The Games Baboons Play

While I’m still technically involved in academia, I’m doing my best to take advantage of my access to the wealth of academic papers and journals normally kept behind paywalls and other gates. I really, REALLY wish this stuff was more widely available, because there is so much useful and fascinating information that someone can find in almost any field and apply to their own work. I’ve said before how important I think interdisciplinary research and education is, and this is a perfect example. How many game designers or game bloggers are aware of or able to access the HUGE amount of work written on games and play in other fields? One of the reasons online “is games art?” or “but is it game?” are so tedious is that the questions were already debated and answered decades ago (the answers were “yes, of course” and “yeah, why not asshole?” respectively). But even outside of art journals there is a gigantic library-worth of research on play and games. For example, the literature on play and game behavior in non-human animals.

The discussion of play in animal behavior was perhaps at its most controversial in the 70s and 80s. It was a hot button issue that people were willing to fling tons of hours at researching, or alternately fling tons of angry comments at whatever angry people with too much time sent comments before the internet. It really can’t be overstated just how much our understanding of animal behavior has changed in a very short time. The idea that crocodiles could use tools, fish could learn, cockroaches could have empathy, ground squirrels could have language, or ravens could have complex society was all unthinkable to much of the scientific world a few decades ago. Yet today we know all those things are true. Anything “lower” than primate was considered essentially a robot, bumbling through the world without intention and only barely aware of anything around it. When researchers saw an animal doing something with no apparent evolutionary purpose, it had to be explained some other way. “Play” couldn’t really exist in animals because the lovable bio-robots couldn’t POSSIBLY be able to do something outside of their genetic programming. It had to have a specific, useful function or be an example of a poor, broken robo-animal. Apes could be allowed to play because we evolved from them, so their play could be hand-waved away as part of what let humans appear. As people began paying more attention, the biological definition of “play” continued to be expanded and altered to fit our growing understanding that sapience isn’t a binary “yes/no” prospect.

Best Buddies

In terms of animal behavior, the definition of “play” I come across in these papers tends to be a but jargon-y and unwieldy. Sadly, that tends to be the natural result of these academic paywalls and gatekeeping. Don’t get me wrong, jargon is SUPER useful. It saves time, allowing you to convey really complex concepts in a much more manageable package. But the downside to jargon is that when you are writing for an audience that is expected to already be aware of that jargon, it is easy to forget the importance of accessibility. If you only write for academic journals that you know will only be seen by academics already aware of the context of your work, the jargon can easily build on itself and create an “academic language” that is completely impenetrable to anyone without the means of reading several hundred years worth of scholarship. This is a problem, and it is a problem that doesn’t require us to get rid of jargon as much as it requires us to make an effort to make information (and our own language use) more accessible.

So for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to be using a simpler definition of play behavior. Play is simply the invention or remixing of behaviors for a new context. The purpose of this remixed behavior can be for education, socialization, experimentation, stress-relief, or for no purpose at all other than to experience it. Play is not defined by its motivation or function, but rather in relation to the original behavior (or its lack of an original behavior). So, for example, when lion cubs use instinctual killing behavior to harmlessly wrestle, they are “play” fighting. When a sea gull or vulture repeatedly picks up, tosses, catches and drops rocks or sticks for no discernible reason, it is playing with the behavior it has learned to break apart and eat shellfish. It can even be simpler things like an otter or a dog moving around by dragging itself along the ground instead of running. In the otter’s case it is playing with the behavior it uses for swimming or sliding across slippery surfaces, and in the dog’s case it is simply playing with new modes of movement. It should be noted that reptiles, amphibians and even fish also play. All these examples have papers written about them describing this behavior as “play” so I’m not radically redifining anything here. Defining play by it’s behavioral characteristics allows us to see how play is used and develops in numerous situations, without having to throw a science fit every time some animal has the gall to play in a new way.

Here are two lovely bearded vultures playing in the air. Bearded vultures play games of tag and chase, as well as toss and catch objects between them in midair.

Here are two lovely bearded vultures playing in the air. Bearded vultures play games of tag and chase, as well as toss and catch objects between them in midair.

You may notice that animals can play without any games. In fact, “game” has a definition in regards to animal behavior that is completely divorced from play. There are animals we don’t think of as “playing” at all that are considered to use games quite often. In this context, games are simulations of rules or systems that an animal uses to process information. It doesn’t have to be conscious, it can be entirely instinctual or part of a larger, on-going game that the individual animal isn’t aware is going on. This is a big part of how game theory is used in an evolutionary/ecology context. Game theory can be a very useful interdisciplinary tool, for example the use of game theory to explore the genetic value of altruism is fascinating. It can also unfortunately be used in some very unscientific models to prop up some really poorly-thought out “bio-truth” nonsense. For example, there is a famous “evolutionary game” model designed to determine the “optimal coyness level” of a female animal. The model proposed two kinds of males and two kinds of females. One male would mate with as many females as possible and not spend any time raising the kids, the other would only mate with one female and spend the rest of its life helping to raise the kids. Females were divided into “coy” and “fast” categories. You can probably see where this is going to go. The model wasn’t based on any specific species, but rather suggested as a universal animal game. Female animals would “win” the game if they had healthy offspring with genetically successful male animals that helped raise them.

