By Chris Wilson
Play activity can mean many things to many people, but looked at in relatively simple terms, play may be defined as a physical or mental activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective. This is a good definition as far as it goes, but is it really the full and complete story of why we play, or is there a deeper reason why we pursue such activities? In theory our playtime activities should liberate the mind and body, and allow both to fly as free as any bird. It should also allow us to cavort through time and space with a freedom and joyous exhilaration almost beyond our powers to comprehend.
This utopian vision is wonderful, and logic would intimate that, with our astonishing mental dexterity, nothing could be easier, but remember we are human beings, so, as ever, such utopia is potentially flawed. Why so, quite simply because of both who we are and because of the world around us. This might sound strange, but if we look at the types of play we all enjoy, things might get a little clearer.
These I intend to divide into reproductive, hunting, mental development, fantasy, recessive, therapeutic play. They will be looked at separately, yet in reality they are fused into our body as one, for driven by the needs of immediate and or long-term survival, and the need for subsequent genetic transference, they inevitably control us all. Let us thank nature, and any potential deity, that we can play, as life would otherwise be so dull.
At the heart of all our games is survival, and as such that is where any evaluation has to begin, for without fulfilling such a requirement life simply cannot progress. In the last chapter we looked at the driving forces of water, food, and territory, and reproduction, and it is precisely such factors that drive our most basic play patterns today. To begin with, instinctively, and then by trial and error, we begin to play and learn as soon as we are born, and we carry on until the day we die. What form does this take, quite simply in any form of play that enables us to source, retain, or utilise any resource we deem necessary or appropriate for our continued enjoyment or survival. This might seem a broad definition, but when you realise just how central survival play is to us, and how diverse our range of activities are in relation to such an idea, then all becomes clear.
In order to survive we are like any other living form or animal, we need to hunt for what we need and, once found and acquired, we have to make sure some other hunter doesn’t swipe what we have just gained.
Sometimes we hunt for ourselves alone, and sometimes we join forces so as to increase our hunting power, and in order that we may serve our chosen community or group as a whole. Sometimes we hunt within our local group, at other times, such as in the mating game, we look to bring in new blood, but whatever our chosen path, we return to the primeval forces that drive us and all life around us.
Of course we feel uncomfortable about this, and distant ourselves from life whenever we can. Most of us do not hunt, we claim. We play games, we hone our bodies our minds by challenging other like minds and bodies around us; we are different, we are human. Well let us look at these games, and see where it leads us. The first game is that of mating, and what a wonderful little game this can be. Look at a simple relationship and you might see what I mean.
Boy meets girl, or whatever sexual combination arises, and after a variable period of time an attraction occurs. Then the game really gets going, for the parents get involved and the potential partner is introduced to the established family, so that both sides can get to know each other better. Being human we generally do not sniff each other’s backsides for approval, or any other such mechanism, but that is all we fail to do.
The parents check the suitability of the newcomer, whilst assessing the potential for a longer-term match. The couple in question look on, assessing the parent’s reaction in turn. In time both family units meet up, and a fresh round of assessments occur.
This sounds very simple, and if we look at pack behaviour in the animal kingdom, obvious successful parallels can be drawn, but unlike our animal relations we have to think, and that is where complications set in.
Not for us the relatively simple mechanisms of pack maintenance and stability, not for us the unerring, yet steady pace, of nature and time. Oh no we are better than that, we are civilised, and we know how to behave. When we get going it is a little like watching a well rehearsed stage play, where everybody knows their roles and their place on stage, and, stuffed full of proven morality, the play continues until the final curtain falls.
Sadly though such a play is often a pantomime, and a play that, performed in a thick fog of uncertainty by actors who rarely know their lines, often ends in sadness rather than in joy.
The son’s parents might loathe the new partner, or his or her parents, but niceties forbid such views to be expressed. The parents might loathe each other, let alone the intended couple, but who cares; love, as ever, will always find a way. At the centre of this minefield we see the happy couple; surely they know the score?
Possibly yes, but probably no. They are likely to be more scared and confused than most. Never mind the game must, and somehow does, go on, but what a game, and what brave if stupid bunch of players.
