In my last letter I asked, What Is Play, and I answered by defining play as activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) intrinsically motivated; (3) governed by mental rules; and (4) creative and usually imaginative. Now I ask, Why Do We Play?
First, what do I mean here by why? I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature and questions of why aspects of our nature came about by natural selection. If a certain drive or behavioral tendency is universal, characterizing people everywhere, as is the case for play, then it is reasonable to suppose that the drive or tendency must somehow promote our survival and reproduction, or at least did so for our ancestors. If that were not true, then the genes underlying the drive or tendency would not have accumulated over generations in our evolutionary history.
Any specific way that a universal drive or behavioral tendency promotes an individual’s survival, or the survival of the individual’s genes, is referred to as an evolutionary function of that drive or tendency When evolutionary psychologists ask why a drive or tendency exists, they are looking for its evolutionary function or functions.
It takes relatively little imagination or research to think of evolutionary functions for many of our basic drives. Why do we experience thirst? Because we need water to survive. Why do we experience hunger? Because we need food to survive. Why do we experience sexual lust? Because we need to reproduce sexually for our genes to survive. Why do we find babies so lovable? Because without our love and the care it generates our offspring would not survive.
It's not quite so easy to think of evolutionary functions of play, especially in a world where it is so often seen as wasted time, but here are three broad categories of functions that are supported by research and logic.
1. Play is a powerful means of practicing survival-promoting skills.
I will suggest in a future letter that this is the original, primary function of play. The young of nearly all mammals play, and research shows that they play largely at activities that are crucial to their long-term survival. Young predators play at predation—at chasing, pouncing, capturing. Young prey animals play at dodging and darting, getting away from predators. I will contend in later letters that young humans, when free to play as fully as they desire, play at all the basic skills that humans everywhere need for their wellbeing, including motor, constructive, linguistic, reasoning, social, and emotional skills.
2. Play is an engine of invention.
Play, as part of its definition, is always creative and often imaginative. In play, people come up with new ideas and creations just for fun, but some of those ideas and creations turn out to be useful in survival-promoting ways. We, more than any other species, are the animal that survives by inventing things. We can inhabit a wide variety of niches and adapt to changes in the environment because of our inventiveness, and much of that comes from play.
3. Play is a means of reducing hostility and promoting cooperation.
We are a highly social species. Our survival as individuals and as a species depends on our ability to cooperate with one another. Social play always requires the voluntary participation of both (or all) participants, so it is always an exercise in cooperation. Play brings people together and creates the friendships and mutual trust that are essential for peaceful human existence.
That’s it for now, but this is just a teasing taste. Most future letters in this series will be elaborations—with examples and evidence—on one or another of these basic evolutionary functions of play. But I hope you already have a hint, now, of what I mean when I say that “Play Makes Us Human.” If you are interested now in much more on the topic, you can download here a chapter I wrote on the evolutionary functions of play for an academic book.
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Thanks for these letters, very much enjoying them! I wonder if the ability of play to feel like an "escape" and to "recharge" serves an evolutionary function. The human capacity to think and take on responsibility affords survival advantages but it can also become overwhelming and even paralyzing without the ability to periodically take a kind of "mental holiday."