Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

I visit Pratt’s Poetics Lab focused on play

Posted 18 Feb 2016 / 0

Last week I had the privilege of being a guest of Pratt’s Poetics Lab course, whose focus this semester is on play behavior. The course involves a number of different faculty and hosts a bevy of guests but is the brainchild of course coordinator Ira Livingston. My job was to introduce the biological and evolutionary approach to understanding play behavior… all in a quick one-hour visit.

The main goal of the visit was to give students a biologist’s definition of play behavior and to get them to think about how these different behaviors might be adaptive. So I quickly introduced how biologists define play, outlined some possible benefits of human play behavior, and then launched into a game that I originally created for my now-defunct Evolution of Play course.

The game is pretty simple, and belongs to a family of different “classmate challenge” games that I play in a variety of my courses. In this game, groups of students compete to try to stump each other by proposing specific forms of human play that might be a form of play with adaptive value. Their short descriptions of a behavior are passed on to another group, which has to decide how to classify that behavior. Three major classifications apply: either the description of the behavior isn’t sufficiently specific, the behavior should not count as play, or the behavior does count as play.

It is amazing how often students write down behaviors that simply aren’t specified enough to judge as being either play or not play. In general, context matters a whole lot in understanding behavior, and if the context in which a behavior occurs is not clear it is pretty difficult to determine if that behavior is “playful”. If the first group writes down a behavior that could be play in one context but might not be play in another, I expect the group analyzing that behavior to point out this context-dependence.

For the most part, students don’t propose behaviors that clearly are not a form of play, but in the event that a behavior that clearly is not play is suggested by the first group, I expect the group analyzing this behavior to point out how the behavior fails to meet a particular part of the definition of play.

A lot of the behaviors proposed end up meeting the definition of play and clear potential adaptive advantages of this behavior can be identified. Although the nature of the benefit provided by a play behavior can vary, generally all the benefits of play are in some way indirect, often at least in part through delayed payoffs. Students should be able to identify some of these benefits and explain how they are generated by the proposed play behavior.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 10.20.36 AM.pngThe game play sheet that students used during this activity

One of the students in the class (thanks Spencer!) pointed out that what we really were trying to do in this game was to analyze play from the evolutionary biologist’s perspective; as such, my game sheets should make it more clear that what we are calling “play” in this game is really just one definition of play. In a seminar that is using “play” as a theme for thinking about writing (and whatever else counts as “poetics”… I am disgracefully ignorant of the true meaning of this term), it is important to recognize that much of what counts as “play” may exceed the narrower boundaries defined by biologists.

Lots of fun (and playful!) ideas of what might count as play were proposed by the six groups of students and one (supergroup) of faculty who participated in this activity. I analyzed these in this short video:

I hope that this is clear, but this activity — including my commentary on it — is highly speculative. Although we did not get into this in class, it is notoriously difficult to demonstrate the benefits of play behavior, so moving from an “idle hypothesis” to actually testing the predictions of that hypothesis is no small matter. Nonetheless, I think that it is important to recognize that play has a biologically-evolved basis.

A Major Post, Adaptation, Evolution, Evolution Education, Human Evolution, Human Uniqueness, Play, Pratt Institute, Uncategorized

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