TEXT  |  The Ambiguity of Play (1997)

Brian Sutton-Smith

Chapter Two : Rhetorics of Animal Progress

“What seems most obvious about play, whether that of animals, children, or adults, is that it is a very exciting kind of activity that players carry on because they like doing so. It doesn’t seem to have too much to do with anything else. Yet, as this work will attest, it is typically interpreted as having value not just for itself but because of other functions that it serves in individual development and group culture.” (18)

Sutton-Smith in this chapter explores the theories that consider play a form of adaptation. A significant amount of scientific research has been conducted on animal play rather than human play in the perception that animals have a less complex culture than humans.

Sutton-Smith sites Robert Fagen’s book, Animal Play Behavior (1981) that lists five categories of animal play behavior, described in ascending order of complexity.
  1. isolated, brief jerky movements performed repeatedly without defense or counterattack by others
  2. noncontact solo play and the  social play of moving bodies through space, running and jumping in a variety of patterns
  3. social play, some with no contact, like chasing, and some with contact, like sparring and wrestling
  4. complex social play, which involves games with objects and features of the landscape. This form of play is enacted by adult as well as young animals, whereas most play of the former kinds is enacted only by juveniles or by parents with their young
  5. mother-infant games, such as peekaboo, as well as object construction and play with pebbles, sticks, flowers, feathers, and bones, and play with snow, water, and trees
Sutton-Smith restates the categories of Animal Play in terms of the Rhetorics:

1. ANIMAL PLAY AS SKILL TRAINING (Rhetoric of PROGRESS) : Growth via play

Arguments against this theory:
  • play mimics reality, but is not the real thing : “How can unreality be training for reality?” (27)
  • repetition : Play is repeated for its creation of excitement, not for its ability to prepare for events
  • predisposition : individuals may have different ideas about what playfighting / fighting is
  • normative : assuming species as wholes, playfulness can vary by individual
  • Play fighting to establish social hierarchies
  • “those that play together, stay together” : relationships created in childhood remain in adulthood
  • Fagen’s preferred theory : “play functions largely to yield innovative responses” (30)
  • But play is repetitive : “fathers either play or watch baseball or golf every day, forever.” (31)
  • Paul Martin + TM Caro : play does not have any major benefits and may be of minor importance. (33)
  • Fagen + Smith have accepted this as a theory and have adapted their stance on the adaptationist theory
  • Smith : however, does not think that play is of minor importance
  • Fagen : emphasizing play as a motivational attitude and a state of well-being

The concluding argument that play is about attitude and a state of emotional well-being is well argued in the reason play is conducted in repetition and in some cases repeated throughout a lifetime. Although, it is difficult to not associate lion cubs pouncing in the grass on inanimate objects as a type of preparation for hunting when they are older.

The attempts to disprove physical and psychological adaptation in play brings about questions in the effectiveness of “serious games” and educational games as a learning/teaching device. The prevalence of electronic media in the lives of children is promoting the development of video games as a tool for education. How effective can video games be in education? How are / can video games be integrated into the school curriculum?


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