Sometimes though the hunting and survival games are less obvious, and a perfect example of such a game is football. The beautiful game some call it, but is it no more than classic, if sanitised, survival hunting game, albeit one which is worshipped throughout the world? Strip away the hyperbole and rhetoric, peel of the glitz and glamour, and what do you really see?
At an agreed time, territorial area, and place, two sets of hunting packs agree to hold a game. It involves each side trying to breach each other’s defences by frontal or flanking attack, over a specified period of time, with the presence of three adjudicators on the playing area, and one more in reserve. The team who breaches the others defences more often gains a prize called a goal, and the team who gains more prizes within the agreed format claims victory, and thereby physical and mental ascendancy. In addition, supporters of both packs declare tribal or pack allegiance by adopting pack colours, and by screaming support from every vantage point possible.
There is however, one hunting and survival game that dwarfs football as regards world popularity, and that is the game of shopping, and what a curious game this runs out to be, as most of us would emphatically deny the true nature of such a game.
Most of us would claim that we no longer hunted for what we needed, and that we had moved on from the roots of our primitive ancestry, but what else is shopping if it is not hunting, albeit in a highly modified and, at times, extremely sterilised form? In our early days we would forage and hunt in our known or local environment in the same way as most animals do know, and work instinctively with nature so as to optimise our chances of success. Now we have become civilised and the forests, and rivers have become the supermarket, the high street shop, or an on-line electronic store.
The gun or bow and arrow have, for most of us, been replaced by the wallet, the credit/debit card, and the keyboard. Finally we do not need to laboriously track and chase our prey over the landscape, unless we are seeking a post office parcel, as most of our consumables are stacked neatly ready and waiting at a convenient payment and collection centre.
Despite all such advances we still hunt though, and to see why this is so let us enter the aisles of a typical large supermarket. Any one will do, they are virtually all the same, and, given even half a chance they will rob you blind .
The first thing we notice as potential hunters, is that the hunting ground is well lit, carefully laid out and attractively furnished with clear and informative signage. We like this as potential hunters, as when we hunt we like to feel comfortable and secure, and our prey can be obtained efficiently, swiftly, and with relatively little effort. Then we look around for a particularly juicy bit of prey, and this is where an interesting game of cat and mouse begins.
We know what we want to buy or hunt down, and we also like a good deal, so we look for the prey that has got a little bit more value, either qualitatively or quantitatively, as the preferred case may be. The Supermarket giants know this, but they want us to pick their prey of choosing, which will give them the best deal, so in comes special deals, multi pack deals, or seasonal specials, as well as marketing concepts of product placement, customer identification, and a host of other tricks that are hidden from us for as long as they can. . Our problem is they are smarter than we are, so generally, with our help, they win every time
As said though, we like to hunt here so we carefully browse the shelves full of potential prey, and make our selection, all the time though keeping an eye on other potential hunters or predators around us. Why are we cautious, well we are on somebody else’s territory, or at least on a shared territory. They might attack us, our prey, or even try to grab the best of our intended prey before we get there and claim it as our own. As we go round the store we spot the curiously named fresh food counters, and a new cycle begins.
In these of mass production, mass distribution, global sourcing, and intensive preservation, fresh food is rarely fresh, especially in a supermarket, but with the help of a fellow hunter on the other side of the counter we carefully peruse, then select, items that are on display. We droll over the items on offer, and salivate as our new friend offers us tit bits and tasters to try, until time, or our wallets pull us away, and of we all go to the tills in order that we might pay.
Gone are the days when such food was free, but with payment comes a potentially alarming prospect, for during this operation we are channelled into areas of the store where our privacy, security, and prey are potentially threatened.
The till has a much narrower aisle, other possible hunters are all around us and in today’s modern supermarket we will probably be asked a series of questions that we might not be ready for. Do we need a help packing, would we like vouchers for X, Y, or Z; and do we have a loyalty card, let alone what kind of bag do we wish to use or buy. This can be quite unnerving, for our carefully constructed comfort zone is suddenly whisked away. Here we really must hold our nerve, as God help us if we hesitate or fail.
Other hunters behind you will start to growl and grumble, and their screaming or griping offspring will probably join the fray. We turn to the cashier for help, he or she just glares in return, and repeats the same damn questions all over again. Still we hesitate, and then the greatest danger arrives. In steps the front-end team leader, supervisor, manager, or security guard; and almost inevitably they will ask one of two utterly stupid questions.
