Play and Contest: Their Distinction and Merging in Sports

Contest and play have separate biological roots and functions.

Posted Nov 04, 2009

Last week, I began a series of posts dealing with competitive play.  Now, in this second essay of the series, I want to step back and reflect on the origin of competitive play. I see it as a conjoining of two originally distinct categories of behaviors, which serve very different functions--play and contest.

The Distinction Between Play and Contest in Animals

In non-human animals, play is always non-competitive. Some animal play may look competitive from a distance, but close inspection shows that it is not. Young mammals of almost all species playfully chase one another and wrestle, but none of that behavior is oriented toward defeating the other. In fact, close inspection shows that animals at play deliberately avoid actions that could turn the friendly encounter into an antagonistic one. In play fights, the stronger of the two self-handicaps so as to make the game more fun for both parties, and no animal pins the other long enough to provide any sense of victory or defeat. In play chases the players take turns being the pursuer and the pursued, and in play fights they take turns adopting the on-top versus underneath positions. The playful nip is never delivered as a hurtful bite.[1]

Animals also avoid showing nonverbal signals of aggression during play; instead, they repeatedly exchange play signals. For monkeys and apes the basic play signal is the smiling or laughing "play face;" for dogs, wolves, foxes, and other canids it is the "play bow," in which the animal lowers its front quarters (accompanied by tail wagging in dogs). These signals are, essentially, signs of non-aggression. If one animal is accidentally hurt in play, the other exhibits a spate of play signals to indicate that hurt was not intended.

Play, by definition, is voluntary behavior that serves no immediate purpose outside of itself (for a full definition, see Nov. 19, 2008, post). In human terms, it is done just for fun. In social play (play involving more than one individual), each must take care to keep the other pleased, so the other doesn't quit. That is why, in animals, play cannot be competitive. If it were, the weaker or less skilled would immediately quit, as it is no fun to be humiliated or defeated.

Animal behaviorists distinguish sharply between play fighting and ritualized fighting in animals. While the former is for fun and is cooperative, the latter is for some extrinsic prize and is antagonistic. Ritualized fighting is a variety of actual fighting that is conducted in such a way as to reduce the chance that either party will be physically wounded. It is, essentially, a nonviolent means of establishing which animal would win if the encounter were violent. It is aimed at determining who is stronger, braver, or more skilled. The combatants are most often males, and the prize, depending on species and situation, may be the opportunity to mate with a female who is looking on and is motivated to mate with the winner (so she can produce sons who can win such contests). Or, more generally, the prize may be movement up the dominance hierarchy, which itself may have many rewards, including increased opportunities to mate in the future.

In contrast to the joyful frolicking of play fighting, ritualized fighting is grim. It is characterized not by play signals, but by serious signals of aggression. Cats arch their backs, raise their fur, and hiss at one another; antelope paw the ground while staring menacingly at each other and may also test each other's strength by butting heads or pushing each other with their antlers; macaque monkeys stare and screech at one another; gorillas puff themselves up and pound their chests. If these tactics fail to establish a clear winner and loser--that is, if neither participant is sufficiently intimidated to back down--the ritualized fight usually turns into an actual, violent fight, which ends only when one runs away or goes into a submissive posture, which is a nonverbal way of saying, "I lose, I am humiliated, I am unworthy of mating, I will no longer contest your superiority." Quite literally, in such contests, the level of circulating testosterone goes up in the winner and down in the loser, whether or not any actual violence occurred. Aggression and sex are closely related in most mammals.

The Expansion of Play and Avoidance of Contests by Hunter-Gatherer Humans

We humans, of course, are mammals. We have inherited from our primate ancestors both playfulness and aggressiveness. We differ from those ancestors, however, in our extraordinary capacity for learning and the cultural transmission of values, attitudes, and habits. Some cultures have taken an egalitarian, non-aggressive direction, and they have done so in part by maximizing play and minimizing contests. Other cultures have gone in the opposite direction; they trivialize true play and place great value on contests.

The most egalitarian societies that anthropologists have found are hunter-gatherer band societies. Examples are the Ju/'hoansi, the Hazda, the Mbuti, the Aka, and the Efé in Africa; the Batek in Peninsular Malaysia; the Agta in the Philippines; the Nayaka in India; and the Aché in Paraguay. These societies avoid any social ranking. They have no powerful chief or "big man," they make all decisions by consensus, and they eschew violence as a means of settling conflicts. The hunter-gatherer way of life requires an enormous amount of sharing and cooperation, well beyond that shown by any of our primate relatives. As I have pointed out in previous posts, hunter-gatherers use play and humor to promote friendships, to deflate puffed-up egos, and to maintain the spirit of equality and sharing upon which their way of life depends (see especially the June 11, 2009, essay; also see Note 2). To that I now add the observation that hunter-gatherers avoid competition in their play and do not engage in contests.

