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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 9 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 9

available, the fielders will use whatever gloves are available, depending in part on the position they are playing, and each batter is free to choose from any of the bats.

As the game progresses, rules may be modified at any time, always with the purpose of making the game more fun and allowing it to continue. If too many people are knocking the ball out of the vacant lot and into the neighboring yard, the players might institute a rule that certain people (the best batters) have to bat one-handed, with their non-dominant hand. Anyone can propose a new rule, but to become a rule all players must accept it. In other words, decision-making in social play is by consensus. Consensus doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree that the new rule is the best possible rule. It only means that everyone consents to the rule, that is, they are happy enough with the rule that they aren’t gong to walk away from the game because of it. Often a great deal of discussion and compromise is required to reach such consensus. A simple majority vote wouldn’t suffice, because in that case the minority might feel unhappy and quit; and, again, if too many quit the game is over.

In sum, then, the key elements that underlie social relationships and governance in a well-operating social game are (1) voluntary participation, with attendant freedom to quit at any time; (2) allowance for much individual autonomy, within the rules of the game; (3) equal treatment of all players, not in the sense of treating them all the same, but in the sense of taking their needs equally into account; (4) obligatory sharing of game-related materials; and (5) consensual decision making. Of these characteristics, the first can reasonably be considered to be the most basic. The freedom of each player to quit is what ensures that those who want the game to continue will behave in ways consistent with the remaining four elements. If players were compelled to stay in the game, then the more powerful players could dominate, and the autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensual decision-making would be lost.

Voluntary Participation, Autonomy, Equality, Sharing, and Consensual Decision-Making as Characteristics of Hunter-Gatherer Bands

The five just-listed characteristics of a group playing a social game are precisely the elements that anthropologists refer to repeatedly, and often emphatically, in their discussions of social relationships and governance in hunter-gatherer societies. Here is a summary that I have abstracted from of those discussions.

Most hunter-gatherers, wherever they have been studied, live in bands of about 20 to 50 people each, counting children as well as adults. Each band moves as needed to follow the available game and edible plants. At each campsite to which they move, each family within the band builds, from natural materials, a small, temporary hut, the construction of which usually takes just a few hours. Because the band moves frequently, material goods beyond what a person can easily carry are a burden, so there is very little accumulation of property. Each band is an independent entity. There is no governmental entity above the level of the band. The people within the band make all of the band’s decisions.10

Hunter-gatherers are highly mobile not just in the sense of whole bands moving from place to place, but also in the sense of individuals and families moving from band to band. Bands are not permanent structures with fixed memberships. Everyone has friends and relatives in other bands, who would welcome them in. Because of this, and because they are not encumbered by property, individuals may move at a moment’s notice from one band to another. People move from band to band for marriage, but they also move to get away from conflicts or simply because they are more attracted to the people or the procedures that exist in another band. Disgruntled groups of people within any band may also, at any time, leave the original band and start a new one. Thus, the decision to belong to any given band is always a person’s choice.11 The freedom of band members to leave sets the stage for the other playlike qualities of hunter-gatherer life.

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