Sunday, June 1, 2014

Playing for the Fun of It: Some notes about our playful universe.

And some limits of evolutionary explanation.

…the fun of playing…. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category.  Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

Satisfaction accompanies intrinsicness. Anthony Putman

Consciousness is the first example of the selectiveness of enjoyment in the higher animals. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

A Zilch particle is a person with almost everything left out. Peter Ossorio

Let's play around with some ideas.  I'm going to take steps to build a case that play abounds. That nature teems with it and that it can serve no necessary purpose other than the enjoyment of having fun.

I’m going to start from the top down. 

Play is intrinsic in "higher" animal life. Its adaptive function, if any, is icing on the cake. The capacity for playfulness is not reducible to something genetically selected for its adaptive value. I know this personally. Playfulness may be an attractive quality, but given the trouble I sometimes get in, I suspect some of my playful ways are not adaptive at all. You’d have to bend, twist and wiggle to make the case. 

Remember the maxim: people take it that things are as they seem unless they have sufficient reason to think otherwise.

This is how it seems to me:

The point of play is to have fun. Play counts by not counting. Play is satisfying and fun. This is so intuitively obvious it shouldn't need to be said, but bear with me, I'm going to link some weird stuff together. I'm going to poke around and offer thoughts that concern the overuse of evolutionary explanations in psychology.

(I love the explanatory power of evolution. I have a portrait of Darwin in my office.)

Organisms evolve through selective adaptation. To survive, organisms adapt to the changing of their worlds. Behavior, as purposeful action, maintains and expands an organism's world. These statements have different implications. Selective adaptation drives a statistical process, a number's game of whom is left standing to reproduce. Behavior, on the other hand, involves personal significance, intrinsic and instrumental. These very different notions may not dovetail. The significant might not be adaptive, but then again it might. 

O.K. That was serious, but I'm not just playing around here. 

What I'd like to do is make sense of play as play and not as something else, but first I need to provide some relevant concepts.

Let's start with goal-directed behavior, Intentional Action. Behavior with a purpose. There are varieties of Intentional Action. Some forms of Intentional Action involve choice and self awareness and some do not. I am capitalizing concepts to indicate they are part of the lexicon of Descriptive Psychology but you'll find they are consistent with ordinary usage. 

Intentional Action is the general case of purposeful, goal-directed behavior, whether chosen or not.   One variety is Cognizant Action, where actors know they are acting intentionally. Another is Deliberate Action, where actors choose a behavior from the possible options they recognize. 

Intentional Action is the general case of animal behavior. Deliberate Action is the form of Intentional Action paradigmatic of Persons, and of the type of persons we know best, humans. 

People, while awake and behaving, are not always deliberate or cognizant. Some of our actions are merely intentional. We are not always making choices nor are we always aware of our actions, but Paradigm Case Persons must be, at times, appropriately able to know they are making choices to be one of us in good standing. 

Intentional Action is in contrast to behavior or performance that is a matter of reflex, is accidental, or utterly coerced. 

What sort of action is playful action? What are we doing when we play?

I am not going to define play but instead will appeal to the notion that all play shares some sort of “family resemblance”. There are lots of similar and dissimilar practices that count as play. (A main cause of philosophical diseases—a one sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations). 

I will offer tentative conclusions why play is special based on its improvisational and intrinsic nature. 

As intrinsic action, play satisfies Hedonic and Aesthetic motivation. Hedonics and Aesthetics are intrinsic, along with Prudential and Ethical/Moral reasons for action. But it is easier for me to see the Hedonic and Aesthetic nature of play. Perhaps you will build a case for the other intrinsic reasons? 

Play is intrinsic to life. Play is a natural possibility of Deliberate Action. Humans are deliberate and cognizant players. But other animals play, too. If they can behave deliberately, they can play (I think).

The less evidence that an action is deliberate or cognizant, the less convinced I am that it's play, even though it might be fun to watch. I won't argue that electrons dance. 

Humans have an advantage. Language infinitely explodes our playful possibilities. We get up to our own special monkey business, facilitated by language.  We play with words. We imagine, articulate and share the worlds our words help create. There is no end to this fun. 

If Deliberate Action is enhanced by language, but does not require it, we'll find play abounds. Play is deliberate. It involves choice. Play involves actions, social practices, not reflex or utterly coerced performance (unless I deliberately play with my reflexes). Language makes it easy to represent choices and to create new ones. I might hear you say something funny and goof on it.

It makes me happy that Wittgenstein spoke of a child’s learning its native language as playing a “language game”. 

My dogs play. Sometimes they let me play with them. Social play is easy to identify. People play with people. Dogs play with dogs. Dogs and people play with each other. Dogs and people play with themselves. 

I think I have observed an octopus at play. About worms, I'm not so sure. 