Surely you can already see the huge flaws in this game? A “universal” game model with only two possible ways of being “male” or “female?” What about promiscuous males that are still “good parents?” What about “loyal” males that contribute no energy to raising or protecting offspring? What about promiscuous females that select for good parenting? What about promiscuous females with methods of storing collected sperm to use at their discretion later (There are even some mammals that do this)? What about species with “loyal” males and “fast” females? What about homosexual behavior in animals? What about polyamorous or communal animals? The proposed “coyness game” posits a universal rule about “winning” mating, and in the end becomes completely useless for either understanding the behavior of the species we already know or predicting the behavior of a new species. Interestingly, the most useful definition I’ve seen for “game” in the context of animal behavior comes from an artist, Anna Anthropy: “A game is an experience created by rules.” The funnel spider who creates a simulation in their head of what will happen if they defend their web from the approaching spider has created a game. A very solitary game, but one where the spider is able to experience a potential outcome based on the rules they define. They’re running the numbers and making a decision based on what that experience tells them is likely. Yes, this would mean that potentially every time an animal or a person simulates anything in their mind they are making a game but GOD THAT CONVERSATION WOULD BE SO TEDIOUS, JUST LET IT GO, NONE OF THE SCIENTISTS CARE EITHER.


So we know animals play and we know animals use games, but do animals have playful games? Is the ability to take game behavior and play with it something unique to humans? A study on play behavior in hamadryas baboons shows some interesting forms of baboon play and games. The research took place in the 70s at a zoo with only four young baboons (and the only female became sexually mature during the experiment), so obviously we’re not looking at an accurate portrayal of wild baboon society or behavior, or any information anyone should extrapolate to a universal rule. The baboons were observed for just over 2 and a half months, and in that time several repeating patterns of play behavior took place. The baboons would initiate or negotiate play by adapting a “play face” in which the baboon would have a relaxed open mouth. A baboon would use the “play face” to solicit play, ensure that a fellow primate would not mistake play aggression for real aggression, or to negotiate the kind of play that would take place.

I’m only going to talk about one of the play behaviors the paper covers, which the researchers referred to as “chase,” because I think it is the most interesting and qualifies as a playful game. Like most of the play behavior, it would usually begin with “face off,” a a period of time where the baboons would adopt the “play face” and negotiate what kind of play took place. Usually (but as with most animal behavior, not always), if a baboon tagged the other’s front limbs and took off, this would initiate “chase”. In “chase” the two baboons would run in along a repeating circular track. The length and shape of the track is defined by the chasee. This is a non-contact game. The chaser never captures or strikes the chasee. Rather, the goal of the game is for the chasee to run fast enough so that it can overtake the chaser and take their place.

It should be pointed out that these specific baboons are NOT playing. This is a real dispute between two males. When playing, animals either do things they do “normally” in a new context, or invent entirely new behavior without apparent purpose other than the experience.

A lot of the power is held by the chasee. The chasee will periodically look over their shoulder and make the “play face” to the chaser. If the chasee doesn’t periodically make the play face, the chaser will stop running and the game will end. Presumably, the chaser is given the message that the chase is no longer playful and that if they continue they will be chasing another baboon for real, which could end in a real fight. In a play chase, the chasee almost never turns around to face the chaser. When this happened it either led to a fight or the dissolution of the current game for another round of “face off” negotiation. The game only takes place with the consent of the chasee and they can end the game at any time. Because the game doesn’t end until the chasee says so, and because the chaser is not allowed to catch or attack the chasee, the chaser is the one who sets the pace. No chaser baboon ever allows itself to overtake the chasee, no matter how uneven their skills. Larger, older or faster baboons will slow their speed, increase the length of their path or bounce off obstacles to slow themselves down and allow a smaller, younger or slower baboon the chance to overtake the chaser and take on that role. Once a chasee has overtaken the chaser, the chaser becomes the new chasee and their immediately adopt the “play face” if they wish to continue. So here is an example of a playful system with clear rules and roles. Rather than a contest the object of the game is a cooperative exploration of the roles chaser and chasee.

Other baboon games and play behavior DO involve contests or feature an unchanging aggressive/submissive relationship. “Chase,” and the fact that all these games were solicited through the “face off” negotiation period, stood out to me because in the context of the other play behavior it indicated that the baboons were communicating and negotiating some complex ideas. The baboons had preferred playmates, but also preferred forms of play with their playmates. If “face off” time is itself a form of play, then it also shows some insight into how play can be apart of language and communication.

So what can we as game designers learn from all this research into animal play and games? I mean, it is INTERESTING that baboons play games, but what can we take from this fact when we ourselves make or play games? Well to be honest, right now I think that naturalists and biologists have WAY more they can learn from us. There are still some overly conservative scientists who want to think of animal play as merely misfiring genetics, and looking at messes like the “coyness game” indicates that even forward-thinking scientists could benefit from asking an artist or designer at least take a look at their games and models first. Meanwhile we still really don’t know WHY most animals play, just that they do and that sometimes it is awesome. Any time someone tries to come up with a single rule for why animals play or how play is important, some animal goes and cocks it up by playing in a completely alien way or getting no educational or socialization value out of it. I don’t think any of us artists are going to radically change our definitions to fit an evolutionary model by any means, but it is interesting to consider our own playful behavior in the larger context of ecology. For whatever reason, play is part of being an animal. Perhaps the most valuable thing we artists can take from this research is the fact that games are not playful by default. It is through play that we have created the kinds of games and art that we have.

Leresche, Linda A.. “Dyadic Play In Hamadryas Baboons.” Behaviour 57.3 (1976): 190-205. Print.

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