Play research
“Playing makes us flexible”

Playing together

For children, it is indispensable; for adults, an important source of inspiration. An interview with the psychologist and play researcher Prof. Dr. Rolf Oerter on the importance of play for people.

Mr Oerter, we associate play primarily with something that children do. What role does it have for adults?

In general it may be said that play its very important for people of any age. For small children it is the most important form of coping with life. And adults too often resort to play in order to master better their professional and private lives. For example, when they feel a lack. Areas of life that can’t be realized in their professional activities are taken up in play – for instance in the form of hobbies. Or think of the variety of sports competitions that can be described only as ritualized forms of war and that can very effectively offset tensions. The cards are reshuffled and suddenly it’s possible for a very small country to win against a very big one.

In your research you speak at this point much more fundamentally of a dovetailing of the ontogenesis and cultural genesis of play: From the practices of children develops in the end an important part of what we call culture. Can you explain that to us?

The psychologist and play researcher Prof. Dr. Rolf Oerter The psychologist and play researcher Prof. Dr. Rolf Oerter | Photo: Rolf Oerter Basically, you can describe all the major fields of cultural activity – art, music, literature, theatre and sports – as a continuation and combination of forms of play that we develop in our childhood. From sensomotoric play unfolds forms of sport and dance, from building games, art works, architecture and engineering. Music can be described as a development of childhood improvisation. Role play leads to theatre and opera, and games with rules form the basis for rules in social life in general.

The transformation of reality

Despite the great variety of forms of play, is there something like general characteristics of play?

I think so. Quite central, for example, is freedom from utilitarian purposes. In general, you play for the sake of the activity itself. Think of the brain-teasers in Sudoku or the solving of crossword puzzles. As soon as you solve the task, you dispose of the game sheet. Another important criterion is something that I would call the transformation of reality. As soon as we begin to play, we enter into another reality, that of the game. Very often the game is related to certain objects – for example, playing cards, balls, everyday objects that are reinterpreted in the logic of the game. And perhaps as the final point, I should say that play activities have a tendency to repetition. As soon as the activity comes off, it is repeated with relish.

Why do we play? What benefits does it bring us?

For a long time we had the training effect of play in view. The idea was that activities are practiced that can equip the player for real challenges. Like a kitten that in this way learns how to catch mice. Now we know that this is only a by-product of a practice which mainly serves to train mental flexibility. In a play situation, you have on the one hand always to do with changed situations which you must adapt to; on the other hand, you also have the freedom to react relatively stress-free. These are ideal conditions for training a flexibility that is of advantage in real situations.

You distinguish between real and play situations. Is this distinction always meaningful?

Of course there’s a distinction between real and play activities. But this doesn’t mean that it’s always useful to distinguish sharply between categories such as work and play. On the contrary. We know that exactly when work is interesting and fulfilling, elements of play have a part. Productive work always contains elements of play that enable creative achievements and at the same time reduce reactance and fatigue. This is particularly pronounced, for instance, among scientists. Many top researchers have repeatedly pointed out how important elements of play are for obtaining really groundbreaking results.

Stimulations and double sense of reality

Useful as play is for us, doesn’t it also harbour risks?

Yes, it can become addictive. This is especially problematic with digital games. If you play on a computer, you always get an immediate response and expect a next response after your reaction. This is actually not typical in other everyday situations. Normally, we don’t experience the next, similar stimulus immediately after a stimulation of our reward centre. Take as a counterexample the case of chess, where a long period of deliberation and planning can occur between moves.

Don’t computer games also rope us into a downright stimulus-response machinery?

That’s right. But I find much more important the fact that the game worlds in which computer gamers immerse themselves are pre-defined in the most precise way by digital scenarios – in contrast to all those games in which the players themselves construct the play world. People who spend an excessive amount of time in such digital worlds actually develop something like a second, and so double, sense of reality. They live in two worlds. And that, I think, is problematic.