Homo Ludens: Where Did Play Go?

Since Huizinga’s book “Homo  Ludens” was published in the 60s, about extolling the virtues of a re-awakening of playful behaviour in all ages of humans – there is little evidence his book has had a lasting  effect.

Playfulness is primordial. Humans, like apes, have a predilection towards doing things just for playful, harmless fun.  But they also have predilections towards doing bad things just for revenge, the thrill of violence, testing the rules, ego needs, and because god or a voice told them to. Human existence has become a balancing act between these inclinations, with egregious and criminal acts more common in and among societies, certainly over at least the past 2-3,000 years.

So what does that suggest to us about the future of the species?

Stephen Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, (Viking Press, 2011), iterated the acts of despotism found  in such societies as the ancient Babylonians, Samoans, Aztecs, and “kingdoms throughout Africa.” He also stated that

“When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives us the more sinister sense of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait for another few millenia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.” (p. 58) Given this ‘trend’ Pinker defends boldly in his 780-page thesis, my current intuitions garnered from current academic journals and media depictions, tell me this application of guarded optimism is simply not true. It feels like humans are “going to hell in a hand basket”  with the types and amount of violence we see, e.g., the Middle East, Africa, homicide numbers in the United States, drug cartel violence, hegemonic sexual assaults, etc. Yet there are still those who claim “Studies have not been able to confirm a genetic contribution to [for example] violent crime.” (Prinz, p. 43, using 1984 data)

Other studies have shown the opposite, that we are ‘programmed’ to be war-like. In his study of self-deception Trivers  (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and self-Deception in Human Life. 2011, Basic Books) expands on the ‘nature basis’ of violence, as he states “In both chimpanzees and our own lineage, primitive warfare – or raiding – was a male territorial strategy based on the coordinated murder of neighbouring males.” (p. 249) Self-deception, a natural and “sometimes necessary” behaviour, encourages warfare, especially at the group level.

Other authors have written about the hormonal basis for aggressive and violent behaviour, claiming for example, “Testosterone motivates agression [in males], while serotonin regulates the intensity of aggression. If testosterone levels are high, then the odds of a fight are high as well. serotonin may then act to reduce the chances of a fight by diminishing the tendency to strike out at the slightest provocation.” (Marc Hauser, Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong, 2006. Harper. p. 348-9).

A quick literature review will show you that there are many more studies about inherent aggressive and violent tendencies than peaceful, playful tendencies in human nature. This by itself, does not lead one to conclude we are more prone to aggressive behaviour; rather, it may be because we are naturally more curious about agressive, non-normal, and violent behaviour. TV shows blatantly support this conclusion, if we count the number that we watch or prefer to see, over comedies for instance. The interest we show in the plight of others is far greater than the interest we show in the successes of others. Death, injury and violence reign over life, vitality and having fun.

Can we turn this disturbing choice/instinct around? Perhaps. But it will require a social revolution by nurture over nature as never witnessed before. Behaviour modification works at the individual level, but it takes decades and even centuries to get it to work at the societal level. It begs the question, “Have we progressed at all?” We tend to believe democracy is one of the most workable signs of progress, as it plays out at all levels.

The jury is still out.

TL Hill, PhD




%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star