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I recently received comments on a piece of writing I had submitted that, like all good peer reviewer feedback, has enabled me to re-examine some of my assumptions (about game culture in particular). Two questions the reviewer raised were: “What is particular about the relation of games to culture?”  and“Could we say that games are designed to resist attributions of significance?”

For me, the keywords here are culture and designed. While the questions themselves lay outside the scope of the work, I believe they nevertheless sit at the heart of many curiosities about games; they not only question the cultural relevance of games, but also their very fabrication. Game scholars oftentimes state that games are products of cultural expression, for this belief stems from an understanding of games as meaning-making systems, which inherently incorporate strict behavioural models. Do games truly stem from culture? Do they portray signs of signification?

We can work through these questions in two ways: first, determine whether animals (non-humans), in fact, play ‘games’ (Part I of this post). Second, what oral and material games reveal about cultural signification (Part II). This post will thus focus on the first question and the next post will focus on the second question (though there will be overlap). I must also note that this is an exploratory post and I am not a biologist, so my analysis is by no means conclusive.

Before we dive in, here is a very broad (and somewhat problematic) definition of ‘game’ from the OED:

An activity or diversion of the nature of or having the form of a contest or competition, governed by rules of play, according to which victory or success may be achieved through skill, strength, or good luck.

I am not suggesting that this should be the authoritative definition of games (indeed, there isn’t one) and debates about terminology (and typology) have enjoyed the attention of numerous game scholars in recent years.1 Nevertheless, this definition will suit our purposes for this post. More generally, we can think of ‘play’ as a freeform activity without structure or constraints while ‘games’ have identifiable rules within a contained system.

Do Animals Play Games?

Dog Playing Ball, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dog Playing Ball, image from Wikimedia Commons

I was walking along the Thames River the other day thinking about this question when I happened upon a young man playing catch with an English Springer Spaniel. Most of us know how the sequence goes: a person throws the ball and the dog retrieves it. Repeat until bored, tired, or hungry. For the person, the act of throwing the ball elicits a feeling of amusement, bonding, and relaxation. Other than throwing the ball, there is no other required action (though the individual can throw the ball various ways). For the dog, the act of retrieving is a hardwired, instinctual reaction created by centuries of domestic breeding. There is no understood ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ between this fellow and his dog. The guy could determine that if the dog successfully retrieves the ball ten times, then he will get a treat. This form of behavioural conditioning may seem game-like, but is certainly too broad to warrant application (e.g. if a rat in a lab is given an electric shock every time she attempts to eat a piece of cheese, we would not consider this a game, but rather a (cruel) form of modification reliant on positive and negative reward systems). Pavlov’s experiments were not games.

What about a tug-of-war between two puppies? In this scenario there is a clear winner and loser (from our standpoint anyway). The puppies are clearly engrossed in this activity as an amusement. The rules suggest the use of fair play (i.e. 2+ opponents; no nipping or biting) and the match is won chiefly through feats of strength. Could this be an example of a game  without culture?

It depends. Part of the issue here is the assumption that culture denotes primarily human activity, but biologists, behaviourists, and anthropologists have long debated the existence of ‘animal cultures’ as well. In the article, “The Animal Cultures Debate,” biologists Kevin Laland and Vincent Janik discuss the social learning of knowledge of vertebrates suggesting that “an anthropocentric perspective acts as a barrier to understanding the evolutionary roots of culture, and jeopardises out ability to see relationships among culture-like phenomena in diverse taxa.”2 For puppies, playing tug-of-war enables them to learn essential survival skills

Terriers playing tug-of-war

Terriers playing tug-of-war

(instinct), but, I would argue, the ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ component of the game also prepares them to understand a social, hierarchical order. Who is the alpha dog? Such ‘games’ in nature often appear in animal groups that depend on complex social organization for survival (e.g. wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins). The concept of ‘play’ is more pervasive, but ‘games’ suggest a socializing process that marries instinct with the acquisition of knowledge through learned behaviour.

Culture is a tricky word to define; much like the term ‘game,’ it appears in Wittgensteinian fashion as a family of assemblages that often carry anthropocentric bias. The OED defines ‘culture,’ for instance, as:

The cultivation or development of the mind, faculties, manners, etc.; improvement by education and training.

Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

Victorian woman

Victorian woman

Both definitions suggest the idea of learned behaviour, but the attributes “artistic,” “manners,” and, most obviously “human intellectual achievement” forms distinct human-centric bias. Laland and Janik redefine ‘culture’ as “all group-typical behaviour patterns, shared by members of animal communities, that are so some degree reliant on socially learned and transmitted information.” What does this have to do with games?

