Playing for the Fun of It: Some notes about our Playful Universe.

…the fun of playing…. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category.  Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

Satisfaction accompanies intrinsicness. Anthony Putman


Consciousness is the first example of the selectiveness of enjoyment in the higher animals.Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought


A Zilch particle is a person with almost everything left out. Peter Ossorio

Let’s play around with some ideas.  I’m going to take steps to build the case that play abounds. That nature teems with it and that it serves no necessary purpose other than the enjoyment of having fun.


I’m going to start from the top down.


The point of play is to have fun.  I think play is intrinsic to “higher” animal life. Its adaptive function, if any, is just icing on the cake. Given the trouble I sometimes get in, I’ve been told that some of my ways of playing around are not adaptive at all.  You’d have to bend and twist and wiggle to make the case that it is. So remember the maxim that we take it that things are as they seem unless we have sufficient reason to think otherwise.

This is how it seems to me:

Play counts by not counting. Play is satisfying and fun. This is so intuitively obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, but bear with me, I’m going to link some weird stuff together. I’m going to poke around and raise some questions about the over use of evolutionary explanations in psychology.

(Still, I love the explanatory power of evolution. I have a portrait of Darwin in my office.)

I’d like to make sense of play as play and not as something else, but first I need to provide some relevant concepts.

Let’s start with goal-directed behavior, Intentional Action. Behavior with a purpose.  There are varieties of Intentional Action. Some forms of Intentional Action involve choice and self awareness and some do not. I am capitalizing concepts to indicate they are part of the lexicon of Descriptive Psychology but you’ll find they are consistent with ordinary usage.


Intentional Action is the general case of purposeful, goal-directed behavior, whether chosen or not.   One variety is Cognizant Action, where actors knows they are acting intentionally. Another is Deliberate Action, where actors choose a behavior from the possible options they recognize.

Intentional Action is the general case of animal behavior. Deliberate Action is the form of Intentional Action paradigmatic of Persons, and of the type of persons we know best, humans.

People, while awake and behaving, are not always deliberate or cognizant. Some of our actions are merely intentional. We are not always making choices nor are we always aware of our actions, but Paradigm Case Persons must be, at times, appropriately able to know they are making choices to be one of us in good standing.

Intentional Action is in contrast to behavior or performance that is a matter of reflex, is accidental, or utterly coerced.

What sort of action is playful action? What are we doing when we play?


I am not going to define play yet but will instead appeal to the notion that all play shares some sort of “family resemblance”. There are lots of similar and dissimilar practices that count as play. (A main cause of philosophical diseases—a one sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).

I will come to some tentative conclusions about what makes play special based on its improvisational and intrinsic nature.

I think play is intrinsic to life and is a natural possibility of Deliberate Action. I do not limit Deliberate Action to persons although people can engage in forms of Deliberate Action that non persons cannot. Having choices that can be managed linguistically opens up possibilities for play beyond the experience of pleasure. Some playful Aesthetic satisfactions come to mind.


To the extent it is reasonable to take play as an intrinsic activity, we should find it a feature common in sentient life. As human animals, as persons, we get up to our own special monkey business facilitated by language.  We are deliberate and cognizant players.  But other animals play, too. The less evidence I can muster for an action being deliberate or cognizant, however, the less convinced I am that it is playful, even though it might be fun to watch.


I like it that Wittgenstein spoke of the child’s learning its native language as playing a “language game”.



My dogs play, alone and together. Sometimes they let me play with them. Social playing is probably easier to identify as play. People play with people. Dogs play with dogs. Dogs and people play with each other.

I think I have observed an octopus at play. About worms, I’m not so sure.

When I play with peers there are more possibilities, and more interesting possibilities for me, than when I play with small children or infants. But it is all fun.

There are more ways I can play with you than with my infant and my dog.  But to say there are more ways to play with a peer is not a claim that that play is more fun. (You are going to point out that I sometimes play with you the way I play with kids and dogs.  But I still laugh at fart jokes, and so do you).

It seems, with very few exceptions, that most vertebrates play.

If we start with the recognition that Deliberate Action is enhanced by language, but does not require it, we find play abounds. Some fun involves games with rules and some is just for the hell of it. A lot of the way I play is with words and ideas. But I think play is deliberate. It involves choice.
Playing also requires mastery, competence or know-how. We can get better at our games and acquire sophisticated and nuanced ways of having fun. It may be the more skilled the play, the more it is satisfying and fun. But maybe not.

I will later elaborate on satisfaction and fun.


That having fun is reason enough to play is not to claim that fun is all we accomplish. We can learn to navigate all sorts of tasks as well, but if play is not also for the fun of it, it’s not play. And while trying to accomplish some serious instrumental task, I might end up playing around with it.


I like to play with ideas. Here are some thoughts:

I promised to say something regarding evolutionary psychology. I take issue with the belief that behavioral patterns persist fundamentally because they are adaptive and enhance reproductive fitness. When I say play is intrinsic I am saying its occurrence requires no other reason than it is fun. (Of course, if you have two or more reasons to do something, you have more reasons than if you only had one. I love tautologies. They are fun to think. )

Must play have an adaptive function?  Must it offer some sort of selective advantage, some enhancement in reproductive fitness? (Note, I am asking if it must, not if it also might.)


Consider some ideas and finding that informed my thinking here. I think they somehow fit together.


