Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 7
choose, but in the fantasy world of chess they can move only on the diagonals. The fantasy aspect of play is intimately connected to play’s rule-based nature. To the degree that play takes place in a fantasy world, it must be governed by rules that are in the minds of the players rather than by laws of nature. Rules of play that are not dictated by real-world conditions or by instincts are products of imagination.
The fantasy element of play is often not as obvious, or as full-blown, in adults’ play as in children’s. That is one reason why adults’ play is typically not of the one hundred percent variety. Yet, imagination figures into much if not most of what adults do and is a major factor in our intuitive sense of the degree to which adult activities are playful. For example, all hypotheses and theories, designed to explain something about the here and now in term of entities that are not immediately present, require imagination. That is why we intuitively consider theory production in science to be more playful than data collection and compilation. Adults in all walks of life may also embed their daily activities into fantasies about the value of those activities, which may add to their sense of play and hence to their motivation to complete their tasks. I, right now, am super scholar, setting the world straight through the power of ideas.
In social play, all players must buy into a shared fantasy, or fiction. The shared fantasy allows the game to cohere; it provides a context for understanding the rules, for keeping them in mind, and for evaluating potential new rules or decisions that may be proposed. I suspect that the editors of the American Journal of Play have shared fantasies about the influence their new journal will have, which add to their playful adventure.
This final characteristic of play follows naturally from the other four. Because play involves conscious control of one’s own behavior, with attention to process and rules, it requires an active, alert mind. Players do not just passively absorb information from the environment, or reflexively respond to stimuli, or behave automatically in accordance with habit. Moreover, because play is not a response to others’ demands or to immediate strong biological needs, the person at play is relatively free from the strong drives and emotions that are experienced as pressure or stress. And because the player’s attention is focused on process more than outcome, the player’s mind is not distracted by fear of failure. Many forms of play involve some degree of mental tension, as players care about performing well, but when such tension becomes excessive and is experienced as distress or as fear of failure we are inclined to say that the activity is no longer playful.
So, the mind at play is active and alert, but not distressed. Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time. The mind is wrapped up in the ideas, rules, and actions of the game. This state of mind has been shown, in many psychological research studies, to be ideal for creativity and the learning of new skills.9
Social Play as a Mode of Governance in Hunter-Gatherer Bands
Every social game (by game I mean any form of play), is an exercise in governance. The great challenge is to keep all of the players happy without allowing anyone to violate the agreed-upon rules. If players are unhappy they will quit, and if too many quit the game is over. If players consistently violate the rules, that, too, terminates the game. The point I wish to develop in this section is that the means of governance in social play are, in essence, the means of governance in hunter-gatherer societies. I’ll start by describing a typical example of a group playing a social game and then show how certain characteristics of such a group also exist in hunter-gatherer bands. The crucial characteristics in both are summarized as voluntary participation, autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensual decision-making.