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Hadley Roach

An Exploration Play and Its Relationship to Technology and the Environment

In his groundbreaking Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950), Johan Huizinga argues that “play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing” (2). Although play serves no apparent evolutionary purpose, not even in terms of psychological or physical development*, it is a consistent mammalian behavior and one that, scholars agree, predates humanity and certainly “civilization.” Long before the ages of coliseums and chess and Nintendo, animals nipped and chased and wrestled each other inexplicably. Mammals and play, it seems, have had a strange relationship for millions of years. However, in our short history humans have changed play; we are the only creatures who have obsessively cultivated new and increasingly complex “games” and have used these as springboards for important social structures and customs. Now, in today’s modern society, play seems to have taken on a dual quality: it is regarded either as frivolous “childsplay” or as a pervasive cultural practice with which, media theorist Neil Postman would argue, we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” In this paper, I would like to explore the evolution of play with regards to one of the outstanding questions of this course: Are human beings innately environmentally destructive creatures? I will discuss the ways in which play has shaped our relationship with our environment, tentatively probing the possibility that the way humans play contributes to our unusual expenditure of natural resources. Ideally, this would be a much longer and more thoroughly researched project, and so I offer only interesting observations and provisional ideas.
Clive Ponting, in A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (1991), argues that the social and environmental collapse of Easter Island is a microcosm of human beings’ larger tendency to irresponsibly drain natural resources for personal amusement. Though much of his argument and research have been greatly contested, Ponting’s claims about the activities of Easter Island’s settlers seem valid:
The Easter Islanders engaged in elaborate rituals and monument construction… The crucial centres of ceremonial activity were the ahu. Over 300 years of these platforms were constructed on the island, mainly near the coast… Over time, then number of clan groups on the island would have increased and also the competition between them. By the sixteenth century hundreds of ahu had been constructed and with them over 600 of the huge stone statues. (5)
Whether or not the deforestation of Easter Island was, as Ponting goes on to contend, the direct result of the ahu-making competitions, the idea of such a large-scale game (I use this term not to say that the ceremonial activity was by definition frivolous, but rather to emphasize that a rivalry between clans was present) defining the use of natural resources is an interesting way to think about technology. Ponting and other scholars agree that the settlers were very technologically “advanced”—their constructions, an elaborate and intensive form of amusement, grant them this honor. The opportunity for leisure, made possible by Easter Island’s hands-off agricultural practices, led to a complex, competitive, and environmentally exhausting game.
When considering early human developments like the domestication of dogs, it is also clear that games and leisure influence the human impetus to try new things and form new habits. Several articles trace the relationship between a dog and his master to a root of “mutual benefit.” However, it is difficult for me to imagine early human beings having the foresight to domesticate furry beasts for their protection and future agrarian lifestyle. Rather, the case could be made that people saw entertaining playmates in the dogs that lingered by their camps. The relationship between man and dog may be as much about the companionship of two bored species as about a more quantifiable benefit.
Today, humans are serious about play—so serious, in fact, that it is arguably impossible to separate “reality” from our constructed spheres of leisure. Through technologies like the internet and the media, we channel our consumer impulses through playful, fun and competitive ideologies. In an interesting feedback loop, the attraction of play informs technology while technology allows new forms of play to arise and circulate. It is my tentative hypothesis that play can justify human greed and the reckless expenditure of resources—just as a gambler can become addicted to the game, might humans be addicted to using the natural world to fuel our inherent playfulness? I hope to research this question more throughout the semester.

*For more information on this subject and the research to back it up, see Rhetorics of Animal Progress by Brian Sutton-Smith—he does a ton of work studying animals and humans, trying (fruitlessly) to determine if there is an evolutionary purpose in play.
Postman’s most well-known book is called Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). It argues that television and the media have sapped cultural intelligence and creativity.

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last updated 2/12/08