Why is play fun?

by Bernard De Koven on August 24, 2012

The paper that yesterday’s post, Love and Playfulness, summarized was called  “Play and Mate Preference.” In it, the authors had the good sense to quote me, as follows:

…in a brief comment on Chick’s sexual selection–based theory of play, DeKoven (2002) wrote “One more reaction I [had] to that article about ‘What is Play For?’ [was that] the author covers everything in depth except the possibility that play might be for fun.” DeKoven’s suggestion that play may exist because it is fun is a proximate explanation. Yes, play is for fun. But, why is it fun?

I love this question. I guess because the answer seems so intuitive that I simply would never think of asking it – which is precisely the kind of contribution that people like Garry Chick make with such brilliance. So I wrote him about the fun-play connection. And he responded and generously gave permission for me to share his response with you.

…we really did not look at why play is fun but I think we can ask the same question about, say, sex.  Jack Roberts used to say that God must have a good sense of humor having designed sex with all the sweating, grunting, and so on.  But the deeper message is whether we, and other animals, would do it if it were not fun.  Probably not and, if not, the consequences would be obviously bad for individuals and their species.  One has to wonder about this–the fun in sex–when you learn about some species where (typically) the male gets eaten by the female either during or shortly after mating. I am personally glad that is not the case among humans. But, other than in these special cases, I think that the fun-in-sex and the fun-in-play analogy holds, at least from an evolutionary standpoint.  So, play has to be fun for animals to engage in it.  And, because animals, including humans, spend so much time and effort in play, there must be something of value there. Making it fun, evolutionarily speaking, insures that we will continue to do it despite its obvious drawbacks (e.g., possibility of injury, openness to predation, waste of time and energy, etc.).

What we did not do in our paper is genuinely test the distinctive hypotheses we gave for adult male and adult female play.  Your encouragement is good because that is what we really need to do next.

“Why is play fun?” What a great question. I look forward to his answer. And yours.

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