Stuart Brown, founder and director of the National Institute for Play in Carmel, Calif., tells the story of what happened between a hungry, 1,200-pound polar bear and a husky tied up at a camp near Hudson Bay, late one October day. The bear approached the group of dogs with his eyes fixed in a predatory stare. Amazingly, one of the huskies greets him in a “play bow,” wagging her tail. Dr. Brown, a psychiatrist and neurologist, describes how the two animals begin a “play ballet” – beautifully illustrated by German photographer Norbert Rosing here – that literally disarms the hungry bear in a situation that otherwise would’ve been a “short fight to the death.” Brown says “you see them in an altered state, a state of play,” where time drops away.”And it’s that state that allows these two creatures … [to begin] to do something neither would’ve done without the play signals,” he later tells public radio host Krista Tippett – “a marvelous example of how a differential in power can be overridden by a process of nature that’s within all of us.”
That stopped me in my tracks, hearing Brown say that a power differential, a basic component of bullying and cyberbullying, can be overridden by the playfulness or desire to play, which his research has found to be biologically inherent in each of us. Could play – in virtual worlds, in the backyard, and on the school playground (where Brown says kids learns as much as if not more than in classrooms) – itself be protective, be a solution to online harassment and cyberbullying?
Brown’s earliest work was back in the late ’60s, when he was asked to be the psychiatrist working on the case of Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower murderer,” who Brown found to have grown up with “severe play deprivation.” “The progressive suppression of developmentally normal play,” he says, made Whitman and other homicide convicts whose lives he studied “more vulnerable to the tragedies they perpetrated.”
On the other hand, playfulness and play signals, like those of the husky in the story above, provide a sense of safety, invite communication, and “humanize” or lower inhibition in a good way by exposing more of who the other person is. [BTW, the bear came back to play with the husky every evening that week, Brown says, and nobody got hurt.] “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” he said: “three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe, the executive portion of the brain, and helps contextual memory to be developed,” good health, and many other benefits Brown lists in a TEDTalk he gave last year. And there are so many kinds of play – solo play, social play, body play, object play, imaginative play, spectator play, exploratory play, ritual play, rough-and-tumble play (the Institute has organized them into seven patterns of play. In his talk, he shows a photo of a 15th-century painting of people in a courtyard engaged in more than 100 kinds of play. “We may have lost something in our [contemporary] culture,” Brown said. “Play is hugely important to the learning and the crafting of the brain; it’s not just something you do in your spare time,” and he adds that, by definition, it’s purposeless. “If the purpose of play is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play,” he said. The opposite of play is not work, but depression, he added, and play is vital all through life, not just for children.
All forms of play have value, Brown seems to say, and he doesn’t exclude videogame or virtual-world play in his interview with Tippett this past week, “Play, Spirit and Character.” The more 3-D they are and the more body movement they involve the better, he indicates. Of course these elements are being added to tech-based games. And we’re seeing that the richer and more unpredictable the virtual environment, the more imaginative, experimental, and exploratory play are involved. So I would love to get some great virtual worlds I’ve encountered – e.g., Dizzywood, WeeWorld, and Teen Second Life – talking and participating in research with the National Institute for Play. We need to know more about the role of virtual worlds in the beneficial effects of play for people of all ages – as well as about how play can mitigate antisocial behavior.
If you can catch the Brown interview, listen for what he says about parenting throughout too, especially the part, about halfway through, where he says that taking risks (though certainly not excessive risk) is an important part of play, “necessary to the well-being and future of the species. I think it’s safer for the person who is a player to maybe take a few hard knocks … in childhood than it is to insulate them from the possibility of that. I think [insulating them] constricts their psyches and their futures much more,” Brown said. He also talks about the problem with helicopter parenting, sounding a bit like Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, and the New York Times’s Lisa Belkin in “Let the Kid Be.”
I’ve long felt that empathy training and other efforts to reduce the impact of online disinhibition (helping kids understand those are human beings with feelings behind those profiles, screennames, avatars, and text messages) are important keys to beating cyberbullying. But now I’m thinking there’s probably a role for play!
Next week: Play, Part 2: Violence in videogames