They will come out with either the phrase of “ Can I help you sir? or “Is there a problem Sir?. What they really mean to say is why are we holding up the queue, and what is our game, whilst all we want to do is to get our prey, and ourselves, out of the wretched place as soon as we possibly can. Mercifully we do escape and, prey in hand we live to fight another day.
Is what we have just been any more that a hunting exercise so that we might obtain prey for our immediate or long term enjoyment or survival, and are not the potential dangers just as real? Quite simply it does not matter what prey we seek, how attractive the surroundings are, or how amenable other hunters may be around us, the principle of the hunt will always stay the same.
Modern marketing teams term such a hunt as the needs, wants and demands of a customer, and if truth were told it s a good way to see how such a hunt is sequentially performed. The customer’s has a “need” to assuage a certain desire at a certain time. The Customer “wants” an object or idea in order to fulfil that need. Finally the customer “desires”, and nowadays demands, that the object should be available at a certain quality, price, time and location. So it is that our modern concepts mirror our actions in the wild, albeit in a dramatically altered way.
At times such a hunt may be plain ugly, if not downright dangerous, and that is where there is one or more of four possible prey imbalances occurs. This is where there might be an overabundance of special prey, a perceived need for rapid additional sourcing of prey, a potential shortage of prey that might be consumed, or where law and order breaks down, and sheer gluttony, greed, and opportunism. Under such conditions, near mass hysteria can almost set in, as seen in the annual January sales, at peak trading times such as Christmas, or under conditions of shortage where theft or violent looting can frequently occur.
Under such conditions do we not revert to the instinctive savage that once we were, and do we not leave every vestige of civilisation lying in the dust or in the mire? Such instances are mercifully unusual though, so generally shopping still remains a game. Certainly it is still a game of predation and counter predation, but like indulging in some courtly dance, we all know our places, we all know the steps and the sequence therein, and, unless threatened or attacked, we all know how and when such a dance should end.
Under such premises there is little difference between two kids playing, musical chairs, or tiddlywinks, shopping, and the most advanced hunting or survival team games that we deploy, as all are about the challenge of hunting down an object, or an idea, which someone else is also trying to acquire All is not lost though, for within us all we still have brain, and if it is used to the full, or even partially, the resultant play patterns can be truly incredible.
This is where we really come into our own; for such is our current understanding of life around us, that few other species have our cognitive strength and thereby our complex character. One of the finer expressions of such power is how we decide to use our leisure time, especially in some of the ways we play. Either alone or in groups, we challenge our own or our groups mental ability and agility, and, to a variable degree we seek to enrich our knowledge, or stimulate our senses, by associating ourselves with natural or planned stimuli around us. Theoretically this should be paradise, both individually and communally, for just think of the opportunities that surround us all, especially now in these days of Internet access, computerisation, and virtual reality systems.
Now as never before we have a stunning array of stimulants or development aids, to offer our minds. Just think of the knowledge released by Science, nature, philosophy, theology, sociological, culture and the arts, and, of course, ourselves and others around us. All give us a potential understanding of the world around us that is unrivalled in any other species. Yet, ironically, even here we cannot entirely escape our past, as are not so many of these games once more a question of survival?
Mental superiority within our pack is just as important as physical superiority, and so it is such demands enter our games. A classic example would be that of the game of chess, a truly adversarial mental challenge between two highly concentrated minds, and a game often repeated many times in order to attain, or defend, individual or group superiority. Such it is that from such simple games as children’s card or board games to the highest mental challenges that we know, nothing has really changed from when we first learnt to survive in a hostile world.
If we are so clever in the pursuance of such stimulatory games why do we then decide to follow a course of activity that, on inspection would seem to be pure madness or folly. We call it going on holiday, and it is often a perceived high point of the year, but is it such a clever thing to aim for, let alone to do?
If you are an animal, and if you wish to survive in relative peace and security, would you chose to move into a completely foreign territory where you might have no or little knowledge of the areas food, water supply, language, or potential threats? Furthermore, would you save up not inconsiderable resources to do so, and then place yourself at the mercy of the incumbent animal population? Finally, would you even consider such a move unless life within your own territory was unsustainable?
