Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Competition and Play

Last Friday I talked about the use of performance enhancing drugs and the problems posed by their use, and  ultimately I concluded that the main issue is the health damage to competitors.  But why go to such lengths to compete and win?  Why compete at all?  Today I'm starting with the origins of games and competitions, then  next time I'll move on to how competition looks in the modern world.

Competition only exists--and ever has existed--whenever one of two things are present; limited resources, and ego.  To start, imagine two single celled organisms, floating in an ocean the size of the Atlantic.  There is no competition for room.  They are asexual, so no competition for mates.  Neither of them could possibly ingest their entire environment, or half of it, so there is no competition for resources.  These two things have no reason to compete (you could argue that they are competing against the environment, but to remain focused, we'll assume that only living things can be counted as "competitors").

Merely by existing, you become a potential competitor again other living things in a struggle to survive and reproduce.  If you need the same resources to survive--the same food, the same shelter, the same mate--you could end up competing for them.  If one of you wants to eat the other, then you become competitors in a different sense; you may not have competed, if there was other more easily available food--since fighting and hunting can be dangerous and risky even for predators.

The other time competition exists would be for the sake of ego, protecting and furthering one's self-esteem or status, which can also have repercussions for survival.

Winning a competition relies on ability and luck.  Ability refers to things within your control--whether through innate capacity or developed skills--and luck refers to things beyond your control.  In order to survive a natural competition, where you fight for your genetic survival (to live, pass on children, and see those children far enough into the future that they may do the same), your body, mind, and skills must develop.  You could just be one of a billion insects, and the only development you need is the time you spend inside an egg, and you come out pretty much ready to go.  You might be a bird that needs time and nourishment, then relies purely on coded instinct to fly.  But, as we start moving into mammalian territory, the development of ability becomes more complicated and depends on more active development.  This is where you start to notice play and simulated competition.

Cubs, pups, kittens, and--insert name for child version of mammal here--all play.  They have mock-fights and play hunts, they chase inconsequential things that are unnecessary to their survival.  Even when they live in an environment with limited resources and energy, they use that energy to play and tire themselves out.  Why?

First is development of the body.  They have big complicated networks of muscles that, once they can be used, need to be used or they don't stay strong or develop.  Second is the development of physical skills.  Learning to fight and to hunt is just as necessary to survival as raw muscular development.  But venturing out into a world full of things that will kill and eat you so you can practice is not a tendency that has much survivability merit unless your species produces thousands of children at a time.  So there is only one place it makes sense to develop these skills: with things that won't try to kill you, where the outcome doesn't really matter.

This is what I refer to as a simulation.  Games and playing, in non-human environments, are just simulations to develop the ability necessary to survive genetic competition.  With a simulation, you can concern yourself purely with the development of ability; the outcome of your play fight is not necessarily important, provided you develop the ability to really fight when it counts. Winning is not as important as obtaining the most improvement for yourself.  But of course, more strength, balance, reflexes, and cunning would lead to victory anyhow, and you won't know if you really developed them unless you're actually trying to win.

The picture keeps looking more and more familiar.  The term "plays well with others" isn't just for show; play teaches you how to interact with others so that later, when it really counts for mutual survival, you can function as a unit.  This may be what your parents told you when they signed you up for a sports team without your consent.

So of course, this leads us to humans.  When you see groups of kids interacting with each other, it's a chance for them to run and jump, to talk to each other and practice language, to learn how to coordinate as a team.  And when you have a skill like firing a bow and arrow, why not also have competitions to see who is the best?  You train the skill to win the competition and outdo your peers, then suddenly you also have a valuable tool for survival.  Chasing and swinging sticks at a small object would train your endurance, your balance, your ability to use tools while moving.  And probably most importantly, the ability to synchronize your efforts with others to achieve goals.

How did we go from that more practical form of play and simulated competition to what we see as competition in the modern world?  The train of thought will continue on Friday.  Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the cultural understanding of the importance of play is starting to push back after years of being told that study and being sexy were the only things that were worth putting your time into. Now we have people commonly talking about play as practice, learning, meditation, self reflection, etc.

    And now we have Wobbles too. (I keep calling you Wobbles. I KNOW your real name, I just don't use it. Maybe because somewhere deep inside I cringe when I hear the name Robert as many have misread and misremembered my name over the years. So unless you want my face to cringe at you every time, maybe we'll keep things wobbly for now).