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Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature

Play is the germ that grew to make us human.

I've been working on a ludic theory of human nature. In case you haven't studied Latin in a while (perhaps not since several lifetimes ago), ludic means playful. I'm calling my theory a ludic theory because if I called it a playful theory people wouldn't take it seriously. (I'm ignoring the fact that the only common English derivative of ludic is ludicrous.)

Heaven take pity on those few of us who try to take play seriously. It's hard to do. Play, by definition, is something that is not serious. I'm sure that's part of the reason why most serious scholars stay far away from the topic.

The great classic scholarly book on human play is entitled Homo Ludens, which means literally Man the Player. It was written by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, in 1938. It's a wonderful book and has inspired me greatly. But my own theory is quite different from Huizinga's.

Huizinga stated clearly that his is a cultural theory of play, not a biological theory. My theory, in contrast, is fundamentally biological, though it is also cultural, because, in matters of human behavior, biology and culture are inextricably entwined. Another big difference is that Huizinga tended to equate play with contest and to focus on agonistic, or competitive aspects of play, while I hold that play is fundamentally noncompetitive. I can understand how someone such as Huizinga, steeped in Western cultural history, might view play primarily as contest. In my theory, contest is a morphing of play with something that is close to the opposite of play--a drive to beat and dominate others. When we combine these two opposites, play becomes more serious (and thereby more acceptable to contemporary adults) and domination becomes more playful--not entirely a bad thing, but not the same as pure play.

In the remaining paragraphs here, I present a sketch of the ludic theory. In subsequent weekly posts I shall elaborate on specific aspects of the theory, presenting evidence along the way. [Some of what I shall present overlaps with ideas I published in an article, here, in The American Journal of Play.]

The Limited Role of Play in Non-Human Mammals

In most non-human mammals, play occurs almost entirely among the young of the species and seems clearly to serve the function of skill learning and practice. As I have noted in previous posts, young mammals, in play, practice the very skills that they must develop in order to make it into adulthood and to thrive and reproduce. Predators practice predation, as when tiger clubs stalk and pounce on bugs, wind-blown leaves, and each other. Prey animals practice getting away from predators, as when zebra colts dodge and dart in their playful frolicking and endless games of tag. Young males of many species practice fighting, taking turns pinning one another in their species-specific ways and getting out of pinned positions. Young females of at least some species practice nurturance, in playful care of young.

Expansion of Play's Roles in Humans

We humans have inherited the basic youthful play characteristics of our animal ancestors, but in the course of our biological and cultural evolution we have elaborated upon them and created new functions. Playfulness in humans does not end when adulthood begins and it serves many functions beyond the learning of species-specific skills.

Play as a means of suppressing aggression and promoting cooperation.

Social play in all animals requires that all tendencies toward aggression and dominance be suppressed. This is especially true in playful fighting, which is one of the most common forms of animal play. The fundamental difference between a play fight and a real fight is that the former involves no intention to hurt, drive away, or dominate the other animal. A play fight between two young animals can only occur if both are willing partners. Anything that smacks of true aggression or tendency to dominate would cause the threatened animal to run away, and the play, with all its fun and opportunity for learning, would end. And so, in the course of natural selection, animals developed signals to let each other know that their playful attacks are not real attacks, and they developed, for purposes of play, self-restraints and means of self-handicapping to operate against any tendencies to dominate or hurt one another in play.

We inherited these play-enabling signals and restraints from our primate ancestors, and then--through both culture and biological evolution--we built upon them. We brought playfulness and signals associated with it (such as laughter) into adulthood, and we used them to promote ways of cooperating and sharing with one another that surpass those of other mammals.

I am going to argue, in my next post, that when we bring playfulness to bear in our social interactions we create a spirit of equality and personal freedom that allows us to overcome our equally human drive to dominate one another. Hunter-gatherer societies were especially successful in cultivating playfulness as a means of defeating aggression and dominance. Their way of life required close cooperation and sharing, of the sort that could easily be defeated by aggression and dominance. Their playful approach to social life apparently enabled them to survive, relatively peacefully, for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the invention of agriculture. In our culture today, play and humor are still forces for defeating aggression, dominance, and hierarchy, though we don't use them as effectively as hunter-gatherers did.

Play as a basis for art, music, literature, theoretical science, religion, and all that we call "higher culture."

Play, in any species, is done primarily for the fun of it, not to fill some felt survival need. A young animal or child playing may be learning, but it is not consciously learning; it is just having fun. I don't know if other animals have a perceptual sense of beauty, but it is easy to imagine how doing something just for the fun of it could, in humans, become doing something just for the beauty of it.

Play is also, by definition, creative. It is not an automatic response to demands from outside, but is creative behavior deriving from within. Moreover, play is representative. A play fight is not a fight, but it represents a fight. Playful predation is not a hunt, but it represents a hunt. In humans, the representative power of play grew immensely. Human children--and adults, too--can represent not just fights and hunts, but truly anything in play. Play thereby provides a foundation for all of imagination.

Fun, beauty, creativity, representation, imagination--these are the essences of art, music, literature, theoretical science, and (I will argue two weeks from now) religion. These activities, which characterize our species everywhere, make us human. They all originated biologically in play. Play is the biological germ, which we inherited from our animal ancestors, which grew in us to make us human.

Play as a basis for productive work.

In animals, play is quite separate from productive behaviors. Playful predation and real predation are two different things. But in humans playfulness can blend with productivity. When productive work is suffused with the qualities of play--that is, with freedom, creativity, and imagination--we experience that work as play. Hunter-gatherers had a genius for keeping their productive work within the realm of play. In our culture today, those people who have the most freedom of choice and opportunity for creativity within their work are most likely to say they enjoy their work and regard it as play.

Play as a basis for education.

This final point, drawn out, provides the most direct and clear functional line between animal and human play. But education in humans is far more than learning in other species. We are the cultural being, and education is the passing of culture from generation to generation. In previous posts I have already written about play as a vehicle for children's education, but I will have more to say in a future post about the ways by which animal play was modified, in humans, to become such a powerful force for education.


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