Play as Collective Behavior

Clarence R. Rainwater
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California

SCIENTIFIC theories of play have attached more importance to biological than to social explanations of its origin and nature. "Heredity" has been preferred to "culture." Hypothetical "instincts" have been overworked in an effort to explain "learned" behavior. The "traditional" element in play has been neglected. Both ethnological materials and the data of social psychology have been subordinated, when considered at all, to the behavior of animals in attempts to account for those responses that comprise play--even games, athletics, and spectacles.

This attitude was probably due to the early and wide circulation of certain philosophical ideas, such as "surplus energy," "practice for mature life," and "recapitulation," before the data of ethnology and of both behaviorist and social psychology had even been tabulated. Ideas that have gained acceptance are slowly abandoned; but the reports of contemporary observers of human nature and institutions call for a re-examination of old data in its relation to much new material that Spencer, Groos, Hall, and other early writers did not have at their disposal. Therefore, while not denying the influence of heredity in human life – such as reflexes and the capacity for conditioning them--the reader's attention is called to the rôle of "collective behavior" in supplementation to biological inheritance whether "reflexes," "instincts," "capacity," or "drives."

The concept of "collective behavior" describes the action of persons responding to either a mood or a convention which has become prevalent in the group of which they are

( 218) members. "Collective" is less comprehensible than "social" and the antithesis of "individual" behavior. Clear cases of the last are probably found only in early infancy, in feeblemindedness, and in certain types of insanity; all other human behavior is personal and thus to some degree social, if not collective.

The practical significance of the collective element in play is that play may be controlled. Both its modes of activity and their accompanying moods have a history. They have been collectively created and re-created and may be either supplanted or abandoned. History is replete with examples of each of these four processes. And today it is the province chiefly of applied sociology to define the mechanisms for the control of play. In the paragraphs that follow the "social origins" rather than the "crowd psychology" of play as collective behavior is sketched.[1]

1. Ascendancy of collective responses. The basic fact in the development of play as collective behavior is the transition from non-social to group response. This development is attained through the conventionalizing of play responses, imitation being the mechanism that brings about the change. When the infant begins to react to group stimuli and to do so with the least uniformity with his fellows --as by the clapping of hands, the repetition of vocal utterances, or a movement in a common direction, that is, with a common object--he has taken the initial step toward his socialization. And when any mode of play response is thus originated, adopted, or enforced by a group-the family or neighborhood, the tribe or nation it is collective behavior. This mode of play may arise during some crisis in group life, beginning as a ceremony and later becoming incorporated into the social ritual of the community. Its

( 219) periodic re-enactment revives and reinstates the original emotional accompaniment in pleasurable form, until the memory of the exciting occasion has faded from social recollection or has received new significance.

2. Dependence of play on group experience. A comparison of the respective plays and games of a primitive group with the daily experience and occasional crisis of their common life discloses the collective origin of all their familiar play modes--the dance, the drama, and the game. These expressions are mimetic and not inventions originally designed for their own sake. They may be, and usually are, enacted for no reward beyond themselves, and re-enacted by way of suggestion, the release of established habits and sentiments; but their origin is unmistakably social rather than instinctive, and related to past or present experience of the community. After a comparative study of play in savage society, Miss Appleton came to the conclusion that "all play in its primitive form had its genesis in actual experience."[2] Interesting examples of this fact have been furnished by Hirn, Wallascheck, Gomme, and others.

3. Rise of the traditional game. The relationship between play and group experience holds the key to the solution of two other problems; viz., the origin of "traditional" games and the comparative wealth of the play heritages of certain groups. After the original experience or crisis situation that was reproduced in pantomimic or dramatic play is lost to group memory through a change in occupation, habitat, or the mere lapse of time, its meaning is also lost while its form or shell remains. Thus the dramatic element fades and the action is modified into an exercise of skill. And with the interpenetration and fusion of cultures both new meaning and new forms of skill may be combined with the old pattern and the game is born and

( 220) reborn from generation to generation. Consequently those groups that have experienced the greater number of contacts with other cultures or have migrated to other physical environments have the richer social heritages in play as in other activities. The "traditional" game, thus, emerged from the primitive dance-drama while modes of play were multiplied simultaneously with the evolution of culture.[3]

