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Homo Ludens—Is Playing Good for Us? November 30, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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 Years ago a Dutch researcher, Johan Huizinga, came out with a book, Homo Ludens, “The Playing Human,” which claimed that playing is older than human culture, that even adults play for the fun of it, and it’s good for us. That was actually an eye opener for most people at the time. Since then the scope of play behavior analysis has been extended to studying social animals, (see Bekoff and Pierce (Wild Justice) ) suggesting that social play allows for the development of a sense of fairness and justice, not only in humans, but in some species of animals as well.

In this article, “Why We Can’t Stop Playing,” we see the positive analysis of play continued—but this time the spotlight isn’t on playing as a social activity, but very much a solitary experience: “Casual games” that are played on our computers and our cell phones, mainly to pass the time while waiting for appointments:

Why do smart people love seemingly mindless games? Angry Birds is one of the latest to join the pantheon of “casual games” that have appealed to a mass audience with a blend of addictive game play, memorable design and deft marketing. The games are designed to be played in short bursts, sometimes called “entertainment snacking” by industry executives, and there is no stigma attached to adults pulling out their mobile phones and playing in most places. Games like Angry Birds incorporate cute, warm graphics, amusing sound effects and a reward system to make players feel good. A scientific study from 2008 found that casual games provide a “cognitive distraction” that could significantly improve players’ moods and stress levels.

Game designers say this type of “reward system” is a crucial part of the appeal of casual games like Angry Birds. In Bejeweled 2, for example, players have to align three diamonds, triangles and other shapes next to each other to advance in the game. After a string of successful moves, a baritone voice announces, “Excellent!” or “Awesome!”

In the 2008 study, sponsored by PopCap, 134 players were divided into groups playing Bejeweled or other casual games, and a control group that surfed the Internet looking for journal articles. Researchers, who measured the participants’ heart rates and brain waves and administered psychological tests, found that game players had significant improvements in their overall mood and reductions in stress levels, according to Carmen Russoniello, director of the Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic at East Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Performance in Greenville, N.C., who directed the study.

In a separate study, not sponsored by PopCap, Dr. Russoniello is currently researching whether casual games can be helpful in people suffering from depression and anxiety.

Hardly an incentive for further development of one’s sense of fairness and justice, like social play! But it may still have merit, if it can offset the unnaturally high levels of stress most of us labor under. For one thing, we can conclude that playing games by oneself adds an important dimension to the play behavior phenomenon; for another, I find it fascinating that the article doesn’t end with a Caveat such as, “You’re just being childish, needing approval from the world,” or “If you play too much you’ll become aggressive/a mass murderer/go blind” or whatever. For decades we’ve heard about the bad influence of computer gaming, as a parallel to the supposed bad influence of violent visual fiction. But the debate is ancient: to put it into classical philosophical terms, Plato warned against going to the annual plays in Athens, because he thought they would stir up people’s emotions and thus impair their rational, moral judgment; Aristotle, who loved the theater, suggested that  watching dramas and comedies would relieve tension and teach important moral lessons. In the last two-three decades most analyses of the influence of entertainment have, almost predictably, ended with a Platonic warning about the dangers of violent TV, movies, and videogames. Are we slowly moving in an Aristotelian direction? That would be fascinating, but here we should remember that Aristotle didn’t want us to OD on entertainment: the beneficial effects are only present if entertainment is enjoyed in moderation. 15 minutes of “Angry Birds” ought to be just enough…



1. Nathan Seither - December 5, 2010

I would assume Aristotle would be appalled to see how this generation has flown so close to the sun with all the reality altering technology. Was it not Rome that before the fall had a society strongly revolved around the Games in the Coliseum? I almost cringe at the thought of peering behind the cloak of history, afraid I might see a near correlation between the two great civilizations.

2. Asur - December 5, 2010

Why would Aristotle have been bothered by the use of technology in entertainment?

You seem to be implying that entertainment is a bad thing.

3. Nina Rosenstand - December 6, 2010

Interestingly, Aristotle wasn’t a great fan of “high tech” in entertainment. He says that if the same effect can be obtained on stage through narration it beats “the spectacle,” meaning a graphic representation. Today I assume we could translate that as “special effects.”

4. Asur - December 6, 2010

“if the same effect” being key; I think we would all agree that some special effects we see today are astounding in nature — and if astounding, then not things we would have personally conjured up in response to a spoken narrative, which works with the experiences we already have.

