We often refer to people who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing as goofing off or playing around. Labeling games as unproductive is a relatively new approach, but it is the norm, and even though the technology giants try to portray games as a way of boosting creativity, they still expect their employees to play in a certain way.
As most tech workers would tell you, if you spent all day by the pool table, or playing Frisbee out on the lawn, everybody would know what you weren’t doing. Your job.
A moment of focus and productvity, brought to you by Office Depot
But games and play evolved before there was work, bosses, or pool tables. They came out of our need to learn.
In his groundbreaking study in 1898, The Play of Animals, German phycologist Karl Groos suggested that play is in fact a form of learning. Groos noted that while some animals are born ready to eat, protect themselves, and mate, other animals, most notably young mammals, develop these necessary instincts over time. But no one has yet seen a grown horse telling a stallion how to find a mate or fight an opponent. It’s play and mimicry that helps young mammals develop the necessary skills for adulthood.
Our unschooled human ancestors, who roamed our planet for hundreds of thousands of years before our time, had to learn many things essential for their survival. Regrettably, they didn’t leave YouTube tutorials to show us how life happened.
But we can find some clues by studying the lives of groups that maintained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sociologists and Anthropologists have studied these groups over many years in South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For a detailed, yet reader-friendly review of their key findings, I recommend Free to Learn by David Gray.
The learning concepts of early human societies were counterintuitive to our notion of learning. In short, the adults in these groups made little to no effort to train or educate their young. They didn’t even expect them to help in everyday tasks. Kids and adolescents were basically left on their own. While this may sound negligent in modern terms, the result is training that is more intense than you can imagine.
Living in the natural environment, the small groups of kids and adolescents practiced for hours the things they saw their adults doing – hunting and gathering. But they did it through free, creative and social play-like behavior. They learned how to track and find water, materials, and food. They built their own tools, based on the tools the adults were using. They practiced hunting techniques and tactics on birds, reptiles, and small mammals. Their actions as they walked about showed the empathy and care they had for one another.
This organic, social training eventually led to adulthood, just like in modern society. At the same time, modern visitors are often amazed by how adult activity in these groups remained playful. When they hunted, they were excellent trackers, archers, blow gunners, and spear throwers, but their greatest skills seemed to be in their understanding of how animals moved and thought, as if they were playing a game.
Where are the responsible adults?
They would wait for ages to see what the animal was doing before acting. They would make careful and measured actions to limit its options, sometimes without any visible results. They would signal each other without words. They would block escape routes and move into smaller areas where their prey was more likely to make mistakes. And they would use their weapons only when the timing was right.
They took this careful and insightful approach to other essential tasks, too, like setting traps, migrating, building shelters, etc. They were also very confident in and forgiving of one another when things didn’t turn out as planned. They accepted errors and appreciated effort, even though their survival depended on the most basic skills.
They didn’t have clear leaders or bosses, so they worked together to sort out problems. Most modern scholars now agree that this lifestyle, even applied to modern terms, is much more peaceful and healthy than what we’d like to think.
Usually, when we spare a thought about the lives of our primitive, illiterate ancestors, we mostly do so under the influence of modern thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, who described the natural state of humankind as
“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
Hobbes and others in his time came to their conclusions often without even leaving Europe or seeing different human lifestyles up close, in person.
It is through this approach that we’ve come to the modern world – human lives must be organized, disciplined, and well managed. Nothing should be left to chance, especially training into adult life. Young people should be able to solve problems on their own. Beginners make errors, so they shouldn’t be trusted. Play time should be restricted because it’s unproductive. After training, satisfactory results should be expected 100% of the time.
And we should be trained to sit down, work-out repetitive tasks, finish them on time, and obey authority from a very young age.
A primitive culture, going for the kill, as featured in the film Office Space
Even as we progress into the age of limitless information we still retain the instincts of the young hunter-gatherers. We remain inquisitive in our nature. As individuals, we’re often overwhelmed by our surroundings and tasks, so we seek companions to help us. We often like to take a playful, loose, and collaborative approach to deal with complicated situations.
We are trying to make a cognitive, artificial separation between ‘real’ and ‘play’ time. We seemingly work 9 or 10 hours a day and play at night. But our minds keep searching for games, excitement and companionship during the day.
Ironically, these are tech companies who know more about us than we ourselves do. They’ve equipped us with a modern hunting tool in the shape of a mobile phone. They created a cyberspace for us to forage through when we’re looking for distractions from routine tasks. They developed our social feed so we’ll see what the other tribe members are doing. News agencies are sending us push notifications, letting us know the prey is on the move.
And they give us games; lots and lots of games (there are already more than 783,000 in the App-store and counting).
Modern life is great. We have all the food, shelter, safety, entertainment, and medicine that we need, and then some. We usually don’t get killed by predators or find ourselves killing strangers.
But we miss all that free time. And play.
And when we do, we simply go hunting, with the tools we have.