4. Play dissociated from other behavior. Another significant fact in the development of collective responses in play is the dissociation of play from other modes of human behavior. Primitive man did not always make this separation as reports of savage society indicate. Much of his play, therefore, was bound up with his hunting, agriculture, craft, or religious occupations. But later various activities became isolated and specialized modes of behavior to be performed at certain times and places and according to prescribed conventions or rules; and, in civilized times, definite groupings of persons in relatively permanent relations for purposes of play-such as "gangs," "teams," or "societies"-occurred. Thus the "festival," the "singing games," the "folk dance," the "games of chance" and of "skill" arose, and "pageantry associations," "dramatic societies" and "athletic clubs" were formed for play's sake alone.

In our times we have "work" and "play" institutions and both supporting them and derived from them, "work" and "play" attitudes. And these dissociated mental attitudes are more prevalent in maturity than in infancy; in civilized than in primitive societies. The child, youth, or adult of today is confronted with what is popularly regarded as a dual world of work and play. Each sphere has its characteristic institutions approved more or less by the public opinion of the times as illustrated in the maxims

( 221) and thus add to the permanent traits of the social heritage. "Work while you work, and play while you play," "Business before pleasure," and "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

5. Socio-rational determination of play. The increase in variety of play modes and their dissociation from other activities of the common life opened the way for invention, discovery, and direction of the play traditions of the group in an arbitrary manner quite more rational than the simpler process of primitive society suggested in the discussion above of the origin of "the traditional game." And because there was both a conscious method and a group objective in mind, the process may be described as a "sociorational"[4] determination of play. Examples of this aspect of the collective nature of human play in contrast with the individual and biological assumption of its origin and nature, are seen, first, in the many inventions that have been popularized through social imitation. Indoor baseball and basket ball were invented to provide a game that could be played during inclement weather in a small space such as an indoor gymnasium and yet be sufficiently vigorous to appeal to young men. These cases are but two of many similar ones; volley ball and playground ball being others, while every community has its variations and every generation its craze or fad in play--witness Mah Jongg today.

In connection with these inventions and their incorporation into the play tradition is the discovery of new modes of human activity which in turn are imitated and thereby, added to the social heritage. This procedure is quite another thing from the assembly of old modes and their employment to new purposes as in the case of the inventions of indoor baseball and basket ball. Discovery is not invention, although invention may incorporate discovery,

( 222) Examples of this aspect of play may be seen in the history of our so-called "national game." The "diamond" now used in baseball dates no further back than 1839. The first "slide to base" is credited to Robert Addy in 1866. The "curved ball" was first used in a game by Arthur Cummings at Cambridge in 1867. The present diameter and weight of the ball was not standardized until as late as 1909. The bat, like the ball, also has a history; and is not a relic of our primates. The savage may have used a stick or a club, but it is a fair guess that he never saw a bat. The story of the "rules," moreover, would comprise a volume. The game of baseball, thus, is something more than the fortuitous assemblage of certain motor responses of muscular exercises handed down from our primitive forbears because of their "survival value." That there are movements and emotions identical to those we assume belong to primitive life--such as throwing, running, and striking with a club--is not denied; but baseball is more than these and is distinguished by none of them. The "skill" differentiating it from other games involves movements that are unmistakably modern, the cumulative effort of discovery, invention, and imitation.

In connection with the socio-rational aspect of play, there is also the definition of standards of behavior to be observed by both participants and spectators. Briefly these traits may be said to range from repressive legislation to sportsmanship and community organization, as the play movement in the United States well illustrates.[5] And herein lies the chief mechanism for the control of play--the socio-rational determination of the play pattern to be imitated.


  1. For a brief discussion of the "crowd psychology" aspect of play as collective behavior, consult J. L. Gitlin, Poverty and Dependency, Century, 1921, pp. 592-7; or his article on "The Sociology of Recreation" in the American Journal of Sociology, May, 1915.
  2. L. F. Appleton, A Comparative Study of the Plays and Games of Adult Savages and Civilized Children, University of Chicago Press, 1910, pp. 51.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Cf. E. S. Bogardus, Introduction to Sociology, 2nd edition, Univ. of Southern California Press, 1917, p. 204 ff.
  5. I have discussed this point fully in The Play Movement in the United States, University of Chicago Press, 1922, pp. 273-288.

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