When I play with peers there are more possibilities, and more interesting possibilities, than when I play with small children or infants. But it is all fun. Maybe for you it's different. 

There are more ways I can play with you than with an infant or a dog. We joke around. But that's not saying playing with you, my peer, is more fun. Fun is in the significance, the personal value of the enjoyment. (You point out I sometimes play with you the way I play with kids and dogs. I still laugh at farts, but so do you).

It seems that vertebrates play. (Somehow, that octopus seems to have the spine for it, too.)

Playing also requires mastery, competence or know-how. With practice we get better at games and acquire sophisticated and nuanced ways. Maybe the more skilled the play, the more it's satisfying and fun. But maybe not. Sometimes fun is in the trying and it gets old after we've accomplished it sufficiently. But, then again, with mastery, we might improvise new versions of how to play.

It gets old? Maybe thats just saying it's not so much fun anymore but maybe it says something about novelty. Creative play is especially fun and satisfying. Creative play is improvisation. 

I will later elaborate on satisfaction and fun

That fun is reason enough to play is not the claim that fun is all we accomplish. We learn to navigate all sorts of tasks as well, but if play is not for the fun of it, it’s not play. (And while trying to accomplish some serious instrumental task, I might just end up playing around with it, too.)

I like to play with ideas. Here are some thoughts: 

I promised to say something about Evolutionary Psychology. I take issue with the belief that behavioral patterns persist fundamentally because they are adaptive and enhance reproductive fitness. When I argue play is intrinsic I am saying play requires no other reason than it's fun. (Of course, if you have two or more reasons to do something, you have more reasons than if you only had one of them. I love tautologies. They're fun to think. While play is intrinsic, it might also accomplish something instrumental and adaptive.)

Must play have an adaptive function?  Must it offer some sort of selective advantage, some enhancement in reproductive fitness? (Note, I am asking if it must, not if it also might.) I can't speak for you, but playful sex trumps acting in earnest. (I can't speak for Ernest). 

Here's some ideas and finding that inform my thinking. They fit together.

Thomas Nagel seriously pissed off a variety of scientific and philosophical communities when he argued in Mind and Cosmos that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”  One gist of his case is that qualities that are integral to consciousness are inherent in nature and not simply an emergent quality or one that arises out of adaptive processes. The possibility of cognizant action is inherent in the cosmos.  Of course, this pleased some with a theistic bent, but Nagel argues their claims are also problematic. He is not suggesting deities or supernatural forces. But he does point to a conclusion that there is more to biology than material process, that there is something inherent in material substance that renders it compatible with consciousness from the get go. This makes for a very interesting universe. 

Another bee in my bonnet. Here's from a recent posting in The Baffler by David Graeber, “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun”, that resonates with Nagel’s view and takes play as intrinsic.  A brief passage: 

…. those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it.
Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?

Near the end of his essay Graeber writes:

Still, if one wants a consistently materialist explanation of the world—that is, if one does not wish to treat the mind as some supernatural entity imposed on the material world, but rather as simply a more complex organization of processes that are already going on, at every level of material reality—then it makes sense that something at least a little like intentionality,
something at least a little like experience, something at least a little like freedom, would have to exist on every level of physical reality as well.

OK, I am not of the opinion that electrons play, nor do I want to make the case for ants. (At least not yet).  But mice?  Here is part of the abstract from Johanna Meijer and Yuri Robbens’s “Wheel Running in the Wild” (Proc. R. Soc. B 7 July 2014 vol. 281 no. 1786)

The importance of exercise for health and neurogenesis is becoming increasingly clear. Wheel running is often used in the laboratory for triggering enhanced activity levels, despite the common objection that this behaviour is an artefact of captivity and merely signifies neurosis or stereotypy. If wheel running is indeed caused by captive housing, wild mice are not expected to use a running wheel in nature. This however, to our knowledge, has never been tested. Here, we show that when running wheels are placed in nature, they are frequently used by wild mice, also when no extrinsic reward is provided. Bout lengths of running wheel behaviour in the wild match those for captive mice. This finding falsifies one criterion for stereotypic behaviour, and suggests that running wheel activity is an elective behavior. 

They also found that a few frogs got on and off the wheel but they didn't want to make too much of that. Nor do I. But it appears that wild mice got on the wheel just to spin. I'm not surprised. Hart, my dog, likes knocking the tippy sculpture in our living room just, it seems, to make it rock. 

Fun and satisfaction are experience concepts. When we add improvisation to this conceptual mix we get closer to what I think play is about. What is the experience of successful improvisation?  Why is playing with my dog fun for both of us but when I play around with worms, I'm the only one having fun? (I think, as far as I can tell.) 

Satisfaction is the experiential accompaniment of intrinsic behavior or recognizing a good enough connection to something intrinsic. The achievement of intrinsic hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic aims is pleasurable and/or satisfying.

