Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Chasing Games and Sports: Why Do We Like to Be Chased?

Evolutionary theory explains why we like playing quarterback.

The three-year-old squeals with almost unbearable joy as she flees from the terrible monster, in the form of her father or big brother, who threatens to catch her and eat her for breakfast. The 22-year-old quarterback experiences a similar thrill as he twists, turns, and dashes around one monstrous defender after another on his way to the goal line; and fans in the stands share vicariously his joy, as they imagine themselves in similar flight. In nightmares and in real life, nothing is more terrifying than being chased by a predator or monster. But in play, nothing is more delightful.

Have you ever noticed that in all chase games the preferred position is that of being chased? The most universal and basic of all such games is tag. Children everywhere play it, and the goal, always, is to spend as much time being chased, and as little time chasing, as possible. The punishment for being caught is that you become "it," and then you must serve time as chaser until you catch someone and can once again enjoy the thrill of being chased.

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In every chasing game that I know of, the main object and joy is to run successfully through or around those who are chasing you, while doing whatever else it is that the game demands. A typical example is "fox and geese," which my friends and I played endlessly, on ice skates, in paths carved through the snow on frozen ponds in Northern Minnesota. The preferred position always was to be one of the geese, not the fox. If you were caught, then you had to be the fox until you caught someone and could again be a goose. In real life, people would far rather be predator than prey; but in play, everyone prefers to be prey. Hide-and-seek and dodge ball are not exactly chase games, but they too follow the rule: The preferred position is to be pursued, which in hide-and-seek is the one who hides and in dodge ball is the one whom people are trying to hit with a ball. Punishment for being found or hit is that you have to be a pursuer until you find or hit someone, and then you can once again enjoy hiding or dodging.

All formal team sports follow the same rule; they are all variations of tag. In American football and in soccer, the primary goal and joy lies in running across a field carrying or kicking a ball while a horde of "enemies" chase after you, to tackle you or get the ball from you. Likewise for basketball and hockey. In baseball, the preferred positions are batter and base runner. The batter, after hitting the ball, tries to run around a specified loop, from one safe point to another and ultimately to "home," while a gang of enemies tries to capture him. In all such games the teams alternate between "offense" and "defense," and the preferred position is always offense. That is the position where you are chased.

From the biological perspective I am taking here, the terms "offense" and "defense" in team sports are misleading. Those terms come from the metaphor of war: The offensive players invade the defenders' territory and then scramble to avoid being caught by the defenders. But, if my analysis is correct, at the biological level the thrill from the games comes not from the simulation of war but from the simulation of predator-prey or monster-victim relations. In this light, the so-called "offensive" players, such as the quarterback scrambling in football, are really the defenders. They are, in play, trying to defend their own lives as they are pursued by pretend predators, monsters, or enemies.

And now, back to the original question. In chase games, why do we like to be the chased more than to chase? The answer can be inferred from observations of similar behaviors in other animals. Young mammals of most species play chase games very much like our tag; and the apparently preferred position for most species is that of being chased. A typical game--for a pair of young monkeys, lambs, or squirrels, for example--starts with one youngster playfully attacking the other and then running off, looking back to be sure that the provoked playmate is pursuing. When the pursuing animal catches the pursued and gives it a little play bite, the tables turn and the former pursuer flees gleefully with the other in pursuit. It is exactly like children playing tag. By all of the ways that animals show pleasure, the animal being chased shows the greatest pleasure in the game, just as is the case for humans.

More than a century ago, the philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos (in The Play of Animals, 1898) pointed out that natural selection shaped young mammals to find joy in fleeing from one another in play, so they would engage in such play repeatedly and develop skills that would help them in real life to flee from predators and same-species enemies. In most species of mammals, predation is the leading cause of death, especially while young, and in some species aggressive attacks from others of one's own kind are also a relatively common cause of death. For most mammals the ability to flee effectively from predators or enemies is a clear requirement for survival, and the same was true for our species during most of our evolutionary history. When an animal is running from a real predator, the motivating force is fear. When an animal is practicing, in play, how to get away from a play predator, the motivating force is joy. It is no coincidence, then, that our greatest real fear becomes, in play, our greatest joy.

As you might predict, the rule that being chased in play is more fun than chasing does not hold for large predatory animals. Young wolves, lions, and tigers play chase games, but their behavior strongly suggests that they prefer the position of chaser. Such animals are rarely preyed upon, and for them the games serve more as practice at predation than at fleeing. That is why your dog likes to play at chasing cars (big prey), balls (small prey), and all sorts of other moving objects. Your dog, unlike you, gets more of a thrill from play at chasing than from play at being chased, because, in its ancestry, skill at running down game was more crucial to survival than was skill at fleeing, dodging, and hiding.

Next time you watch your favorite quarterback dodging and darting downfield, think of those after him as play versions of lions, tigers, and trolls. You will enjoy the game all the more if you do. If I were to name a football team, I would call it something like the "Fleeing Fawns,"not "Lions," "Bears," or "Eagles."  It is the prey, not the predator, who is the game's hero. I'd probably have a hard time selling that to the 22-year-old quarterback, however. Maybe that's why we evolutionary psychologists aren't often asked to name sports teams. Oh well, in my heart I'm cheering for the Fleeing Fawns; and so is everyone else, even if they don't know it.

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See new book, Free to Learn

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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