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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…

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