The Importance of Play, by Dani Bunten Berry, 1996

Several years ago when I was getting involved with a psychologist (who I later married and divorced), I had this need to find justification for my career. Writing video games just didn’t seem sophisticated enough. I searched for deeper roots of play to rationalize the value of my profession. I found a couple of books that dealt with the issue and wrote a synopsis of the best one for the “Journal of Computer Game Design” (or was it “Computer Gaming World”?). With that publication I satisfied my need for credibility (at least in my own eyes). Although the information was entertaining it had little to offer the day to day struggle to make good games.

Recently, I’ve had the urge to rethink my career (I wonder if the fact that I’m single again has anything to do with this malaise). Even if I stay in the games biz, I think a little “starting from scratch” would be in order. I feel like our medium has hit a wall. In addition, there’s the new field of on-line gaming which feels like it needs a whole new approach so it doesn’t end up with more of the same dumb (or should I say creativity-challenged) designs from the floppy, CD and cart business. So, again I went to the local university’s library and looked at the current offering as regards cognitive/developmental models for play motivation and found that there is nothing new. I borrowed the old book and refreshed my memory. Here is a summary of it.

The book is Why People Play by M.J.Ellis (1973, Prentice Hall, Library of Congress classification BF717 E4.3). It devotes a major amount of space to a pretty broad background and taxonomy of the theories of play motivation. However, what I found most useful was the theory of Optimal Arousal Level. It’s been over a decade since I first came across this model for the motivation of play behavior. Since then I have read widely from the field of cognitive science (the bastard child of neurology and experimental psychology) and although there hasn’t been any new research regarding the motivation for play, the underlying premises of this theory seem to have stood up and to fit the current cognitive science models (at least as far as this lay-person can see).

The theory postulates that higher mammalian brains have an optimal arousal level to which they are constantly striving. To increase the arousal level the brain frequently pushes the organism to execute actions which have no immediate survival enhancing function. These activities we call play. If there is too little stimulation in the organism’s environment then it is driven to seek more “interesting” and unpredictable experiences to balance the boredom of real-life. Conversely, if the organism is under stress through over-stimulation, it will attempt to escape to a low stimuli environment (TV couch potato). If you include the fact that almost any type or level of stimuli will become a “background” level if it’s repeated for a period of time (through the mechanism of habituation) you have what can be thought of as an instinct to play in all mammalian brains. That instinct pushes the organism into the most variable and dynamic regions of the world it inhabits because only those area will still satisfy the organism’s need for novel stimuli. I could imagine that this is the survival advantage that set our mammalian ancestors apart from their reptilian competitors. This would push the little mammals’ attention to those weird and unusual aspects of the ecosystem which would be just those areas where new threats and opportunities where likely to arise.

This need for more stimuli is also a very effective teacher. Have you ever watched a kitten play with a mouse? The optimal arousal mechanism makes the cat attentive to the mouse as a stimuli generator even if the cat isn’t hungry. In the process of this “play”, the cat learns all it can about mice and their ways of escaping. This kind of lesson is not hardwired into the brain of the cat but is instead reinvented each generation so that if mice mutate, cats will still figure them out. As someone who has programmed her share of algorithms to solve problems with code I am truly amazed at the elegance of this little piece of code installed in our brains! When you’ve done all that needs to be done to insure your survival today (work), if you still have some energy then go explore interesting new stimuli that may affect your survival tomorrow (play).

Thus, play is not some meaningless activity. It’s likely that the instinct to play led to success of mammals, primates and homo-sapiens who in that order exhibit the need to play more widely and longer into adulthood. That makes designing games not a self-indulgent fatuous career but a method of offering opportunities to evolve and learn for our species. As a profession it could stand up there with psychologists and philosophers. Even if this theory doesn’t translate into immediate techniques to improve games, just knowing how essential play is to the process of human evolution can help those of us engaged in this career feel better about ourselves. Feeling important is the first step to doing important work. Wanta play?