All else being equal, the preference for narration strikes me as a preference for the human connection narration provides as a kind of ‘value added’.

5. evelyn m 108 - December 6, 2010

I agree with the idea that playing helps us relax and that it gives us a sense of reward. Unlike life, games on cell phones or computers can be set to a certain level, often creating false pride when one plays on a lower level. The pretty, vibrant colors as well as encouraging words often play an important counterpart to the often monochromatic colors of a classroom, doctor’s office, or even work .Why not let the machine pump you up by telling you how awesome you are doing? After all, aren’t encouraging words used to help elevate moods? I dare to say it does. Aristotle might not be so content with young children playing violent games; allowing their young brains to see and be accustom to so much violence and cruelty, but he might be more lenient towards games that introduce colors and positivism.

6. Jin N - December 8, 2010

It is true that research in areas of social play is substantive in that we recognize the influences of social conditioning mechanisms for other (non)primates. I think however, we’re often too optimistic about establishing causal links, and at other times too quick to establish visible differences. I’m looking forward to seeing future developments on studies such as this with regard to other species’ and the development of their social justice system.

7. Candace Newton phil 108 - December 8, 2010

I understand playing computer games helps us relax but I would like to ask if this also includes sports. Playing a sport is playing a game but I would say with more pressures. For one you are playing with others and most of the time with an audience observing every move you make, good or bad. You also do not get to redo the game like you would on the computer. When scoring a point you get one chance and that’s all. There are no retry’s. In the end you are left with a loss, a win or sometimes a tie. There can be the notion in the back of your mind saying you could have done better but you cant replay the game to prove that to yourself, like you can with computer games. With playing computer games I am sure you can feel the satisfaction of winning and moving to the next level as well as the depressed feeling of losing. But in a sport with a team those feelings can be emphasized. You not only recieved victory but you helped your team feel that victorious win too. You did not only let down yourself but let your team down, your coach down and maybe even your parents down. With other people involved in your play, the game itself may be more emotional. So I can see where computer games are good for us by releasing stress but do they help us socially and physically. I understand that the game can make you feel accomplished and will give you encouragment but wouldn’t it feel nicer to hear that encouragement be heard from a person that has witnessed your effort rather than hearing it from a machine. Wouldn’t it feel nicer to get together with your team and go out for pizza to celebrate a win rather than seeing a trophy on the screen that you will never be able to touch. I realize that some kids may not be athletic and therfore play computer games but I still think they should go out doors and try playing a game where they can use their whole body. It does not have to be competitive it can be just for fun, exercise and endorphins. In the old days children did not have computers and tv’s like today and they relied on playing with what they did have which included toys, friends, siblings, and parents. With having electronic toys we have lost the companionship of others. People are becoming less social, friendly, competetive, reliable, empathetic and considerate that playing with others can give you a sense of. This may end up hurting us because life itself can be a game and you need to be a competitive player as well as a considerate player, that is not afraid to use the help of others, to score your own personal goal.

8. Kenyon P. Phil 108 - December 9, 2010

I believe that playing definitely relieves stress on so many levels however; playing too much can cause someone to stray too far from reality and become unproductive. Unproductivity caused by playing too much is probally not as severe as compared to unproductivity caused by other reasons like drug abuse but it is absolutely unhealthy. Plato probably believed that people could be doing something more productive other than attending the plays. Perhaps he considered play to be a waste of time and intended for children. I would have to disagree. Play is not just for children and the average adult can play on occasion and still take care of business, and this is probably what Aristotle believed. All work and no play makes Jonny a dull boy and all play and no work makes Jonny a child. The two work hand in hand. Without play in some form or another we become bitter and overstressed so I believe that play in moderation can be the best thing for some people.

9. Mitchell Gassaway philo 108 - December 9, 2010

i feel that playing is very important with the development of the human mind, it helps develop reasoning,decision making and it opens our imagination. especially in children. now when i say playing i don’t mean video games. it is unfortunate that kids today don’t play like i did when i was a child. nowadays kids get on Facebook to socialize with other kids, they play video games instead of going outside enjoying nature. i feel that this trend is disconnecting us (human kind)from nature. i feel that soon technology will over take our natural senses, simply because we wont need our natural instincts…

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