No animal, no life form, would ever do so, yet we look forward to such ventures, dwell upon their joys for year, and very often plan more and more extravagant holidays as the years roll by. Such a course of action often culminates in what we classify as a dream holiday or a holiday of a lifetime. We chase this dream with a passion and desire that at times know no equal, yet how often does such a dream become a full and total reality?
Sadly we almost place ourselves in an impossible position, for if the dream never arrives we are disappointed, it arrives we may be more so, and if arrives and lives up to our expectations what then? Akin to reaching the top of the highest mountain in the world do we have any other choice but to go back down to the level we were before, or at least to a level somewhere in between? In doing so might not almost inevitable long-term disappointment set in? Does this mean we cannot achieve such a dream, and enjoy it’s benefits to the full, certainly not, but bearing in the mind the potential disappointments and, at very best only a 25% chance of success might we not consider exercising a little more caution, or at least consider what realities might lie before us all?
Mercifully we can still dream and such a thought leads us into our next category of play sequence, the world of fantasy and escapism, and this can be a wonderful world indeed.
If nothing else fantasy play allows us to access areas of our minds through which we can transcend the reality of our normal lives. In doing so we can then generate new ideas, or even new worlds, that we can then shape or reshape as, when, and how we will. As such can any type of play offer as much as promise, and can any other type of play stretch the mind quite as far?
If this is true, and on the face of it seems to be fairly accurate, it is interesting to see quite how broad an appeal such a sequence can hold. It begins at a very early age, and if we are in any doubt look at a child playing in a cardboard box, talking to an imaginary friend, or quite simply inventing a game out of thin air. Do we, as adults, ever emerge from that cardboard box, or do we ever really wish to do so?
Some of us do climb out of the box, but I would maintain most of us stay behind and tenaciously hold on to the dreams that we hold so dear. Such dreams come in as broad a variety of choices as there are means to chase them, but if we are in any doubt look at the growth of computer games, and the up and coming growth of home virtual reality systems, let alone the opportunities that new technology may bring.
The sad thing is we often mock the child in his cardboard box and denigrate his desire to dream, but in doing do we not seek to condemn ourselves to a lifetime of sterile conformity where we can only enjoy what physically lies before us? So it is that many of us need such dreams or fantasies, but in doing so do we not practise a high degree of hypocrisy, do we not wish to have the best of both worlds where we enjoy the benefits of fantasy, while we denigrate those who do not have the power to answer back? Do we not secretly smile at the child in the box who desires to be an engine driver or an airline pilot, and then turn on our computer or play station so as to play our adult games?
How often do we become airline or engine pilots or drivers, premiership football managers, expert car or racing drivers, fantasy warriors, or designers of buildings, landscapes or continents? How often do we do so at the expense of the children, for whom we actually bought such games or programmes? Yet still we have the audacity to belittle their dreams, which we may secretly hold, or dismiss the dreams of others who desire to live in a private world of their own. What is also interesting is to look at how we aspire to copy the lifestyles of those around us who we individually deem as being worthy of our special praise or attention.
This is where we enter the world of celebrities and fame, and very often the idolisation of groups or individuals can bring hope and excitement to enrich otherwise dull or difficult lives. Do such fantasies have any power of their own? None what so ever, as they are but dreams, but do we not give such dreams tremendous power, and using that power do many of us not attempt to live our lives to the full?
Such negatives aside it may seem that such a play sequence can bring us few problems, but such is our innate ability to make a mess of things we have to be a little carefull, as our natural desire to raise ourselves everyday normality can bring problems of it’s own. Certain mental illness’s can bring on dangerous delusions that can result in physical problems for both the sufferer and for those around him, but of potentially greater concern to society as a whole, is our near rabid desire to escape reality through chemical intervention. .
If truth be told how many of us in adulthood, or earlier, have escaped the effects of tobacco, alcohol, or mind altering addictive or non addictive drugs? I am not saying we have indulged in all of these things, but then I doubt whether any of us have totally escaped their influence in our modern stressed out artificial world. Do such items have a useful role, well, possibly yes? Certainly our society would be lost if we didn’t have the chemical attributes of, for example alcohol, and if treated with care certain stressful situations may be relieved, or tasks undertaken which might otherwise be impossible.
