Lost Levels Talk – Non-Human Play

Below is the full version of the talk I gave at today’s Lost Levels. Some of it I have covered in my past post on baboon games, but since then I’ve been thinking more about how our knowledge of animal play can be used by us artists:

When I decided to go back to grad school, I knew I wanted to study ecology and animal behavior despite my undergrad having been entirely based around animating clay figures and studying kabuki. This is how your brain works when you have tourettes, you decide to do things in the most round about way possible. Which is probably why studying ecological art then got me into doing games.

Doing games while studying ecology and animal behavior has been interesting not only because I never have a shortage of inspiration for game ideas, but it gives me a lot of inspiration for topics to look up regarding biology as well. Play is an extremely interesting and intensely frustrating aspect of animal behavior. If you think our own “what is play? What is game” talks get tedious and contentious, you should check out the versions biologists have.

A big problem scientists seem to have with play in non-human animals is that there doesn’t seem to be any consensus as to where it came from or why it happens. A lot of assumptions people made about animal behavior turned out to be completely false when we set down to observe or test them. We’ve all seen cats play-hunting and attacking string and toys we dangle in front of them. It makes sense to think “oh, this play would suit their lifestyle as predators! It lets them hone their hunting instincts and become better hunters!” But the truth is, play does not help cats become better hunters. Cats who never play are not in any way less likely to be good hunters, and cats that do play have no edge over others. The same is true for other playful predators. Play doesn’t’ help grasshopper mice hunt grasshoppers better, it doesn’t help meerkats forage better, and it doesn’t help coyotes hunt in packs better. So you might think “ok, so we can cross that idea off the list completely” but wait! Play DOES help bears become better hunters and foragers. Crab-eating foxes who play do then find themselves more likely to catch a variety of crab-related prey. Bush dogs become better pack hunters through play.

The other common theory about animal play is that it is social. Play brings members of a herd or a pack together and aids social cohesion. Well the same naturalist who tested to see if play helped meerkats become better hunters also tested to see if it helped them socialize or create bonds. Turns out meerkats who play together as kids are no more likely to hunt together or create new families together. Meerkats who play are not any less aggressive than others, and are just as likely to fight with other members of their family. Play serves no social function for meerkats, an intensely social animal. Reading the meerkat papers in order is pretty funny because eventually the naturalist just gets super frustrated and says “I’ve wasted five years to learn what play isn’t.” It’s kind of sad, but since that wasted five years was spent playing with meerkats and having them climb all over her… yeah, my heart bleeds.

But wait! If we look at a larger cousin of the meerkat (and the housecat) we learn that play CAN be social for animals. The spotted hyena is one of the most intelligent social animals there is. When tested for intelligence alone they do alright, but in groups they beat chimpanzees at solving puzzles. The more hyenas you get, the more intelligent and complicated their behavior. Hyenas can be incredibly altruistic and also incredibly vicious to other hyenas. In contrast to the meerkats, hyena play does aid social cohesion. Hyenas who play are less anti-social and better adjusted. The same is true for rats. If rats are withheld from playing, like, say, in a laboratory experiment, they become incredibly anti-social and develop PTSD. Science is fucking mean to rats sometimes.

Then there are cases where play just makes no sense. Mountain goats who play run the risk of falling down the mountain and dying. In fact, many do. So you’d think natural selection would weed out playful goats, but it doesn’t. Goats are very playful. So play must have some vital function for them, but no one can figure out what it is and every once and a while a goat plays a little too hard and dies. Deer play a lot, and they are so keen on playing that even if they meet a deer that is, due to a natural or artificial reason, unable to produce the “play soliciting” movement, they will find a way around it and negotiate play. Deer will invent new play-soliciting behavior in real time with these alien deer. This is like spontaneously inventing a new language so you can play chess with someone (except not really). So play must be important to deer! But, again, testing shows no purpose to said play. And deer who never play? No social or mental problems whatsoever. So deer want to play REALLY badly and are willing to put effort into doing it, but if they don’t get to? Eh, no big deal.

