoring and winning that motivates them, not the points themselves or the status of having won. If someone would just as soon win by cheating as by following the rules, or get the trophy and praise through some shortcut that bypasses the game process, then that person is not playing. When adults say that their work is play to them, they are implying that they enjoy their work so much that they would likely continue it even if they no longer needed the paycheck or other extrinsic rewards it produces.
Play is freely chosen activity, but it is not freeform activity. Play always has structure, and that structure derives from rules in the players’ minds. This point is really an extension of the point just made about the importance of means in play. The rules of play are the means. To play is to behave in accordance with self-chosen rules. The rules are not like rules of physics, nor like biological instincts, which are automatically followed. Rather, they are mental concepts that often require conscious effort to keep in mind and follow.
A basic rule of constructive play, for example, is that you must work with the chosen medium in a manner aimed at producing or depicting some specific object or design that you have in mind. In sociodramatic play—the playful acting out of roles or scenes, as when children are playing “house” or pretending to be superheroes—the fundamental rule is that players must abide by their shared understanding of the roles that they are playing; they must stay in character. Even rough and tumble play (playful fighting and chasing), which may look wild from the outside, is constrained by rules. An always-present rule in children’s play fighting, for example, is that you mimic some of the actions of serious fighting, but you don’t really hurt the other person. You don’t hit with all your force (at least not if you are the stronger of the two); you don’t kick, bite, or scratch.
In all sorts of social play, the players must have a shared understanding of the rules. In many instances of social play, more time is spent discussing the rules, to arrive at a shared understanding, than is spent actually playing. Again, as I said before, play requires consensus. One person playing by a different set of rules can ruin the game.
Play involves some sort of mental removal of oneself from the immediately present real world. Imagination, or fantasy, is most obvious in sociodramatic play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present in other forms of human play. In rough and tumble play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players say that they are building a castle, but they know it is a pretend castle, not a real one. In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world bishops can move in any direction they