It is easy to believe that games and play are unique to humans. That playing has something to do with free time, or abundance, or our higher intelligence. But as anyone who has ever owned a puppy will tell you, play is the most basic instinct of all.
And it’s not only mammals that play – scientists have long observed play-like behavior in animals including birds, reptiles and even fish. It seems that play is really an integral part of life.
If we ever encounter life from outer space, we would probably need to play a little before we move on to more urgent issues.
But why do animals play? Why is it than even in the harsh environments of the Savannah, Deserts, Oceans and poles, spontaneous games keep emerging? And what can we learn about it as humans?
1. Play is for developing physical skills – the cubs of many super-predators like wolves and lions can be seen biting, pulling, scratching and wrestling each other, in what sometimes is seen as a violent game. Other species, like baby wild goats, can be seen ramming each other. Dolphins will catch the surf.
This is an important aspect of play that applies to humans as well – play help us develop the physical skills required for our survival in a controlled and safe environment. This is mostly noticed in physical skills, because applying some physical force on another lion cub is far less dangerous than trying it on a grown wildebeest.
2. Play is for developing empathy – when a wolf's cub bites one of its siblings, they will do it in the strongest form possible without hurting or injuring it. There is an instinct in place that prevents most animals from harming other members of their family. By not applying its full force, the cub learns its own limits, but at the same time not to inflict unnecessary pain. It goes deeper than this – the cub learns how its siblings will react, so it can use its mental and physical skills better. For example, if the cub jumps from the front they are more likely to be discovered and pushed back. But if they sneak from the back, it’s much easier to go unnoticed.
This applies to human games as well – when playing, we learn how our opponent thinks and how we need to act in response. We learn that when we act fast we can surprise them, but we can make more mistakes.
3. Play is for discovery – in the new BBC series Blue Planet II, a school of young dolphins can be seen throwing a coral piece in the water and then looking for it on the sea bed. Though scientists aren’t sure what is the exact meaning of this game, it is obvious that this is more about discovery than about making a catch.
In primates, scientists have noticed that some objects can be collected by a member of the group and others will want to take and explore it. Play is about discovery of the physical and social world around us.
4. Play is for socializing – all play behaviors occurring in nature are carried by animals living in groups or in extended families. The act of play helps social animals to practice social norms and develop relationships with other members of the group.
People play for the same reason – we want to play because it’s a form of (mostly) harmless and fun interaction with other members of our group. When a kid cheats in a game, they’re trying to see if this is an acceptable behavior. Everybody likes winning because it places us in a better position in our group.
It’s worth remembering that the most important aspect of the game isn’t the win nor the theme – the popularity of Chess isn’t about strategic thinking or waging wars, but about an ever-changing interaction with other humans.
5. Play is a way of showing affection – a lion sits idly under a tree, watching the savanna, looking for prey. Suddenly, one of his cubs jump from behind, biting him as he plays around. The lion doesn’t scream, doesn’t get upset, doesn’t punish them.
He knows that their play isn’t about disturbing her foraging, but about getting her attention.
Kids do the same – they play in the living room not because they like to break things and annoy their parents, but because they seek our attention.
Boundaries are important, but the essence remains – kids crave for our attention and calling us to their play is their way of showing affection.
So keep playing. It's in our nature.