Basically, the reason for play varies wildly from species to species. Scientists who get frustrated with play behavior do so because animal play resists a single, universal definition or purpose. Sound familiar? The play that interests me the most right now is play for learning. Kea, a carnivorous parrot from New Zealand, are perhaps the smartest bird on the planet and one of the reasons they are so smart is play. Keas play with objects all the time, and then later when presented with a puzzle to solve keas have the ability to think abstractly about the objects they played with and then create new tools or ways of interacting with objects to solve those puzzles. This has helped keas thrive in complicated, but potentially rewarding, human settlements even as their cousins have gone extinct. In mammals, the species most likely to play to learn are rodents and primates. Rodents and primates share a common ancestor. You have more in common genetically with a rat than a dog or cat. You also have more in common with that rat in terms of play. Rats and humans (and other rodents and primates) who play grow larger brains with more neural links. Rodents and primates who play have a much easier time solving puzzles and learning. Animals that play to learn tend to have the most complicated play and games. Ground squirrels play to develop strong coordination and motor skills, as well as simulate and test social skills. Baboons will negotiate rules before and during a game, and will alter those rules as the game goes on to make sure all participants can play for as long and successfully as possible. Baboons even have games that let baboons of a lower-rank (either due to social status, age or ability) simulate being in positions of higher rank.

So animal play is interesting, especially for people working with animals or studying biology, but what exactly does knowing that play is so diverse and varied between species do for us artists? Well, for one thing if offers a nice scientific justification for what we all do, if anyone feels they needed one. Humans play more than any other animal, and we play for every reason imaginable, so there is simply no wrong way to engage with play from a biological standpoint. I think it also offers scientists an opportunity to learn from us. Rigid ideas about science has the same problem of rigid ideas about art, it runs into problems when it is used to interpret conflicting data and definitions. Play is scientifically frustrating because it can’t be quantified in one single concept that applies to every species evenly. Playful science allows the creation of more flexible definitions that change with the context, and that lets us make a great deal more sense of the data we collect. Since I got into gaming I’ve seen brilliant people make games to communicate, to break down barriers, to make sense of trauma, to help others, to learn, to test, to goof around, to make friends, to flirt, to reconnect to lost friends, to make sense of the world, to connect to a new idea. These games we make can inspire or serve as templates for others to create their own forms of play and games for virtually any purpose. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve also been creating tools for every other field to become better at what they do and to help make sense of the world.

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12 Responses to Lost Levels Talk – Non-Human Play

  1. segmation says:

    I had not thought of what it involved to paint animals in this manner. Do you enjoy using art to create all types of animals?

  2. freakreborn says:

    i too aspire to be amongst the game developers one day and your unique venture in through study of animal seems to be greatly inspiring, Thank You !

  3. awax1217 says:

    An interesting blog. I enjoyed the hyenas and the concept of how intelligent they are. Play seems to be a need by some species to grow the gray cells. Do animals all have gray cells? Somewhere I read about monkeys in a room and typing away and then a sentence was typed. Playing with keys can lead to a novel enterprise or a career in janitorial pursuits.

  4. Stephanie curry loves this post.thankyou.

  5. Phili Banter says:

    This was soooo interesting!

  6. No-name says:

    Reblogged this on Dancing Doll Fins.

  7. greenday246 says:


  8. It’s inspiring to know this much thought and wisdom is going into video game development. Your post brought to mind something Dr. MLKing said about the creative tension necessary to force positive change in individuals and a society. The key word there is positive. I’m afraid most games are promoting kinds of playing that’s destructive and corrosive to kids’ souls. We need games that are exciting, adventurous, and compassionate. Desensitizing kids to the pain of others can only produce an unfavorable result, perhaps an increase in real life killing sprees or who knows, a contagious zombie apocalypse. Honestly, what’s the difference between a carnivorous zombie and a human who doesn’t care about another person’s feelings?

  9. silentzephyr says:

    Really enjoyed reading this, especially as someone who creates games for educational purposes! Quite a read!

  10. vicbit says:

    A great post and well written, I really enjoyed reading this! It reminded me of all the stuff we covered in my Behaviour degree form Alex the African Grey Parrot and hyena social structure to clicker training a goat! Goats definitely love to play from when they are kids right through adulthood. Some great inspiration here. Thank you!

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