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The Evolution and Rediscovery of Play in America

Play as explained by behavioral evolution. Also, gamification. A presentation from the 2012 American Play Ethic Symposium.

The following is a presentation I gave at the 2012 American Play Ethic Symposium.




The title of the talk is The Evolution and Rediscovery of Play in America, so first thing first, I'd like to talk about evolution.


A brain scan.


And more specifically, the evolution of evolution itself, because the system of evolution itself has throughout the eons undergone iterative improvement. Once upon a time, species thrived and survived or died off according to their physical attributes, until the advent of a very special physical attribute, central neural nets, which eventually became the brain, “nature's computers.” This was a monumental development; no longer did a species have to rely on generation after generation of trial and error hoping to randomly spawn a beneficial physical mutation, life practitioners from brain-bearing species could survive and thrive by adapting their behavior. They could adapt within a single life-time. They could adapt day to day. They could adapt moment to moment. That's huge!


A brain scan.


That leads us to evolutionary psychology, and despite the fact that some people dismiss it because I guess they don't believe in either evolution or psychology, I assure you it is a real thing. Some behaviors, like remaining ever vigilant, promote survivability. Contrary behaviors promote being grabbed by a ginormous eagle



and smashed against a rock and dropped off the side of a cliff



to be eaten at the eagle's leisure. So there are good behaviors and bad behaviors, and we want to pass on good behaviors much like we are able to pass on good genes. What we want is a default setting for these behaviors.


And that's where play comes in. We initialize behaviors in a species through play. When you see puppies or kittens playing, what are they doing? They're learning to socialize, they're establishing a social hierarchy, they're learning to ambush, learning to fight, learning to hunt.


This man is risking his life to obtain honey 40 stories in the canopy!


They're also having fun. Fun is the means by which behaviors are motivated. Sugar is sweet to us because in the quantities found in nature, sugar is very, very good for us. It is an exceptional mechanism for delivering life-sustaining calories and so proto-humans that perceived sugar as desirable sought it out and packed on the pounds and rode out the lean times and survived accordingly. They survived and passed along tongues that informed the species “sugar is desirable.” Fun is the sugar of behaviorism. It's purpose is to inspire desirable behaviors and does so exceptionally well.



Right now our species is fairly well-removed from an evolutionary trajectory in many ways. We've fabricated an evolutionary Neverland where people such as the cast and crew of Jersey Shore actually succeed and thrive when by all rights they should be permanently selected out as inferior life practitioners. This evolutionary Neverland is a recent construct. Just as it's only recently in human evolution that large groups of people have become fat because of sugar and sweets, it's only recently that people pursue fun for fun's sake and do things like selling their children to afford credits in World of Warcraft.


Play isn't what it used to be, or was ever meant to be. The good news is we're rediscovering play as system for inspiring desired behaviors through gamification. Gamification is a useful buzzword describing the act of adding game elements to a system in order to promote desired behavior.



And now for my favorite example of gamification vs. no gamification; Stanford released a program in 2000 called Foldit@Home. It was a screensaver-slash-distributed-computing-network and how it worked was that when your computer's screensaver activated as a result of user inactivity, it downloaded a protein structure and started folding it and reported the results back to Stanford. It visually demonstrated the folding, it was brilliant, it remains today one of the largest, fastest computational systems in the world, and, as far as I know, in over a decade it has accomplished very little.



Now, in stark contrast, the University of Washington's Center for Game Science in collaboration w/ the University's Department of Biochemistry, developed an online puzzle video game about protein folding. A “score” is calculated according to how well-folded the protein is and boasts a very competitive leader board. Foldit's community of players helped to decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer AIDS virus. American play accomplished in ten days a solution that stumped scientists for 15 years. Surely that was a fluke though, right? Well, a few months later the community re-engineered an enzyme that catalyzes the Diels-Alder reactions. Their re-engineered enzyme increased reactivity 18 fold.


That is how play will continue to evolve, along its intended evolutionary trajectory as a means to provide incentive for desired behaviors. In America, we've rediscovered play's function and we're beginning to put it to good use.


Thank you for your time and consideration!

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