Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 8
As a typical example of social play, picture a neighborhood group playing baseball—not a little-league game run by coaches and umpires, which is not fully play, but a mixed-age pickup game run by the players themselves. This is the kind of game that I played regularly throughout my childhood. The stated goal of each player might be to win, but the real goals are to keep the game going, play well (as defined by each person’s own standards), and enjoy a shared activity. The score might be kept, but in the end nobody cares about the score. Even though the game is nominally competitive, it is really a cooperative game in which all of the players, regardless of which team they are on, strive together to make the game last and to keep it fun. Players may even move from one team to another, to keep the teams balanced, as the game progresses. So, it is appropriate to think of all of the players a one play group, not two teams pitted against one another.
A basic characteristic of any social game, if it is really play, is that participation is optional; anyone who wants to leave can leave at any time. As I said earlier, in defining play, the freedom to leave is essential to the spirit of play. Since the game requires a certain number of players, everyone who wants the game to continue is motivated to keep the other players happy so they don’t leave. This has a number of implications, which are intuitively understood by most players.
One implication is that players must not dominate or bully other players. People who feel dominated will quit. Another implication is that players must attempt to satisfy the needs and wishes of all the other players, at least sufficiently to keep them from quitting. In this sense, each person, regardless of ability, must be deemed equally worthy. If Marc, Mike, and Mary all want to pitch, the team might let each have a turn at pitching, even though their chance of winning would be better if Henry did all the pitching. Whoever is pitching, that person will almost certainly throw more softly to little Billy, who is a novice, than to big, experienced Jerome. When Jerome is up, the pitcher shows his best stuff, not just because he wants to get Jerome out, but also because anything less would be insulting to Jerome. The golden rule of social play is not, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Rather, it is, Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness, but the equality that comes from granting equal validity to the unique needs and wishes of every player.
In any given pick-up game, some people will be much better players than others. There will be a tendency for the better players to dominate—to make all the rules, to give orders to others, and so on. However, if they do that, or do it too obviously, the others will quit. So, to the degree that the better players lead, they must learn to do so without dominating, without destroying the other players’ sense of choice. The better players must also be careful not to flaunt their superior play. If they flaunt their ability, others may feel belittled and may quit. To keep the game going, players who intuitively understand these rules of play may develop leveling strategies, aimed at preventing anyone from flaunting their ability or behaving in a domineering manner. For example, such displays may be ridiculed, or mocked, with the aim of bringing the overly proud person down a peg or two.
Leaders in social play exert leadership not by forcing their own wishes on others, nor by evenhandedly treating all players by the same standards, but by being sensitive to each player’s wishes and proposing rules and procedures that can accommodate them all. The most respected players are those who are most helpful to others and remain humble about that helpfulness. They lead not by power assertion but by attraction.
Sharing is also crucial to the game. Some people may come with a baseball glove and/ or a bat, and others may come with nothing. A general rule is that all such materials are, for the purpose of the game, common property. The catcher will use whatever catcher’s mitt is