Thomas Nagel seriously pissed off a variety of scientific and philosophical communities when he argued in Mind and Cosmos that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”  One gist of his case is that qualities that are integral to consciousness are inherent in nature and not simply an emergent quality or one that arises out of adaptive processes. The possibility of cognizant action is inherent in the cosmos.  Of course, this pleased some with a theistic bent, but Nagel argues their claims are also problematic. He is not suggesting  deities or supernatural forces. But he does point to a conclusion that there is more to biology than material process; that there is something inherent in material substance that renders it compatible with consciousness from the get go.   This makes for a very interesting universe.


Another spark. Here’s from a recent posting in The Baffler by David Graeber, “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun”, that resonates with Nagel’s view and takes play as intrinsic.  A brief passage:


…. those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it.

Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?


Near the end of his essay Graeber writes:


Still, if one wants a consistently materialist explanation of the world—that is, if one does not wish to treat the mind as some supernatural entity imposed on the material world, but rather as simply a more complex organization of processes that are already going on, at every level of material reality—then it makes sense that something at least a little like intentionality, something at least a little like experience, something at least a little like freedom, would have to exist on every level of physical reality as well.


OK, I am not of the opinion that electrons play, nor do I want to make the case for ants. (At least not yet).  But mice?  Here is part of the abstract from Johanna Meijer and Yuri Robbens’s “Wheel Running in the Wild” (Proc. R. Soc. B 7 July 2014 vol. 281 no. 1786)


The importance of exercise for health and neurogenesis is becoming increasingly clear. Wheel running is often used in the laboratory for triggering enhanced activity levels, despite the common objection that this behaviour is an artefact of captivity and merely signifies neurosis or stereotypy. If wheel running is indeed caused by captive housing, wild mice are not expected to use a running wheel in nature. This however, to our knowledge, has never been tested. Here, we show that when running wheels are placed in nature, they are frequently used by wild mice, also when no extrinsic reward is provided. Bout lengths of running wheel behaviour in the wild match those for captive mice. This finding falsifies one criterion for stereotypic behaviour, and suggests that running wheel activity is an elective behavior. 

They also found that a few frogs got on and off the wheel but they didn’t want to make too much of that. Nor would I. But it appears that wild mice got on the wheel just to spin. I’m not surprised, my dog Hart likes knocking the tippy ceramic sculpture in our living room just, it seems, to make it rock.

Fun and satisfaction are experience concepts. When we addimprovisation to this conceptual mix we get closer to what I think play is about. What is the experience of successful improvisation?  Why is playing with my dog fun for both of us but when I play around with worms, I am the only one having fun? (I think.)

Satisfaction is the experiential accompaniment of intrinsic behavior. The achievement of intrinsic hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic aims is pleasurable and/or satisfying.

Improvisation involves the affirmative acceptance and responsive incorporation of one player’s moves by another, and back and forth it goes. The paradigm of improvisational acting involves at least two players, but one person can do this alone with the props found personally within or with those on their stage.


I can engage in creative improvisation with myself, mutually with you, and with my dog. I am pretty sure, however, that improvisation with a worm is one sided. I wouldn’t bait a hook if I believed otherwise.


We seek sensations of all sorts. We stimulate ourselves, alone and with others. Pleasure, satisfaction, and fun accompany the accomplishment of intrinsic activity. (Anxiety and pain may accompany the anticipation of unsuccessful results. And some stimulation is more than we can manage; some too little to bother with).


Some activities require actions and things to fit together in a pleasing way, the unfolding connections and incorporations have aesthetic value. Improvisation excites and invites novelty. I play with the sensations of my world of objects, processes, and events.  I play with you and I play by myself.  I play alone with my body and my imagination. I bounce a ball off a wall.  I play with my companions and engaging strangers.

When the practice is social and mutually incorporative, when I affirm and assimilate your response into mine and you do the same, we’re both probably having fun.

Improvisation free of need or desperation tends towards fun. Play may work best when unnecessary. If I successfully improvise out of desperation or need,  I may feel relieved or satisfied but I am probably not having fun.  We are most authentically playful when we don’t have to play along. To see someone playing out of desperation looks pretty un-playful.

Play is not reducible to a particular performance. Play is the name we give an intrinsic practice done for the fun of it, and that’s a matter of its significance, not its performance. The experience of play is fun.


When improvising, I only more or less know what to expect. That’s part of the fun. Manageable novelty is fun. (At least, it is for me).


When our activity fits together, and all we need is the fit, we might be at play. If the fit is pleasing, along with its pleasure, play is an aesthetic act. Since play is a deliberate improvisation, its creative and uncertain outcome follows. Playful improvisation invites novelty. Who knows the game’s outcome? This is why play creates and expands culture.

When we successfully perform an intrinsic act, we are satisfied. If the action is both intrinsic and fun, we are at play.

It’s nice this morning. I’m going to walk with my dog and see if I can find someone to mess around with.

Let’s hang out,
I’ll be lookin’ for fun (and feeling groovy). 
Cause all I want to do is have some fun.

Some related postings:  Dreaming as Playtime, and Play and Therapy.

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Playing for the Fun of It: Some notes about our playful universe. was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.

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  1. Wynn Schwartz Ph.D Wynn Schwartz Ph.D June 5, 2014

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