Game Psychology: Part 1

Article by Steve Nichols MSc
October 1988
first published in Games Monthly

Most activities can either be approached with a playful or a non- playful attitude. What appears superficially to be just a boring chore can be enlivened and made to seem enjoyable by treating it as a game. Alternatively, a game can be played with a non-playful attitude, perhaps in the case of the professional chess player who bangs out 30 moves of prepared opening analysis just to achieve his required 'Grandmaster draw' in a tournament.

Psychology and game-playing have many points of convergence. The formal and informal rules systems, peer pressure, and interaction of games have often been used as study models and metaphor by psychologists. Game Theory has even been used as a psychological model to explain most of human real-life behavior. The paradox of using games as a model or metaphor for life is that games are a part of real life themselves, as well as being self-contained miniature worlds/special situations.

In her 1974 book, THE DREAM GAME, Ann Faraday points out that:

...a truly scientific approach to understanding dreams is more like learning to play a game than deciphering a code or fathoming the workings of a machine, and many different sets of rules can be followed according to what you want to achieve by playing the dream game. You can play the Freudian game if you want to discover the sexual conflicts of your early years, and it is sometimes useful to know about these; you can play the Jungian game of finding the 'archetypal' symbols in your dreams that resonate with the world's great myths, and it is sometimes inspiring to do so. You can play the Gestalt game of focusing on topdog/underdog conflicts in the personality but none of these, nor any other way of working with dreams, is universally true; and we do violence to our dreams if we try to force them into restricting theories. It is a sure sign that something has gone wrong, that we are allowing ourselves to get bogged down in those life-wasting, ulterior motive 'games' which Eric Berne so brilliantly exposed, with devastating humor, in his book GAMES PEOPLE PLAY.

Catherine Garvey in 'PLAY the developing child', poses the question, what is play? The play of children may strike us at first as highly irrational, boisterous, or disturbingly perceptive in its portrayal of adult attitudes and poses. Even children's play demonstrates an underlying system, repetitive and rules- based, however loosely based this may seem. This is a result of traces from generations of man's biological and cultural heritage. Play amongst the young is most frequent during periods of dramatically expanding knowledge of self, the physical and social world, and systems of communication. It helps teach object manipulation, value judgement, role-models, and social awareness.

So game-playing seems far from being a waste of time, even viewed from a nonplaying attitude. Structures of play are particularly productive in stimulating uses of language, and are powerful influence on the child's construction of reality. Adult play is often highly complex, and several layers of complexity may be present at once. We find that adult play has often become 'institutionalized', and there are fairly rigorous guidelines for selecting who may do it, where and when it may be done, and how or what form of game it is to be. By 'game' I do imply something wider than specific and recognized games, such as Bridge and Monopoly. A game can be made up on the spur of the moment, and the rules need to be understood only by immediate participants. (Later in the series I will return to 'cognoscente games' with reference to Wittgenstein's private language theory).

The famous psychologist Jean Piaget has divided play into three types. SENSORIMOTOR play, the first type, occupies the period from infancy to the second year of life, when the child is busy acquiring control over his movements and learns to coordinate his gestures and perception of their effects. Play at this stage often consists of repeating and varying motions.

SYMBOLIC or REPRESENTATIONAL play is the second stage, predominating from the age of about 2 to 6 years. The child learns to encode his experiences in symbols; images after the event which enable him to recall. Pretend is the key word, as a child for example will I play with symbols and their combinations and fill a nest with eggs by piling marbles into a doll's hat.

The third type of play is GAMES WITH RULES, which begin more or less at school-age. The child has begun to understand various social concepts, such as cooperation and competition, and is beginning to be able to work and think more 'objectively'. The type of play reflects this change, as he is drawn to games that are structured by objective rules, and may involve team or group activities.

PLAYING WITH RULES, Piaget's third category, gives us a slight problem with ambiguity, and with translation. It is interesting to note that in French, German and Russian (Jeu, Spiel and Igra), one word refers at once to both play and game. 'Play with rules' is normally understood by proponents of Piaget as meaning play that is accompanied or characterized by rules; not the same as unstructured play with rules simply as limits or constraints.