We talked earlier about the drive to copy the celebrity lifestyle of our personal heroes, are there any problems emerging here? If such a drive is kept within manageable bounds, or if no damage results from individual or group idolisation then few problems occur, but we have seen the damage that of group or cult idolisation can cause, over thousands of years, and on an individual level financial, physical, of mental hardship or delusion can easily occur, to all parties concerned.
Such activities may not be as obviously addictive as many chemicals we eagerly imbibe but despite this being the case delusional fantasy, or unthinking blind adherence to any group or idea can be just as dangerous as anything that has gone before. So it is we have at our disposal a most valuable if potentially dangerous tool. Used wisely the benefits are clear for all to see, used unwisely, or taken to excess, the damage can be truly unimaginable. However it seems that we will always desire to fantasise and dream, so I wonder what new fantasies we will choose over the years to come?
There is one type of game though that is often warm and forgiving, and that is recessive play. It is similar in a sense to fantasy play, but it utilises memories of how we actually were rather than slipping into the realms of fantasy. If we are lucky, at times very lucky, childhood can be a time of warmth, peace and security, and is not unusual us for adults to recess into such a world through a variety of means, or through a variety of play sequences. It can be a rose tinted world where past pains are suppressed by past pleasures, but unless we allow such pleasures to get out of control, is it really a problem?
By rediscovering or re-enacting behavioural patterns or incidents from our childhood, do we not regain our childhood pleasures, albeit fleetingly, and in doing so almost reaffirm the reason why we have worked so hard, and for so long? In doing so might we not heal some of the self-inflicted damage we have created over the years? Sadly we are not praised in doing so, for, as with fantasy play, we are told, often by alleged peers, not to be so stupid, and then to grow up, to act our age and stop being silly; yet who is demonstrating stupidity?
We yearn for the exuberance of youth, we rejoice at the innocence within the eyes of a child, and we recall our own childhood, reminiscing about the good times that so many of us enjoyed, so why should such pleasures be denied? We know life is tough and stressful, but don’t we all want, and need, such comfort within our lives, and why should we deny ourselves, and others, such joys? Should we not support the recessive, and the dreamer, should we not protect their dreams and their memories of childhood for the generations to come?
Some of us though need a little more help in life than others around them, and so we turn to our final type of play. This can be a difficult area of play for some, but termed therapeutic play the rewards for all participants can be great indeed. If we were to ask most people what this play involved I suspect that most would state that such play revolved around the psychological or psychiatric therapeutic treatment of children or adults, in order to reverse or deal with damage caused over the years. This is a very important area, but it’s importance should not hide the broader perspective that such an area encompasses, as do we not have to include, for example, rehabilitation, physical therapy where body or tissue damage has occurred, or remedial team building where correction is needed, either in the workplace or in the home. Furthermore do we often practise such patterns in an informal, non-constructive, and almost unconscious fashion, by the very nature of the games we play?
We all recognise that children learn through play, and that they often doing so without realising that the acquisition of vital life skills is occurring, but how often do we recognise the same pattern within us all when we become adults? As adults we almost view play sequences as belonging to childhood and childhood alone, but when we indulge in our chosen play sequence or type are we not sometimes mirroring what we had to do when we were children?
When we play are we often not subconsciously retooling ourselves for the rest of out lives to come, and during such a process are we not reacquainting ourselves with the learning skills that we used so long ago? If this is true then how can such a learning sequence be avoided? If life is continually changing and evolving all around us do we not have to do the same? Regardless of whether we think we are special or not we are undoubtedly part of nature so surely we have to follow her rules.
One thing that is important to realise is that the games we play, or the play sequences we chose, are often a mixture of at least some of the aforementioned styles. Bearing in mind the complexities of our minds and bodies this is scarcely surprising, indeed it could barely be otherwise. It is a good thing that we do play though, and that play patters are seen in so much around us, for life is tough enough to endure without play and, fashioned in the same way as sugar coated medication, play certainly help the medicine of life go down.
Life though is never quite as easy though, so eventually we all have to succumb to the most basic rule in life that surrounds and envelops us all. What rule is this, quite simply the rule of life and death, and it has ruled all life since such life began and it will carry on doing so while life exists upon our world. This is the world we go to next, but, strangely, things are not quite as grim as they might seem
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