When I was a kid, maybe around 8 or 9, I had a cabinet full of Legos. To the casual observer it was a few messy shelves crammed with plastic blocks, but to me it was a portal into another world. Opening it up I’d see little buildings and people resting in suspended animation, and as I turned my attention to them they came alive. Through them I’d become heroes and villains fighting over secret bases, explorers searching the universe, and old friends hanging out and having fun. Hours would pass without notice, and more than once I had to be forced to bed or I would have played all night.

But somewhere between turning 11 and 12 the portal closed. I’d still open the cabinet and try to get my characters to come alive, but I had to work harder and harder to will them into existence until eventually I couldn’t do it anymore. Whatever magic I had possessed was gone and all I had left was anthropomorphic plastic.

I was reminded of this when reading Mike Plotz’s thoughts on Bateson and play, and it got me thinking about play from the perspective of Kegan and developmental psychology. It’s straightforward to claim that my tweenage self developed from one psychological stage to another and in the process changed my play preferences, but that opens up deeper questions. Why did I lose a form of play? Why couldn’t I do something I could previously do? Did I gain anything for my loss? And what does this suggest about the value of the developmental perspective?

To begin, I’ll let Mike present Bateson’s view on play and it’s role in communication (emphasis mine):

Play is thus an exploratory behavior, a way of being that goes some way towards a kind of what-if reconnaissance of potentially dangerous territory without taking the extreme risks that the “real thing” would entail. Really fighting to establish dominance might lead to life-threatening injuries, while play-fighting is similar enough to the the real thing to determine who would likely dominate. Compare this function to that of dreams, which also serve as a way for the organism to simulate dangerous scenarios safely.
[…]
Returning to the phenomenon of play as described in the previous section, it’s now clear that play itself is demarcated in its own frame, which establishes a context in which certain behaviors are interpreted in a special way, e.g. as friendly rather than aggressive. But frames (e.g. dreams, stories, movies, plays, video games) are often invisible while we’re immersed in them — they seem to encompass the whole world. And so there is a danger of forgetting the context and interpreting those behaviors as real aggression. Bateson sees the development of play as a necessary step on the road to a mature epistemology[.]
[…]
The process of psychotherapy, according to Bateson, involves taking stock of the patient’s unexamined habits of thought and behavior, stepping outside of that comfortable frame, and establishing new habits of thought and behavior — new rules — in a process analogous to natural play behavior[.]

What Bateson is saying, in a developmental psychology context, is that play is a way to engage in development, and his talk of “frames” specifically suggests that play is made in terms of the subject in the subject-object distinction. If you’re not familiar, it’s related to but more specific than the general philosophical concept of subject and object. Something is said to be object for a person if it’s the sort of thing they can model with sufficient complexity to understand it intuitively and have this proven by making accurate predictions about its future states. Things that are subject are not this: they are more complex than one can naturally integrate together the details and patterns of.

It helps to think of objects as things and subjects as contexts, lenses, or frames. Imagine yourself standing in a house looking out the window. Outside the window you see a lawn with a dog and a tree. You can learn a great deal about the dog and the tree, but only through the lens of looking out the window.

An idyllic scene

You can’t put the dog and tree together in a bigger context that includes the house because you are inside it. If you want to do that, you’ll have to find your way out of the house in order to be able to take in the larger scene.

Just your neighborhood giant ant coming to borrow some sugar

So long as you remain in the house, you are subject to it: you have no way to see the world that doesn’t implicitly include the context of looking out from inside the house. Its window frames your experience of the world and the objects in it. This is the way in which the subject subjects you to its way of knowing the world.

Kegan, describing a developmental theory of psychology, looks at how people develop in terms of the categories of things they can hold as subject and object. People are seen to go through phases where their contexts are constructed in terms of objects (in the intuitive, physical sense), object relationships, systems, system relationships, and holons. So if play is, as Bateson argues, a way of moving to larger frames, we should find that play is essential to the developmental process Kegan describes.

