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Your Inner Fish That Wants to Play: What Anthropology Has to Say about Games

by Sergei Anankin on 12/04/18 09:37:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



There are certain rules in game design. Any game designer will tell you that introducing clan systems into games increases long-term retention, that clear core-loops with enough decision-making influences mid-term retention, that it’s mandatory to give players progression (or at least a sense of it) early on to make them return at all, and that nothing makes as much money for you as clan wars (or something like that). So where does it all this come from? What drives players’ preferences? What makes them engaged with the game and keeps them playing, regardless of the project and the genre?

While trying to answer these questions, it’s really easy to find yourself surrounded by philosophical abstractions. Can we say that games are a cultural phenomenon? If we can, why do the animals play? Does that mean animals have culture as well then? Most of these questions were answered hundreds of times before, but you still find yourself unsatisfied, for whatever reason, and so you keep asking.

I tried my best to avoid philosophicalities (God, I like this word!), but be aware, some of them have still slipped through. Sorry in advance. Now, back to the subject.


If you’re interested in understanding the underlying psychological patterns (gaming-related or otherwise), you can’t avoid looking back at animals because they serve amazingly well as a simplified example of our own psyche. Our whole history is the similar, and it’s really easy to see this if you have an x-ray machine. Look at the whale’s fin, and you will see what basically is the same hand you have, just slightly deformed. The fingers are longer, but they are the same five, and each of them has the same number of phalanges. (By the way, the closest earth-roaming relatives of whales and dolphins are… hippos! Weird, isn’t it?)

I can bet my salary there’s no radical difference between humans and… well, “everybody else”, except of just one, which proved to be crucial and is definitely worth a separate article. I’m talking, of course, about the ability to accumulate species-wide experience by passing it from one generation to another in the form of stories. All other differences are just qualitative: we’ve perfected a lot of useful techniques, but we haven’t really invented anything. Animals are able to lie (mimicry is basically a form of deceit), love (dogs are known to do that), lend and collect debts (bats are a famous example), they network (a lot of social species are good at it), they have tools (chimps are not the only ones, even some fish use pebbles to open clamshells), they have languages (some monkeys have vocabularies of up to 80 words), rituals (see the Paradise Bird dance on Youtube, it’s just amazing). Basically, everything most things we usually think of as of our invention is already well represented in nature. 

On top of that,  as we all know, animals play. Puppies and kittens are the simplest example, but how about something a bit more interesting? 

But first, we should know what exactly we’re looking at. Namely, what is “play” or “playing”? One of the most widely used definitions of play in biology was proposed by prof. Gordon M. Burghardt in his book “The Genesis of Animal Play”. His definition was given in the form of 5 criteria that separate the act of play from other types of behaviour. In order to save you some reading time, I’ll shorten them a little bit:

  1. The behaviour doesn’t serve the purpose of survival in any way during the time or in the context it is performed;
  2. The behaviour is spontaneous, voluntary, intentional, pleasurable, rewarding, reinforcing, or done for its own sake;
  3. The behaviour is structurally different from “normal” (it’s incomplete, exaggerated, awkward, precocious, etc.);
  4. The behaviour is performed repeatedly in a similar, but not rigidly stereotyped, form;
  5. The behaviour is initiated when an animal is adequately fed, clothed, healthy, and not under any stress.

Here are some examples. Take paper wasps. The queens get busy with establishing hierarchies in spring and have a certain ritual for that, involving biting, demanding food and what we’d basically perceive as dancing, as was described by Leonardo Dapporto of the University of Pisa in a 2006 paper in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The thing is, the queens perform pretty much the same ritual in fall as well. Then, these rituals result in absolutely nothing and have no known consequences. If you ask me, that just looks like training with no immediate feedback. 

One more example is octopuses. Michael Kuba of the Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg watched cephalopods interact with Lego pieces and described their behaviour as clearly playful in his 2006 Journal of Comparative Psychology paper. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge observed these animals at the Seattle Aquarium blowing streams of water at empty pill bottles, over and over again, with no apparent reason or result. This is how you go vegetarian: eating somebody who’s capable of having fun with a bit of plastic just seems inappropriate, doesn’t it?  


If we accept the fact that play is one of the things we inherited from our animal predecessors, it’ll be easier to see that playing is an inevitable part of our existence, a core part, a part embedded in us, a part that was there long before culture, religion and civilisation. But can we actually learn something from knowing that animals play, and from how they do it? 

Examples like the one with octopuses may be confusing simply due to the fact we don’t know the reasoning behind the behaviour of certain animals. But a lot of other examples, like the ones with wasps, are clearer. 