Anthropologists who have lived in hunter-gatherer cultures report that adults and children alike, in such cultures, take care to avoid any sense of winning or losing in their play. For example, P. Bion Griffin, who has studied the Agta, told me in response to a survey question that the one consistent rule of play that he observed was that "no one should win and beat another in a visible fashion."[2] In an extensive discussion of play among the Ju/'hoansi, Lorna Marshall pointed out that even their more formal games, which have explicit rules and could be played competitively, are played non-competitively.[3] In fact, the explicit goal in most such games is cooperation, not competition. A good example is the "melon game," which is essentially a line dance in which the players toss a small melon over their heads, from one player to the next, while simultaneously singing and dancing. The goal is to keep the melon in the air as long as possible without breaking the rhythm of their dance. The game requires enormous skill, but the skill goes into cooperating to keep the melon in the air while staying in step, not into winning by determining who is first or last to drop it.

In one of his articles about the Mbuti, Collin Turnbull illustrated these people's attitudes toward competition by describing mock tug-of-war games that they played as part of their celebration of the honey season. The purpose of these games is not to win, but to ridicule the very idea of winning, and also to exchange good-natured teasing between the sexes. The men and boys take one side of the vine rope and women and girls take the other, and they sing in antiphony as they pull. Here are Turnbull's words: When the men and boys start to win, "one of them will abandon his side and join the women, pulling up his bark-cloth and adjusting it in the fashion of women, shouting encouragement to them in a falsetto, ridiculing womanhood by the very exaggeration of his mime." Then, when the women and girls start to win, "one of them adjusts her bark clothing, letting it down, and strides over to the men's side and joins their shouting in a deep bass voice, similarly gently mocking manhood." Turnbull continues: "Each person crossing over tries to outdo the ridicule of the last, causing more and more laughter, until when the contestants are laughing so hard they cannot sing or pull any more, they let go of the vine rope and fall to the ground in near hysteria. Although both youth and adults cross sides, it is primarily the youth who really enact the ridicule. ... The ridicule is performed without hostility, rather with a sense of at least partial identification and empathy. It is in this way that the violence and aggressivity of either sex ‘winning' is avoided, and the stupidity of competitiveness is demonstrated."[4]

The Merging of Play and Contest in Post Hunter-Gatherer Cultures

Agriculture, first developed about 10,000 years ago, brought the eventual downfall of egalitarianism and the rise of competitive, hierarchically organized societies. It also promoted the development of competitive play. People in all agricultural and industrial cultures, unlike those in hunter-gatherer cultures, play competitive games.[5] In our own society such games include all formal sports and almost all board games and card games. Such games seem to be best understood as a conjoining of play and contest. In fact, depending on the players' attitudes and the rewards (or lack of rewards) available to the winners, games that are designed to be competitive can vary along the whole continuum from pure play at one end to pure contest at the other.

Games with a competitive structure are pure play when conducted in the manner of the Mbuti's tugs of war, where nobody cares about winning. They are also mainly play when scoring and striving to win are viewed simply as an enjoyable aspect of the game, not as anything that has consequences beyond the game itself. However, when trophies or other prizes are added to the scene, or when spectators are added who will judge winners more favorably and losers less favorably, or when the players measure themselves by whether they win or lose, the games become less playful and more like contests. At the extreme, where winning is all-important, the games are pure contests, not play at all.

The addition of female cheerleaders to male sports in schools seems to be almost explicitly designed to mimic the situation present during ritualized and actual fighting in animals, where males battle it out to win the favors of females. And, at a gut level, the link to sex seems to be present in all serious competitive games, at least for males. Among post-pubertal boys and men, testosterone level goes up in winners and down in losers--just as it does for animals engaged in ritualized fights. That's true not just for physical sports, such as football or soccer, but also for board games such as chess.[6].

In our society it is hard to be against competition. Competition ranks high in our society's hierarchy of values. But cooperation also ranks high; and, let's face it, competition and cooperation are opposites. We like to pretend that they are not, but hunter-gatherers knew better. I myself, like so many people in our society, have mixed feelings about competitive games. I can't get myself to be completely against them. I do, however, think that we have gone overboard in pushing children into competitions and reducing their opportunities for fully non-competitive play--the kind of play that they themselves most often choose when adults are not around. In my next post I plan to explore the moral values enshrined and practiced in contests versus play, and in the post after that I plan to describe the ways by which we as a society subvert children's strong urges to play and push them into contests instead. We do this especially in our schools, which, by design, force children into almost continuous contests.

As always, I greatly value your input. Does my distinction between play and contest make sense? What do you think are the relative values of each to children's development? Your thoughts will play a role in my next two essays.
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[1] For general discussions of the noncompetitive nature of animal play, and of animal play signals, see: Bekoff, M. (2001). Social play behavior: Cooperation, fairness, trust, and the evolution of morality. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 81-90; Fagen, R. (1981). Animal play behavior; or Power, T. G. (2000), Play and exploration in children and animals.
[2] Peter Gray. Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522, 2009.
[3] Marshall, L. (1976), The !Kung of Nyae Nyae.
[4] Turnbull, C., "The Ritualization of Potential Conflict Between the Sexes among the Mbuti," in E. Leacock & R. Lee (Eds.), Politics and History in Band Societies (1982), 133-155.
[5] For a summary of cross-cultural research correlating competitive games with social values and economic systems, see: Brian Sutton-Smith & John M. Roberts, "The Cross-Cultural and Psychological Study of Games," in G. Lüschen (Ed.), The Cross-Cultural Analysis of Sport and Games, (1970).
[6] For references on the effects of winning and losing on testosterone production, see: Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: An evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 30, 319-345.