Play Focuses on the Subject

As an example, let’s consider what the subject or frame of my Lego play was and see if it was part of my developmental process. Assuming Kegan’s model, we should be able to identify if my play was about objects, object relationships, systems, system relationships, or holons, and to some extent my play was with objects, but consider how Legos work. You take multiple blocks and put them together to form larger objects. If my play were framed by physical objects (Kegan stage 0), I wouldn’t have been able to reliably act out scenarios through the Legos: I’d be focused on understanding how the objects worked in isolation.

Jumping ahead, if my play were framed by systems (Kegan stage 2), my play would have been less about individual characters and their actions and more about their organization. Rather than a good guy versus a bad guy, for example, my play might have been about a team of good guys fighting against the evil they found in the world. Systems seem more complex than what I was engaged with in my play, so this bounds us to consider object relationships as subject (Kegan stage 1).

If my play was framed by object relationships, I’d be primarily focused on understanding how the objects work together. At first this sounds more like a precursor to the play I describe: I was playing with constructed Lego objects and people and not with constructing them. I could build what I wanted so far as I had the parts to do it, and that certainly requires holding object relationships as object in order to be able to put individual objects together.

But consider the nature of my play with the pretend people. My play was specifically with the relationships between them. My favorite games were to pit good guys against bad and to have friends hanging out. My play was about exploring how the characters interacted, and in particular projecting my knowledge of the world onto my Lego people to create pretend scenarios so I could experiment with how the world works. I used my toys like visual aids to help me work out my thoughts.

And this points to why this play became impossible for me as I grew older: I was developing into the next phase, where object relationships become object and systems become subject so that I no longer needed to try to understand object relationships because I could already skillfully manipulate them in my mind. I lost a style of play not because I could no longer do it, but because it was no longer an interesting challenge. My mind could no longer be absorbed in studying object relationships because it knew too well how they worked.

To consider another example, as a teenager and young adult, I played a lot of Civilization. I got hooked playing a demo of Alpha Centauri, then moved on to Civ 3, 4, and 5 as they were released. Although I don’t have exact stats, based on data I do have it’s safe to say I spent well over 2000 hours in game. I liked playing it because I was able to explore my thoughts on systems and, later, how different systems interacted through the proxy of simplified, pretend nation states. It was fun for me in Kegan stage 2 and Kegan stage 3, but upon developing further it stopped being fun and just felt like an uninteresting way to spend time, the same way my Legos had stopped being fun by the time I was 12.

These days the only game I play is DOTA 2. Unlike my past games, DOTA is an online multiplayer team game where you are randomly matched with similarly skilled players to fight 5 on 5 for about an hour to achieve complex game objectives. Although some players are technically skilled enough to win without teamwork at lower levels, at higher levels of play the only way to win is through coordinated action. And I find this interesting because it forces me to engage with that which remains subject to me — the integration of all details and patterns into a holon. This is part of my Kegan stage 4 play as I continue to develop towards stage 5.

So at least in my own life it seems play has been key to psychological development. And although I have checked against my life experience in the details to make sure the general case holds there, a quick googling shows that there is broad consensus that play is positively correlated with psychological development. There is a lot of room for disagreement on the mechanism of how play relates to development, but the general principle seems to hold strongly enough that it’s well worth supposing the play/development correlation and investigating further to better understand causation.

Appendix: Technical note for those familiar with Kegan

If you are familiar with Kegan, my connection of play styles to stages may seem misaligned with the normal developmental timeline. I’ve left out the detail above of talking about leading and trailing edges, but the short of it is that a form a play seems to open up to you when you enter a stage and what you are subject to expands, and a play style becomes uninteresting when you leave a stage and your sense of object for a class is complete. So I don’t leave stage 1 play until 12 not because of retarded development but because that’s when my trailing edge reached stage 2. Similarly it seems it wasn’t until I was about 30 that my trailing developmental edge fully entered stage 3 since only then did building individual systems become uninteresting.

Update 2017–05–11

My thinking on these topics has evolved. Although the surface and intermediary details remain correct, I think there are better ways of understanding the relationship between development and play. Although I’ve not revisited play explicitly, if you found this interesting you might want to follow up with these newer posts.

Unstaging Developmental Psychology

Phenomenological Complexity Classes

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