Playing is always communication. It does not matter whether a child interacts in solitary play with a pretend object, whether a group of children is engaged in role-play, or whether an online community meets at a virtual playground, as in the massively multi-player online games (MMOGs). Each form of playing is communication. Some fields of communication and media sciences can profit from the view that forms of computer mediated communication should be analyzed not only from the perspective of media communication but also from that of play. The analysis of interactive media entertainment especially can be based on a play frame (e.g., Vorderer 2001; Ohler & Nieding 2006). Play research can contribute to various fields of the communication sciences; therefore it is necessary to take playfulness seriously.
Play researchers of numerous disciplines agree that an unambiguous definition of play has not been offered in the history of play research. The term “play” contains a wide range of behaviors. Till now play research has not been able to extract the behavioral or functional features that are applicable to every play form and different playful behavior pattern. It is not even possible yet to distinguish playful from non-playful behavior precisely. The concept of play is a genuine fuzzy concept. Sutton-Smith (1997) even assumes that its ambiguity is the peculiar quality of play.
More recent approaches to play differ from classical ones with respect to their broadness. Compared to early speculations on and theories of play (e.g. Groos 1899, 1901), which tried to explain the entire phenomenon, twentieth-century approaches focus on only specific aspects, e.g., play and cognitive development (Piaget 1962), or play and the modulation of arousal (Shultz 1979).
One main difference from other communicative behavior systems is that it is not only (young) individuals of the species Homo sapiens that show play behavior, but also those of other species. All mammals, some birds, and perhaps even non-avian reptiles play. This means that the behavior system “play” is much older than modern humans; it is even much older than the entire hominid line. The essential contrast between animals and humans arises from the fact that the latter develop more elaborate play forms in the course of their ontogenesis.
Several authors assume that play is a functionless or even purposeless behavior, but mostly it has been suggested that it serves some adaptive function. The most prominent approaches in animal play suppose that it is physical exercise (or pre-exercise; Groos 1901) yielding payoffs for later adult sensorimotor skills. For the human species play should be more focused on cognitive exercise, resulting in improved cognitive competencies later on. Other approaches agree that the evolutionary function of animal play is based not in the opportunity for improved practice but in behavioral adaptation to changing niches (behavioral flexibility). Individuals of a species that show playful behavior are able to retrieve a repertoire of behaviors more effectively than others of the species. This results in a higher rate of reproductive success. Over many generations the behavioral feature will manifest itself in the genetic pool of that species. All members of the population will show playful behavior (Ohler & Nieding 2006).
Every child older than 1 year enacts different play forms simultaneously or consecutively. But in the course of development – in specific age ranges – certain play forms are more frequent than others. Most scholars agree that the development of children, with minor deviations, can be characterized by the emergence of the following sequence of play forms (approximate starting ages in brackets): sensorimotor play (6 months), experimental play (1 year), early pretense play (1 year), constructive play (2–3 years), role-play or elaborate pretend play (3–4 years), games with rules and other symbolic games (5–6 years).
Video and computer games are games with rules. In the history of computer games, classic games like chess or checkers were the first to be computerized. Later on new games were developed that can only be played interactively with electronic devices. Video games can be taxonomically subdivided into the following main categories: hit, jump, and run games; action games (first person and third person shooters); adventures; simulations; and strategy games (turn-for-turn and real-time). Modern video games often appear to be hybrid forms. For almost all these types of video games there exist not only single player versions but also the option for multiplayer use.
MMOGs represent the latest generation of computer games (at least up to the time of writing). Massively multi-player role-playing games (MMORPGs) especially require the participants to collaborate in accomplishing certain tasks (quests). In the more popular MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft, participants can establish long-lasting player associations (guilds,) and many of the users’ activities are not aimed at game-specific goals (e.g., reaching the next level). Instead, mediated via their avatars, participants show a high frequency of communicative acts that are typically performed in real “third places” like pubs or clubs. MMOGs are not only games but virtual meeting places. The attractiveness of these virtual environments is amplified by the rewards of being integrated into a social network and the opportunity to gain a reputation within it (Ducheneaut et al. 2006). As games with rules, MMOGs are able to produce flow in their players. Furthermore, in their function as virtual social places they are able to induce (virtual) social co-presence.
An important compendium concerning different aspects of playing video games is Vorderer and Bryant (2006).
- Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E., & Moore, R. J. (2006). Alone together? Exploring the social dynamics of massively multiplayer games. In R. Grinter, T. Rodden, P. Aoki, E. Cutrell, R. Jeffries, & G. Olson (eds.), Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. Montreal: ACM, pp. 407–416.
- Groos, K. (1899). The play of animals. New York: Appleton.
- Groos, K. (1901). The play of man. New York: Appleton.
- Ohler, P., & Nieding, G. (2006). An evolutionary perspective on entertainment. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 423–433.
- Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1946).
- Shultz, T. R. (1979). Play as arousal modulation. In B. Sutton-Smith (ed.), Play and learning. New York: Gardner Press, pp. 7–22.
- Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Vorderer, P. (2001). It’s all entertainment – sure. But what exactly is entertainment? Communication research, media psychology, and the explanation of entertainment experiences. Poetics, 29, 247–261.
- Vorderer, P., & Bryant, J. (eds.) (2006). Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.