Supposedly, no acts of animal play are as explicitly studied as those of dogs and wolves. In 1971, Michael Fox, in his “Behaviours of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids”, laid a solid foundation for all further modern research, among which is a brilliant series of Raymond Coppinger’s books: “Dogs: A startling New Understanding of Canine Origin” (2001), "How Dogs Work" (2015), "What is a Dog" (2016), as well as Barry Eaton’s "Dominance in Dogs" (2011). 

It is widely known that wolves use gaming as a tool for social adaptation. That follows the general rule of learning in the nature: the more advanced you are, the more you have to learn by example, and the less is embedded in you when you’re born. Wolves can have very complex hierarchies in their packs, and, in order to establish these hierarchies, they use rituals. That makes perfect sense. 

Imagine you’re a wolf: young but mature enough to compete for the place in the hierarchy (of a new pack, for example). Fighting would be the simplest option, but if everybody fights, nobody actually wins — good luck hunting if you’re a bunch of injured dudes who hate each other. Basically, these rituals allow the fights to end before they even begin. 

As researchers R. Huber and E. A. Kravitz show in their book “A quantitative analysis of agonistic behavior in juvenile American lobsters”, lobsters is another perfect example of this: two males would first just charge at each other in an attempt to scare the opponent. If both persist, the next phase begins, when they just try to turn each other upside down. If there’s no winner still, only then they will seriously attack. 90% of the fights are resolved before injuries could take place, so the colony doesn’t loose many individuals. 

Rituals help, but they need to be learned, and the more complex they are, the more learning is needed. Getting back to wolves, it is safe to assume that games help puppies study and practice the behaviour that is going to regulate their social relations during their whole life. Not only they prepare themselves to be tested later on. Through games, they also have a chance to perfect their techniques and even establish some puppy hierarchies of their own. 

Saying that “a game is an instrument of social adaptation”, I even dare to remove the “social” and change the whole phrase to “a game is an instrument of adaptation to life”. The reason is, having “social” here can be misleading. You can rightfully wonder “ok, but what about the asocial animals, like cats?”. The trick is, there are no loners among the animals. You can spend most of your time alone, sure, but you are still born to a mother, and you will still need to mate, fight for territory, and have kids of your own. And in order to make all that run smoothly, you need rituals, which you learn through games. 

Then the hard part begins. As soon as we say that “a game is an instrument of adaptation for life”, we ask ourselves — and that's where philosophy slips through — what is life?  What exactly are we adapting to here? 


Life is an internal dichotomy of self- and group identity. Just bear with me here, it’s important.


Let’s first deal with “group identity” and try to understand why do we even need it. For that, imagine yourself in a bar with a group of friends. You are regulars there, and spend at least one evening every week drinking and talking in the corner. Then, one day, a dangerously looking individual comes in. He’s grumpy, looks tense, keeps his hands in his pockets and isn’t talking to anyone. As soon as you notice him, you start feeling a little anxious, because, well, you never know. This guy takes a seat at the bar, exchanges several words with a bartender, gets his beer, drinks it and leaves, leaving some tips. Imagine that happens a week later. And another week. And one more week after that. It’s interesting to notice how with every encounter you start paying less and less attention to this individual. He basically becomes a part of you regular environment. If somebody gets concerned, you will probably say something like “oh, no, this guy is ok, he just orders a beer and then leaves”. 

In his brilliant series of books called “Nature of Man”, Robert Ardrey, a British anthropologist and a playwright, whom I'll properly introduce a bit later, describes multiple occasions of integrating a Bonobo Chimp into a new family, overseen by different groups of primatologists. Usually, the first part of this integration looks exactly like that: the newcomer is not allowed into the family from the get-go, and is forced to stay away, far enough, but within sight. The new guy has pretty much nowhere to go, so he sticks around, or comes and goes, sometimes for months. Slowly but surely, he comes closer and closer, until one day he is allowed to sit on one of the branches of the tree that the family occupies. 

Multiple zoologists studying wolves at the Yellowstone National Park report that the same is characteristic of these animals. A young wolf trying to integrate into a new family is usually driven by his interest towards a particular female of that group. It’s very obvious how the father of this female feels about that endeavour of an unknown fugitive. If the wolf gets too close to the desired female, he’ll be chased away, and usually he is, one, five, ten times. But the newcomer persists, always staying somewhere on the horizon, somewhere in sight. And soon the family is no longer hostile to him. 

That’s exactly what grouping (or packing, or familying, if you will) does: it allows you to save time and effort on the analysis of other individuals by marking some of them as “safe”, so you could focus on something else. As soon as you have those individuals around, it opens up a huge pool of possibilities for all of you: hunting bigger game that no one of you could kill by themselves, mating with no need to travel far to find a perfect match, better safety control, when some of you look out for the others. But in order for that to function effectively, there should be trust among individuals, and trust is only possible when there’s predictability: you just need to know what to except from all who surround you. 