I often explain ‘games’ as “systems of meaning-making patterns.” Birds exhibit this idea brilliantly. Anyone who has spent time with a conure, African Grey, or other parrot may have encountered the “calling game” in which the bird will call out to you in various ways and you must answer back in some fashion. African Grey parrots, for instance, are often listening for a specific call and may even tell you that you’ve gotten it wrong. Sometimes, if you make a specific call, they may attach an action to it, such as bobbing their heads. I find bird behaviour fascinating and have owned birds my entire life (from budgies to cockatoos). Many of their games emphasize social calls and social presence (such as hide-and-seek) because their survival in the wild depends on knowing the location of the flock or mate. At the same time, ornithologists have determined that bird calls are actually ‘cultural’ in that they are learned and some bird species even give ‘names’ to their young for individual identification.3 Bird calls have enabled biologists and ornithologists to better understand the socialization of different birds around the world. As an aside, this also helps explain why some birds (crows, magpies, and some parrots) make excellent mimics!

Johan Huizinga, a social historian who pioneered the influential book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, argued against the leading biologists at the time by suggesting that all (human) culture is born of play. Play, for him, is socially determined. But, as we know, it also carries instinctual traits. This nature vs. nurture debate manifests in our own games as well, though I have not yet been able to find satisfying literature on the subject. As human-animals, we evolved to identify patterns in nature and to focus our attention selectively within our environment in order to perceive threats, find food, and determine whether someone is a friend or foe. We have come a long way since living in the African savannas and woodlands, but our mind still cannot grasp the different between our imagination/perceptions and reality. Our prefrontal cortex can determine whether something is true or false, but before the moment of disbelief our body will still react to imaginary stimuli as if it were real (e.g. have you ever felt your heart race during a horror film or become devastated when a favourite character in a television show dies or becomes injured?)

We can see these cognitive mechanisms function in the games we play. PopCap Games’ bestselling tile-matching puzzle game Bejeweled requires the player to swap one gem with an adjacent gem in order to form vertical or horizontal lines of colour-matching gems (you can play Bejeweled 2 here). If the player matches three or more gems, then the gems disappear from the board, the remaining gems on the board fall to fill the holes, and the player receives points. The longer the chain, the higher the score.



While the premise of the game is simple, its structure and setup speak to our genetic roots: find patterns within the microcosm in order to ‘survive.’ The game forces us to focus our attention  on key coloured jewels and make sense of their existence. The points indicate how well we are surviving in this gameworld (and, if played competitively, how well we do in comparison to other players). The game is appealing, in other words, because it taps into our natural, instinctual traits in a non-threatening (and fun!) way. Many view the game industry as a place for so-called ‘hardcore’ gamers, but this view is quickly changing. As Anders Bylund notes, “[c]asual gaming is the new core of the video-game market, with Web-based games and mobile apps tag-teaming the old console and PC hegemony.”4 The growth of the casual gaming market on various platforms is, for me, unsurprising. We as a species are drawn to new, interactive, and engaging stimuli and the skills learned by playing games can help us solve real-world problems. Therefore, it is not necessarily what culture can reveal about games, but what the games we play reveal about our culture—and ourselves.

So, let me return to the initial question for this post: “What is particular about the relation of games to culture?”

From my very brief analysis, we can infer a few things:

1) Social organizations correlate with the existence of games in culture(s) because games require an understanding of rules, boundaries, and systems (in some manner).

2) Games include both biological and cultural/social elements in their design.

3) Games (and play) enable humans and animals to learn essential social and survival skills.

All in all, games influence our outlook, our values, our emotions, and the ways in which we order and perceive the world. They are a microcosm to which we apply understanding of our own universe. And, in that, they are most definitely significant.

For more information on the animal cultures debate and evolutionary game theory, see:

Rachel Kendal, “Animal ‘Culture Wars,’ Evidence from the Wild?” The Psychologist 24 (2008): 312-315.

Kevin Laland and Bennett G. Galef, eds. The Question of Animal Culture (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Paul C. Mundinger, “Animal cultures and a general theory of cultural evolution,” Ethology and Sociobiology 1.3 (1980): 183–223.

Richie Nimmo, “Animal Cultures, Subjectivity, and Knowledge: Symmetrical Reflections beyond the Great Divide,” Society & Animals 20 (2012) 173-192.

John Maynard Smith, Evolution and the Theory of Games (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1982).

Andrew Whiten and Carel P. van Schaik, “The evolution of animal ‘cultures’and social intelligence,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 362 (2007): 603-20.

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  1. If you want to read more about game studies and problems with terminology, see, for instance, Jesper Juul’s book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds ; (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2005); Chris Crawford. The Art of Computer Game Design  (Berkeley: McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media, 1982); Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004); and Thomas Malaby, “Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games,” Games and Culture 2.2 (2007), p. 106. Note: this list is not exhaustive. []
  2. Kevin Laland and Vincent Janik, “The Animal Cultures Debate,” TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution 21.10 (2006): 542. []
  3. Paul Bennetch, “Parrots learn their ‘names’ from their parents, study shows,” Cornell Chronicle. 26 July 2011. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2011/07/parrots-learn-their-names-their-parents. []
  4. Anders Bylund, “There’s Nothing Casual About This Gamer’s Growth,” Daily Finance. 3 May 2012. http://www.dailyfinance.com/2012/05/03/theres-nothing-casual-about-this-gamers-growth/ []