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A golden age of play for adults

Dave Neale on a growing yet under-explored area.

25 March 2020

Over the past decade, the video game industry has grown considerably, with the medium now reaching a third of the world's population. Moreover, the primary consumer demographics for video and board games has shifted from children and teenagers to people in their twenties, thirties and forties (Patterson et al., 2019).

Along with this shift, we have seen the rise of other play experiences for adults, including 'megagames' (games played over a whole day and with up to 300 players); growing interest in roleplaying; record attendance numbers at game conventions worldwide; and the commercial success of 'escape rooms', where teams of adults solve puzzles to escape a locked room within a time limit (there are now over 2000 such rooms in the USA when just five years ago there were none). And, based on rapid industry growth and an exponential increase in the number of new releases, it has been claimed that we are in a golden age for board games. I would go further: we are in a golden age of play for adults.

This is striking because it is at odds with the dominant view in Western culture (and, indeed, many cultures) that play is largely confined to childhood. The natural world appears to reflect this idea, with play behaviour prevalent in the juveniles of many species, but disappearing almost completely by adulthood.

One explanation for the prevalence of play in juveniles is that it is a motivating and engaging context for exploring the world, where failure is permitted and mistakes are learning opportunities. Consequently, reduction in play behaviour across development makes sense in evolutionary terms. The juvenile period is about adaptation and learning, and this learning leads to adult behaviour that is more fixed – optimised for reproductive success. Individuals who haven't learned the most adaptive behaviours for their environment by the time they reach adulthood will be at a significant disadvantage compared to those who have.

To some extent, humans follow this model. However, if we look more closely, we see that humans continue to play into adulthood more than most species. In fact, play in adulthood is embedded in many, and possibly all, of our cultures and throughout our history. This raises the fascinating question of what play in adulthood – apparently maladaptive in other species – is doing for humans. Given the recent rise of play experiences for adults, now is the perfect time to be asking this question.


First, we should be clear on what we mean by play in adulthood. There are three key attributes common to most definitions of play: play is enjoyable; voluntary; and done for its own sake (Neale et al., 2018). The fact it is done for its own sake is why, for example, someone kicking a ball around a field can be considered to be playing, while a professional footballer is not (because they are engaging with the game to earn a living, not for its own sake). Play is only play if an individual voluntarily engages with it as a desired activity in and of itself.

With this in mind, there appear to be two main ways adults play:

  • Adults frequently engage in playful interactions, rather than discrete episodes of play. Children, by contrast, frequently engage in episodes of play – perhaps even daily.
  • When adults do engage in episodes of play, those episodes tend to be more circumscribed, more structured, and often have more defined rule-sets than children's play. Examples include games, roleplaying, escape rooms, and murder mystery parties.

The first of these ways is grounded in the concept of 'playfulness', which is the proclivity to reframe everyday situations as something more entertaining, stimulating or enjoyable – in other words, to turn those situations into play. This includes joking, teasing, and bringing a light-hearted, imaginative perspective into an interaction. Recent efforts to create and validate questionnaires to assess adult playfulness have seen some success (Proyer et al., 2019).

The second type of play, through circumscribed, structured episodes, has a long history spanning continents and cultures. Games based on swimming and archery are depicted in cave paintings that are at least 7000 years old; archaeological evidence suggests board games may have been present 8000 years ago (Rollefson, 1992). Adult humans were playing games before they invented the wheel and before they invented writing. Games stand with oral storytelling and the visual arts as one of the earliest examples of humanity's creative pursuits.

The apes who never grow up

Play and playfulness are clearly more central to adult lives than is commonly supposed, but why are humans different to other animals in this regard? One potential answer is that as a species our strength is in our capacity to learn and adapt across the lifespan, evolving culturally as well as biologically. Our lifelong predilection for play may be part of what underpins this capacity – an idea consistent with the theories of Lev Vygostky and Johan Huizinga, who both saw deep links between play and human culture.

A key feature differentiating humans from our closest relatives is the persistence of our child-like qualities; humans demonstrate neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. While chimpanzees' faces change dramatically from infancy to adulthood, with the forehead receding and the brow protruding, human faces do not, and as adults we look more similar to a baby chimpanzee than an adult chimpanzee. Our evolutionary trajectory selected for the retention of our juvenile traits, potentially because some of those traits – including curiosity, behavioural plasticity, and a predilection for play – drove our success as a species. We are the apes who never grow up.

Another possible explanation for the presence of play in our adult lives is that it has psychological and emotional benefits similar to those proposed for childhood play (Whitebread et al., 2017). There is indeed now a small body of research indicating play-related benefits in relation to various aspects of adult life, including our work. Because work is often conceived as the opposite of play, the idea of play being beneficial to work may appear as something of an oxymoron. Yet companies such as Google, whose offices include staff play areas, are leading the way in making play part of working life. Games have been used for educating and training adults since the early 19th century, and there's a proliferation of games for training in various professional domains today, including medicine and business management. Games increase adults' engagement, and this can lead to enhanced learning (Hamari et al., 2016). Beyond games, play in general has workplace benefits, with evidence that the introduction of play episodes can reduce negative emotions and stress, increase group cohesion, and improve work quality, commitment and overall performance (Guitard et al., 2005). Play may be of benefit in the workplace through stimulating creative thinking, encouraging exploration, relieving stress, and fostering positive social interaction.