There’s a lot more to say about groups and what regulates their functioning, but let me stop here for a second and switch to the other part of the aforementioned dichotomy, so that we have the whole picture. 


As recently as in the eighties, the most orthodox approach to natural selection was the so-called “group selection”. It was thought that there were herds, packs, and families who competed, and it was them from which the “survival of the fittest” law was selecting. But the more we found out about genes, the more we shifted towards understanding that, in reality, genes are the ones who compete with each other, while everything else is just an abstract consequence of it. Genes, so to speak, form individuals, and the ultimate goal of every gene is to be passed on to the next generation. For that, genes try to make their vehicles (humans, sloths, slugs, whatever) the best of their kind, to maximise their chances of survival and mating. 

Almost all of the concepts that were initially thought to be a clear evidence of group selection were already explained in terms of individual selection. Take grandparenting. Chimp females mate even when they are super old, always having a chance to have a new baby, while for humans, with just a few exceptions, it doesn’t work like that. Most of the females eventually lose their ability (and interest) to mate and focus on raising the kids of their kids. Isn’t it useless for them? Well, not really. Your child has roughly 50% of your genes, your grandkid — roughly 25%. Focusing on keeping them both alive and well is a pretty decent job in passing your genes to the next generation. It’s hard to believe, but yes: a nana taking care of her grandchild is kinda selfish, unbeknownst to her.

You’re just programmed to be the best of your kind. Even better, you’re programmed to want to be the best. What’s interesting is that the “best” is always the same, for all species — it just means having higher (or highest, if possible) chances of passing your genes to the next generation. But then you ask: “what do I actually need to do to increase my chances?”, and this is when the differences kick in. For most animals it’s simple (like “take the highest place in the hierarchy to have an access to the best partners”), for some it’s a bit more complex (for instance, reindeer have families based on the concept of adoption, where a new couple would adopt a 1-year orphan and raise it together with their own newly born, only to give up both of them the next year — it’s difficult to tell successful deer from not-so-successful within those family-building rules). But one thing remains constant: there’s always a set of values (best hunter, best runner, best networker, best mother, the fattest dude around, and so on). Both hierarchical animals and loners use their own set of values to see who’s best for them to cooperate with, be it a partner, a leader or a fellow. I call it "having an epic hat of the max level". 


What we basically have is a group of individuals that stick together, while trying to outperform each other. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but that is something we need right now in order to make sense within the volume of an article, even if it’s a long one.

In 1961, when there was still no proper place for Anthropology among the natural sciences, a book appeared, called “African Genesis: A Personal Investigation Into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man”. Written not as a scientific paper, but as a pop-science work, thusly aimed at ordinary people, it quickly became a bestseller, spawned a lot of controversies and inspired a whole new generation of anthropologists. It was the first in the series of Robert Ardrey’s books, and soon three more followed, digging deeper into our ancestry: "The Territorial Imperative” (1966), "The Social Contract: A Personal Inquiry Into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder" (1970), "The Hunting Hypothesis” (1976). To this day, this series is, in my opinion, one of the best on Anthropology and animal origins of humanity. 

Elaborating on the subject of the functioning of groups, Ardrey proposed the so-called amity-enmity complex that should have reflected the group dynamics seen not only in animals, but in humans as well (war time was an especially explicit example). According to Ardrey, there’s a formula of “External Danger = Amity – Enmity” that can be expressed as following: the higher an external danger (read: danger from the outside) is to society, the more the balance shifts towards amity (i.e. the stronger the bonds between the society members become, the closer these society members feel to each other). If the danger is absent, the society will inevitably turn on itself, suffering from an increasing amount of internal conflicts. 

Notice how important the external danger is for the group functioning. It basically allows the amity to be infinitely high, while potentially having the enmity at a zero mark. Ardrey refers to Pearl Harbour to illustrate this. Reportedly, the national tragedy in December 1941 was able to unite people and focus their attention, regardless of their political views, race or gender, on a common enemy. Vietnam war was reportedly just the opposite, because the Asian country itself wasn’t perceived as a sufficient threat. 

Supposedly, this complex is regulated by the three key needs that every one of us, both humans and animals, have:

  1. The need for safety, which is usually described as an ability to predict one’s own future.
  2. The need for relatedness, which, generally speaking, is an ability to get support (physical as well as psychological) from the members of one’s society.
  3. The need for excitement. 

Now, the last one requires some attention. At a first glance, it may seem a bit too abstract, and in my opinion Ardrey fell short of providing a sufficiently clear description of this, although for some reason I’m pretty sure he had one. But the concept of excitement may become clearer if you look at it from the perspective of the aforementioned dichotomy of self- and group identity. Arguably, the “excitement” is nothing more than the search for self identity, or a way to express it. You get excited when you get a chance to stand out. You are excited if you do stand out. 