Improvisation involves the affirmative acceptance and responsive incorporation of one player's moves by another, and back and forth it goes. I say yes to you and then show it. Or I say no to you but you get it as a yes to continue. The paradigm of improvisational acting involves at least two players.  One person can do this alone with their personal props or those on their stage. 

I can engage in creative improvisation with myself, mutually with you, and with my dog. I am pretty sure, however, that improvisation with a worm is one sided. I wouldn't bait a hook if I believed otherwise. 

We seek sensations of all sorts. We stimulate ourselves, alone and with others. Pleasure, satisfaction, and fun accompany the accomplishment of intrinsic activity. (Anxiety and pain may accompany the anticipation of unsuccessful results. And some stimulation is more than we can manage; some too little to bother with). 

Some activities require actions and things to fit together in a pleasing way, the unfolding connections and incorporations have aesthetic value. Improvisation excites and invites novelty. I play with the sensations of my world of objects, processes, and events. I play in and with my World. I play with you and I play by myself.  I play alone with my body, my surrounds and my imagination. I bounce a ball off the wall. I play with companions and engaging strangers.

When the practice is social and mutually incorporative, when I affirm and assimilate your response into mine and you do the same, we’re both probably having fun or at least a good time. 

Improvisation free of need or desperation tends towards fun. Play may work best when unnecessary. If I successfully improvise out of desperation or need, I might be relieved or satisfied but I'm probably not having fun.  We are most authentically playful when we don't have to play along. To see someone playing out of desperation looks pretty un-playful. 

Play is not reducible to a particular performance. Play is the name we give intrinsic practitices done for the fun of it, and that's a matter of its significance, not its performance. The experience of play is fun. Really, I'm being serious.

When improvising, I only more or less know what to expect. That’s part of what's fun since I'm open to surprise. Manageable novelty is fun.  Sometimes when the bottom falls out, we're fine, sometimes not so much. 

When our activity fits together, and all we need is the fit, we might be at play. If the fit is pleasing, a pleasure, play is an aesthetic act. Since play is a deliberate improvisation, its creative and uncertain outcome will follow. Playful improvisation invites novelty. Who knows the game's outcome? This is why play creates and expands culture. This is why play expands the world.

When we successfully perform an intrinsic act, we are satisfied. If the action is both intrinsic and fun, we're at play.

It's nice this morning. I'm going to walk with my dog and see if I can find someone to mess around with.

So let's hang out.

I'll be lookin' for fun (and feeling groovy). 
Cause all I want to do is have some fun.

Some related postings:  Dreaming as Playtime, and Play and Therapy. And since satisfaction matters and play makes us happy, some notes on what I did during my summer vacation.

And a discussion of Adaptation in Psychology and Evolution.

I'd especially invite you to read Issue 24 of The Baffler, "The Jig is Up!"

And from the NYTimes, 10/11/16  Rats Just Wanna Have Fun!

and apparently so do some wolf pups Intrinsic Ball Retrieving in Wolf Puppies Suggests Standing Ancestral Variation for Human-Directed Play Behavior

and another from the NTTimes, 8/21/20 Where the Wild Things Play


  1. When do we quit play? I don't mean stop, I mean quit. I'm sure we all have walked away from something that was supposed to be fun but wasn't. What can you say about those circumstances?

    Could it be that play is instrumental to something else, such as learning to assign statuses? If so, we would expect children to stop (not quit) play or certain kinds of play when the something-else is mastered. (This seems like the difference between "rehearsing a drama" and "goofing around".) How would we sort out this instrumental play from intrinsic play? Could the "Terrible Twos" and its NO! be play-to-mastery? How do we view the long-motor development phase in children?

    We take it a Behavior can result in more than one Achievement. Does it make sense, then, that while my math homework was instrumental to other things, I had play-reasons (hedonic) to do it because "I like math"? So I had more reasons than others, two reasons are stronger than either one of those reasons alone, etc.? Where does the concept of "pure play" fit with this?

    What is the relation between play and boredom? Is play sometimes palliative?

  2. Is a serial killer playing? For the killer, the activity is satisfying, intrinsic, and enjoyable.

    It seems like satisfaction and "fun" are critiques of whatever was achieved. I take it they could be in W, but not in the result, and that result would be "disappointing" (another critique).

    On the topic of critiques, I keep squealing my brakes on "fun", the way I do when people use "bias" and they mean "perspective". OED says fun is "a source or cause of amusement or pleasure", so I'd probably be happier if you stayed close to "enjoyable" and let "fun" be a critique of enjoyment.

    1. yah, fun and enjoyment. not sure there's a need even to make a distinction between them. or between play and fun, for that matter. and if you want to try out a slightly bigger perspective that embraces play, fun, love, wisdom, community, purpose, happiness, laughter, humor