So games can now be seen as play activities that have become institutionalized, with explicit rules that can be precisely communicated. Infractions usually carry specific penalties or sanctions. This means that games have the nature of 'social objects' in that they tend to have a clear beginning and end, with a structure that can be described in terms of 'turns' or moves in particular sequences, with a limited set of procedures for certain contingencies. Thus, performances of the same game will of necessity have similarities to other performances of that game. Games are therefore more formal and conventionalized events than they are incidents of spontaneous play, with rules being the essence of games.

An interesting aside is the study by lone and Peter Opie of the 'games of schoolchildren in Britain', which reveals that players overwhelmingly preferred their own games rather than those organized, arranged, or selected by teachers. Adult-directed games were found to be generally less favoured than those learnt directly from other children.

It is possible that the formalized games of later childhood and adulthood have their roots in the experiences of repetitive play from infancy. The motion of rules can be traced to the repeated and predictable patterns that children learn in their first interactions with adults. Work by Jerome Bruner and his associates (Peekaboo and the learning of rule structures - Play, its Role in development and Evolution) observes a number of mother-infant pairs playing Peek-a-boo, often the first 'game' learnt by babies. The games show a clear differentiation of participant roles, and a mutual respect by both parties for the constitution of the game. Each repetition of the game rests on the same sequence of moves, though certain variation in the execution of each move is permitted. What makes a good game of Peek-a-boo is the shared expectations concerning what happens next, and a willingness to conform upon 'agreed' procedures.

Early successful peer games are likely to be co-operative, such as Ring' O Rosies. At about 7-9 years, games based upon competition become more popular, where one team or player strives to win or to defeat the other. Younger children will compete verbally to rival a playmate's actions or claims (I'm better than you are etc.), but the demands of organised competitive play are too great.

The experiences of being forced to give up a move, or a piece, and to accept the status of loser, are difficult to learn. The young child will only willingly accept such conditions when a desire to excel has taken root, and is supported by the opinions and reactions of his peers.

Let us for a while look at the other side of the ambiguity of the phrase PLAYING WITH RULES. Rules themselves can be the resource for play, and this 'other side of the coin' helps to make games such an enjoyable experience. Children like to violate a convention, for example, the small boy who delights in trying to put one of his galoshes upon his head instead of his hat. There is an aspect of play that takes a rule, limit or restraints as the focal material. Part of the game may be to risk the consequences of transgressing the accepted boundaries of the permissible - or the possible!

Such play is more often found in sophisticated 'adult' manifestations, and Roger Caillois (Man, Play & Games. New York, Free Press 1961) cites 'chance' as one of the basic psychological factors that motivate play and games. The psychologist Bruner has also given an apt description of games as "a special way of violating fixity".

The poet WH Auden in his 1948 essay 'Squares & Oblongs' is concerned with man's participation in, and antipathy to nature. Auden states that the ego resents every desire of the natural self for food, sex pleasure, and logical coherence because these desires are not choosier. In addition to wanting to feel free, people want to feel important.

Game playing removes the constraints of real life, and allows actes gratuites to be fulfilled, similarly to crime. 'The alternative to criminal magic is the innocent game. Games are actes gratuites in which necessity is obeyed because the necessity here consists of rules chosen by the players. Games, therefore, are freer than crimes because the rule obeyed in the former is arbitrary while the rule disobeyed in the latter is not; at the same time they are less important.'

In his article 'Where the action is', Erving Goffman points out the attractions of risk-taking, as in say gambling or sky-diving. If this attraction becomes obsessive, the freedom is in fact lost, and the orientation ceases to be playful. But even if games might contain the element of danger caused by obsession, the playing out of your risk-taking or other fantasies through the medium of a game is normally preferable to risk-taking in actuality.

As Ann Faraday phrases it:

But because the name of the game is liberation from bondage, it is also an invitation to the dance.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell