Why is play fun?

by Bernie DeKoven 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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{ 8 comments }

Natalie M Kinsey August 24, 2012 at 8:35 am

It is that she is such a demanding mistress, that gives play her fun heft in my world. The structure of a game, or the mental state that keeps me in a playful range, both demand that I do good things with my mind. And, blessedly, due to bandwidth limitations, when I am wholeheartedly doing good things with my mind, i am literally unable to do bad things with my mind. And this is a very pleasant and life giving thing. When my mind is focused on something with which I am clearly lined up, it is all systems go, no resistant thoughts, or lagging energy, and there is great momentum in this. That momentum, that whush, is uber present whenever I say I am having fun.

And that whush just gets bigger. When you’re playing, and fully willing to the moment, you are also very link-up-able. That open, clear, grinny space is very conducive to hand-holding and joining. So the state is an attractive state and draws in cooperative components of all sorts, from people, to perfect breezes, to synchronistic unfoldings that are just thrilling to be within cuz of all the new-adventurey-ness of it, and because it falls on the laylines of your personal preferences.

Finally, I think that we are drawn to play in areas that are on our dream meridians, and playing there is easy to be fully lined up with and allows us to experience delight in ways that are specifically unique to us. The play also locates us on the dream meridian and allows us to play our way to our dreams, feeling all those synchronized whushes as we become more, playfully, whushingly.

Kristin Harling August 24, 2012 at 11:36 am

Play is the easiest way I know to connect to God and other humans. That definitely benefits us in so many ways – from physical health to procreation to emotional health to doing a better job raising our babies. And like Natalie said, it full occupies your mind with joy, and living in joy has all the same benefits of connection. And I’m pretty sure that joy and connection are why I am here on this planet in the first place. Play also helps me see more clearly – who I am, where I am, where I wanna go next.

Lori Kane August 24, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Because play is who we really are, i feel. Between the stars and the planets and the rocks and the raindrops, there is space, lots of space. In my experience that is who we really are, all the good solid bits and all the vast space in between. The playful space between (a few of the solid bits are grouchy because they feel the loss of disconnection). It’s just ridiculously fun to be who we really are. For me play is always about remembering–pulling the parts back together and feeling our selves, our own nature, as that greater whole.

Play is fun because the universe is kind and looking out for us. When we play, we return the favor.

Paisley Marks August 25, 2012 at 1:35 am

Play helps jet me to who I more truly am. When playing, immersed, I am more fully alive. The common, pain, boredom, and silly worries fall away, and I am transported to the place where my soul dares to soar. This is the place I am meant to be but often, sadly, I deny myself this environment, this bliss, this natural state of being.
It is only when I infuse my spirit, my soul, with my sence of play, wonder, life and love do I then remember who I really am. And remember I must; I don’t just have to visit! But I can reside and intwine the play and joy thought my whole life. The gift is to remember and revel.

Lily August 26, 2012 at 11:32 pm

My son asked me last night “why does everything look black, grey, or white in the dark?” I told him I had two answers, a scientific and a “Mom answer”. I started with the scientific answer and launched into a description of rods and cones. When I got done, my kids all said they wanted to hear my “Mom answer”. Why do we see colors as black, white, or grey in the dark? Because that’s what color everything is in the dark. LOL

Why is play fun? Well, I’m sure there are lots of scientific explanations, but my “Mom answer” to that one is simply play is fun because it is fun to play.

Love and laughter,
Lily

Debra Joy Hart February 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Genuine heartfelt fun play vs mandatory, hormonal and ” bite off their head” sex seems to me, very spiritual in nature. Not withstanding, sex ‘ can be like that despite any ” sweating or grunting.’ The goal is a human beings longing for a spiritual connection.. that is sharing of self and getting more of self. ” Self” being that unseen energy that permeates our Universe. ” Getting more of self” may be a longing for one’s own reflection in another human or thru nature. Seeing squirrels play and chase each other may actually stimulate that longing for play and fun withing us.

Genuine play may or may not involve goals ( sports) as long as both have the same goal and desire the same outcome. Teammates often are friends for life, with long time commitments to each other. Why? One answer may be their spiritual heart connection.

Why are some people at age 57 still best friends with someone from grade school or high school? Most likely they shared intimate, gratitude( not sexual) and memories of playing with non goal oriented games such as dress up,’ Barbie’s”, trucks, G.I Joe’s ( yes, I am from the 60′s) shopping together, or making wisecracks while watching certain TV programs.

Genuine “fun or play” is intimate, heartfelt, spiritual and connective. Play is communion.

Chris Hendrickson February 26, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I’d like to add another reason that play is perceived as “fun”: Because it (sometimes) allows people to escape from/challenge traditional behavioral norms–be they of the cultural, familial, societal type. When reserved people play a game that forces them to be outgoing, for instance, it pushes them to a place they may not have otherwise been able to reach. When people living in a conservative society play games that validate behaviors contrary to that society’s rules (say, the New Games Movement), it allows them to create new value systems in a safe space. This view also probably interacts heavily with what some of other deepFUN commenters have said about play being fun because it allows people to become more of who they truly are, and with Bernie DeKoven’s views about play as therapy. 

Grizwald Grim February 26, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Play isn’t any more fun than anything else, because everything is play.

Deep down, it’s all a game. It’s just that things that aren’t play often include a rule that you have to pretend it’s very serious.

How I personally came to the conclusion that everything is play that it’s all a game became recognizable to me when I contemplated on this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wJ-js_NLV8

We don’t know for sure if there is anything before or after, but we do know life is a limited engagement. We can take it as seriously as we want, that’s within the rules of the game.

I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation since early adolescence. I was losing that struggle before the above notion and I intersected. I was operating as an atheist-leaning agnostic at the time. Life wasn’t particularly fun for me, having played many of the cards I was dealt rather poorly had left me drowning in debt and with 30-some years of experience indicating that the odds of things getting better were pretty slim.

Being able to view life as a ride or a game has allowed me to keep playing and see what happens.

Others have come to similar conclusions:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLIPmoBEMg4

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