However, introducing play into the workplace needs to be done with care to be effective. For example, games need to be designed to engage and motivate players, and to accurately reflect workplace objectives. Otherwise, it is possible for employees to use games as escapism, or for games to lead to learning outcomes that are not work-relevant, or even detrimental to work. Play can easily become a distraction, or trivialise serious issues, if it is not introduced in the right way (which may be the thinking behind the traditional play-work dichotomy).

Transforming the familiar

The potential for play to be maladaptive is also clear in the debate around video games and mental health. There is evidence that when engaged with obsessively, video games could have negative psychological effects, with the caveat that excessive game-playing may represent an escape from problems, rather than the cause of them (Barlett et al., 2008). However, there is a flip side to this, as studies have found that, when not used to excess, video games can have positive effects on wellbeing. They may help alleviate anxiety and depression, and – along with board games and puzzles – have been linked to better cognitive health in the elderly (Iizuka et al., 2019; O'Shea et al., 2019; Russoniello et al., 2019). The variety, novelty and engagement that play promotes may lead to the adaptive retention of cognitive functioning in later life.

This indicates how some psychological benefits may arise from play's association with novelty. Through exploration, experimentation, and the ability to see things in a different light (for example, through a humorous or fantastical lens) play can transform the familiar into something new and exciting. And this brings us to a third area where research has identified a link to play in adulthood: romantic relationships. A challenge to the maintenance of a romantic relationship is the gradual decrease in novelty, as each partner becomes more and more familiar with the other (Brown & Vaughan, 2010). In the early stages, romance is often playful, as couples engage in banter, teasing, in-jokes, rough-and-tumble play, and create pet names for each other. Maintaining this playfulness could be a factor in determining whether a relationship succeeds. Couples who score higher on play questionnaires, and those who say play is an essential part of their relationship, report higher relationship satisfaction. More broadly, play's ability to introduce novelty, to foster positive emotions and social bonding, and to defuse stressful situations, could all be of benefit in personal relationships (Van Vleet & Feeney, 2015).

The perfect time to play

There is much more to be said about how, when and why we play as adults, and this has been a necessarily brief overview of a diverse and expansive topic. Our species' proclivity for play in adulthood has roots in our evolutionary history, and in various forms, has been a part of human cultures for thousands of years. As adults we play more often than is commonly supposed, and engaging in play and playful interactions may have psychological benefits for our work, mental health, and relationships.

Despite this potential importance, play in adulthood remains under-explored by psychologists. In the modern world, where careers, relationships, and identities are more varied and change more frequently than they have in the past, and companies need to adapt rapidly to technological and societal change, play could be more important than ever as a tool to learn and adapt throughout our lives. This shift in societal norms might explain why we have entered a golden age of play for adults. It also means that now is the perfect time to explore play in our practice, research, and, perhaps most importantly, our private lives.

Play for adults is thriving. When we play, we thrive too.

Box text: Psychology and game design

My entry to board game design was through creating Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars, a mystery-solving game where players explore Victorian London to solve crimes. That was some years ago, and, as a psychologist, seeing how players engage with games, mysteries, and each other, has been a fascinating experience.

Developing a game involves a lot of playtesting – giving it to a group, watching them play, and asking yourself some questions: 'Is it engaging?', 'What kind of experience are they having?', 'Is it appropriately challenging?' Even apparently superficial changes can affect player experience – for example, players respond differently to drawing cards than rolling dice (even if the odds of success are the same) and may use a playing piece differently depending on how it looks and feels.

One way to view engaging gameplay is as a combination of Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow with group dynamics. Games can create a collective flow state, where players are immersed in the game world. A concept from play theory that is partly analogous to this is that of the magic circle, the bounded play-experience that has its own rules, logic and character. Game design is partly about maintaining this circle – this collective flow – through a combination of visuals, player-interaction, and interesting challenges.

For this to work, the challenges must be pitched at an appropriate level. Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), often applied when considering the developmental benefits of play, is applicable to the practice of game design. A game where players operate in their ZPD is likely to be engaging, stimulating, and an opportunity for learning and development – even if only in terms of becoming a better player.

In these ways, and many others, the intersection of psychology and game design can generate useful insights for people from both sides of the disciplinary divide. After all, 90 per cent of board game design is about observing and curating people's experiences, thoughts and social interactions – it's hard to get closer to the essence of psychology than that.

- Dave Neale (pictured above) is an Affiliate of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge, and the designer of two board games aimed at adults: the escape-room game Unlock! Heroic Adventures and the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars. [email protected]
Twitter: @davenealewriter


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