A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Does the Universe Want to Play?


Is nature configured for fun and games? Is play actually built into the nature of things?

Science journalist Bill Blakemore takes up the topic in the ABC News blog:

It’s not only that some leading scientists now believe they can demonstrate play behavior in fish (not those big brained mammals the dolphins but little tiny-brained scaly fish) and cold-blooded lizards — even the fearsome komodo dragon — as well as in invertebrates such as ants and lobsters.

The rapidly growing scientific field of “play studies” is turning up so many surprising examples of what at least appear to be play activities in the most surprising places, that scientists are asking whether there may be something about the very fabric of matter itself that continually spawns and nurtures fun and play.

Stuart Brown, a leading theorist in the field of what’s called “play studies”, thinks evolution favors animals who enjoy a good game. “I think that there’s a self-organizing quirkiness which is an inherent part of nature,” he said, pointing out that play is a natural activity for many kinds of animals.

We all know that dogs and cats enjoy a good game. Dogs, in particular, signal that they want to play with their well-known play bow (crouching down at the front, tail and butt up at the back, meaning “This won’t be a real fight or chase; it’s just for fun.”). But play is common in lots of species.

Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee says it’s been observed in shrimp, lobsters, ants and cockroaches. Here’s a video he made of lizards and fish behaving in ways that suggest they’re enjoying a good game:

Burghardt says there are five criteria for what constitutes play:

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed (meaning, for example, that you don’t bite down hard).
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

Ethologist Marc Bekoff is also quoted in Blakemore’s article as suggesting basically three rules of play:

  1. Everyone must want to play.
  2. Everyone has to cooperate — they work together — to keep the game from becoming fighting.
  3. Everyone needs to communicate and pay attention to each other’s movements, sounds and smells.

Bekoff recalls that the very notion of nonhumans engaging in play used to be viewed with great skepticism by mainstream scientists. “People had kind of written off play as a ‘garbage pail’ behavior,” he says. “They claimed animals don’t play, and we [just] assign a behavior pattern to the category of play when we can’t assign it to anything else.”

But no longer. Burghardt adds that in recent years, well documented accounts of play behavior in a wide variety of mammals, as well as some bird species, have brought play research from laughable to reputable.

“I don’t think anyone seriously denies play exists as a phenomenon,” Burghardt says. “I think where the main issues lie now are in the diversity and extent of play.”

In 1877, Charles Darwin, too, commented on play behavior by nonhuman animals, quoting the work of another scientist of the time:

“Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies.”

In his latest book, The Exultant Ark, Jonathan Balcombe explores the joy and fun that animals have in life, with photos from polar bears romping and wrestling to hoary marmots having a friendly chase, and a dog being groomed by friendly langurs in India:


Blakemore says some scientists even believe that “quirkiness” is built into the fabric of the universe itself:

Experts now consulted at annual academic conferences on play studies include atomic physicists exploring the possibility that something in the intricate structure of atoms themselves may initiate the playful “quirkiness” and “divine superfluity” that [Stuart] Brown and other play specialists are now turning up in the nervous systems of so many species.

We only hope those scientists aren’t causing any suffering when they’re checking out the nervous systems of those animals. Experimental laboratories are not playtime for the animals involved.