Luduology, noun, the study of play, from the Latin ‘ludus’ – play.
It was a great mystery, a marvel, played out in front of me hidden in plain sight. My great-grandson, Z, about 8 ½ years old, and I arrived at the park in the afternoon before the local schools were out, so he played by himself while I sat on a bench and read a book. Z and I have been to the park before and he has always made friends out of strangers. I later thought that we are a social species, curious about each other, and making friends is part of our behavior repertoire.
After some time, I noticed that a girl about his age was chasing him. I watched for awhile and noticed that he never chased her – she always chased him. I thought that’s odd! I learned the dictum ‘he chased her until she caught him’ but she was chasing, inverting the dictum.
Then I noticed a loose coalition of about 5 younger and smaller kids associated with the girl, about 3 boys and 2 girls. The older girl was organizing her coterie to chase Z who remained independent and mobile. She and her group tended to occupy a higher ground within the play area. She would touch their head and hide them from Z behind a tree. Then she would point to Z and direct one of them to take up the chase. I thought why was she organizing her coterie and sending one of them out to chase Z? I later thought about the organization of individuals into a coherent unit to achieve a purpose. Who organizes, who leads, who follows, and to what purpose?
Or she would lead the chase herself. When she was chasing she was almost always one or two paces behind and one pace to Z’s right or left – just behind and off his shoulder, and occasionally one of her coterie behind her. I thought of a story, I think it was by Jack London, where the female wolf ran at the shoulder of a potential mate, testing his worthiness. I thought about female mate choice.
The chase sequences were episodic with short pauses between chases. At one time, Z was on a play apparatus by himself and she came lecturing him with finger waving and hectoring countenance. She was telling him ‘how the hog ate the cabbage.’ There was no conflict during any of the play period but here she was giving him what-for. Zeke watched her with no words and turned back to his own play.
I thought ‘nagging woman’ and wondered if in that brief display she had revealed the temper of her mind – the way she would assert dominance. I later thought about the various interactions called nagging and back-seat driving. I thought about the old saying that men feel invaded and women feel evaded. And I thought of dominance interactions within a sexually dimorphic verbal social species. How does the physically smaller sex compensate for differences of size and aggressiveness? With words and stories? And I thought that females tend to have higher verbal skills than males.
Then she was on her higher ground with her coterie. She pointed to Z and sicced one of the younger girls onto him. That girl jumped down, ran toward Z and he ran away. The older girl jumped off the high ground and took up the chase. He stopped with his hands on another apparatus and for the only time she touched him – from behind with both hands on his arms. For a moment all was still and then he twisted away to the right about 10 feet, stopped and turned to face her. She pirouetted, arms over her head, several times toward him with her eyes on him, then stopped for a moment facing him, turned to her right, and ran away.
I thought that in not contesting her hectoring dominance display Z had passed an essential test and she now touched him. Why did she hold both of his arms in her hands? Why did he turn away, then stop and look at her directly? The pirouettes, do they say, “here I am, look and love?”
For the first time he is following but not chasing her. Her mother calls “time to go,” and the girl runs around and through the swing set, jumping over a swing seat several times. Finally, she stops, they face each other and they say goodbye.
I thought about Z following her after her touch and pirouette display – the only time in this play sequence that he was behind her. I later thought that something had changed in his brain. Was it rewired in some significant way? He was caught, entrained. I thought about her running around the swing set displaying her ability and coordination even jumping over the swing seats several times – an extravagant, even risky display. She knew that she had caught him.
I have watched something marvelous and wondrous. I thought that if I could understand this self-organizing, self-regulating and unselfconscious play that I would know more about H. sapiens. Their play exhibited something essential about us.
I gathered my 3” x 5” file cards, Z put on his shoes, and we left the park. As we were leaving I saw the source of the girl’s coterie: they were part of an afterschool play group that had arrived at the park in two vans with two mothers.
I have played luduologist – someone who observes and studies play – for a fascinating afternoon.
The play was ephemeral. I replay the sequence in my mind, memory giving it a measure of permanence, and making those events yet active in my mind. A sequence of events external to me has been incorporated into my mind as an effective agent. I continue to think of them, retelling the story to myself:
There I was sitting on a park bench enjoying the sunshine and a good book. Enjoying the children’s play too, watching them running, climbing and swinging. Then out of this activity I notice a girl chasing my great-grandson. I watch and find a pattern, she is always chasing him and he never chases her. I think, that’s odd, why does he never chase her? Now my brain is filtering their play out of the general hubbub and movement. Then I notice that the girl has a coterie of younger kids, and she organizes and directs them to chase Z also. My brain does another ‘that’s odd’ and my file cards are in my hand and I am writing notes. I watched their play and as best I could I wrote the sequence of their interactions, finding patterns and significance, and out of that told a story of their play:
She chased. She hectored. She touched. She pirouetted. He followed. She displayed.
I told a story of children at play and I simultaneously told myself a very different story. I interleaved thoughts and interpretations, telling a new story about the play story. I was frantically trying to watch the play, note the interactions, and at the same time observe and write the words in my mind, finding patterns and connections, and giving them names. I was telling my ur-story, the source story of observations and perceptions, and my meta-story, a secondary story replete with meanings, connections, insights, and couched in abstract concepts:
She chased: a physical test. She hectored: an emotional test. She touched: he had passed the tests, she made her choice. She pirouetted: look and love. He followed: He was entrained, he made his choice. She displayed: fulfillment, excitement and brain reward.
I continued to think about that play sequence, making sense of it, figuring things out, finding patterns, making connections, developing meaning, and getting a brain reward for each new insight. I am a brain reward junkie, craving meaning and insight, and out of them writing stories. By writing the ur- and meta-stories, that sequence of ephemeral play events external to me has been incorporated into a transmissible form capable of entering, affecting and effecting another mind, once again becoming external to me.
The mother of one of the other children at the playground sat at the far end of the bench. If she had been watching the play sequence she might have told a similar but different story of the play. Would she have also been thinking a meta-story about girl chasing boy remembering her days on the playground? Her meta-story, should she have thought one, would probably not even resemble mine. Our stories are motivation and path dependent thus different. But they are equally important, even true to each of us. How can four different stories, two ur- and two meta-stories, be made of one ephemeral play sequence yet be accompanied by the same brain reward?
So, I leave the ur-story of the children’s play behind and turn my attention to the conundrum of meta-stories. What are they, where do they come from, what do they do, and how do they do it? And in particular, why are our stories so different and why do we value them so much? Why do we tell them?
I am, and we are, obligate story tellers. I am, and we are, obligate story listeners. Those phrases are portmanteaus that in subsequent essays I will attempt to open and explore. I will tell stories about meta-stories, telling meta-meta-stories about why we tell and listen to stories, why our stories are different, and what happens when stories conjoin and we share brain reward, and what happens when stories conflict and there is brain pain.
We are a neurologically and behaviorally complex, social, sexually dimorphic, verbal, tribal, and territorial species, with high metabolic, security and reproductive needs. Stories function within that ecology. I’ll try to tell some of that story, my story of that story, a meta-story, and a meta-meta-story about story telling.