Citing multiple researchers in the field of crustacean life (notably R. Huber, E.A. Kravitz, A. Delago, K. Smith, K.Isaksson), Jordan Peterson in his “12 Rules of Happiness…” uses lobsters as an illustrative example, on several occasions, primarily because it’s easy to prove similarities between their nervous system and that of humans, to the extent that human antidepressants work well enough on these crustaceans. What’s interesting for us here is to see how chemicals (read: hormones) regulate the mental state of a particular individual depending on his performance in a group. It’s hard to believe we’re still talking about lobsters when I use the term “self respect”, but that’s precisely what I’m going to mention here. Primarily, the behaviour of the lobster is regulated by the ratio of two chemicals: serotonin and octopamine. Talking about male lobsters settling their disputes, Peterson writes: “Winning increases the ratio of the former to the latter. (…) A lobster with high levels of serotonin and low levels of octopamine is a cocky, strutting sort of shellfish, much less likely to back down if challenged. (…) The opposite neurochemical configuration (…) produces a defeated-looking, scrunched-up, inhibited, drooping, skulking soft of lobster, very likely to hang around corners, and to vanish at the first hint of trouble”. 

That gives us some idea of how excitement can work perfectly well, representing the craving for self identity (to put it simply, the desire to “win” over one’s counterparts). And with that being said, it’s easy to see how the amity-enmity complex, regulated by the needs for safety, excitement and relatedness, can be derived from the basic struggle of self- and group identity. 

Now, how’s that useful for us, game designers? 


We usually say that the game should be fun, but let’s be honest — we don’t really know what “fun” means. 

In 2004, Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan ( tried to answer this question. This effort has resulted in the framework that they called “PENS” (for “Players’ Expectations and Needs), which derives all desires and preferences of the player, both conscious and subconscious, from the three basic needs:

  1. The need for competence (i.e. the need to be effective, to grow, to be successful);
  2. The need for autonomy (in their words, self-identification, the need to experience personal volition, meaningful choice, as opposed to being controlled or manipulated); 
  3. The need for relatedness (as they put it, the need for meaningful connection to others to feel their support in one's autonomy and competence).

It’s easy to see how this correlates perfectly with both the amity-enmity complex (and the needs for safety, excitement and relatedness that regulate it), and the dichotomy of self- and group identity. Namely:

  • Competence (personal growth, success) and autonomy (being unlike everybody) represent your self identity, making you distinct (and possibly better) that other members of your group;
  • Relatedness is two-fold: it satisfies your need for safety (not only physical, but emotional as well, as opposed to anxiety) but putting you inside a group, while simultaneously giving you the set of values to measure your success (that’s why we read “…to feel support in our autonomy”). 

I will outline this last function of the group one more time, because in practice it is often forgotten. Success is always relative. That means, the concept of success makes sense only if both of the following are true:

  • You have a set of values shared by the members of your group (be it money and gold, perfect abs and long legs, nice dresses and expensive perfume, a yacht and a sports car, a doctorate and a number of published papers, or an Oscar and an Emmy);
  • You can compare members of the group (including yourself) with each other, using various criteria. 


It would be pleasing to finish with a strong statement that comes naturally from all that was described above, but I doubt there could be one. Or, at least, I wasn’t able to find it. Instead, I will share a small set of rules I use for my projects and advocate to my fellow game designers. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful.

  1. The players should progress. Their competence in the game should increase, and they should feel it. And since growth is happening in small steps, this competence should be regularly put to test and required (from the player) to be demonstrated at its fullest, in order for the player herself to see improvements; 
  2. Remember that any progress is only possible within a set of values. Creating a game, you have an amazing chance to set values for everybody who plays it. Be sure to do it. Be sure these values are explicit and make sense. If there’s no values, there’s no progress. Form game societies in such a way that they support (and adhere to) the values that your game has. If players don't find (and share with each other) value in what you thought is valuable in you game, rethink the your set of values;
  3. Let the players make their own choices that make them distinct from everybody else. Make sure these distinctions are visible to both the player and their group;
  4. Form game societies in such a way that their members can have meaningful interactions with each other, with each one of them getting support in their autonomy and competence;
  5. Remember that, in order for the players to see their progress, they should be able to compare themselves with others;
  6. Remember that a group is only effective when there’s an external threat or competition. “Us” only makes sense if there’s “them”;
  7. Use external threats to a group to regulate this group’s amity-enmity. There’s a balance between the competition of groups the competition inside a group, and It may turn out that this balance needs to be dynamic, so try changing it so see what’s best for the groups in your game.

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