Whether you’re always hungry for the next online casino bonus or just enjoy a casual game of cards with your friends, playing games is something that we, as a species, find deeply appealing. But why is this? From an evolutionary perspective, what do we as a species gain by regularly playing games?
There are a few prominent theories on why playing is such a major component of our psychological make-up. The first is a fairly simple one that’s observed in the animal kingdom: playing is a means to practice the skills you’ll need as an adult and this is why children have a natural drive to play and engage in games. For instance, in animals, you see this in behaviour where lions and their cubs will engage in mock fights to practice pouncing and stalking. An example of this is in the video below where cubs will simulate attacking their father to cause a reaction. While his response appears to be a warning, it helps to drive home the lesson that their actions are having the desired effect and helps them learn.
This example is useful because it leads to one of the features that makes similar behaviour desirable in adult humans. As the understanding is that play is a good means to practice skills useful later in life, it seems odd that the desire to play persists into adult life. But being playful, especially with children, can be seen as a positive sign in adults that you’d make a good partner. What’s perhaps more interesting is why we play the games we do: while there is an evolutionary argument for games like tag and chess, as they encourage physical and mental development, what about games of pure chance?
While the games may not contribute to developing particular skills, they utilise the same areas of the brain as you would for games like tag and chess with what is known as the reward system. The reward system is a series of different areas in your brain that, primarily, are involved in the manufacture of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which has historically been associated with pleasure, but is now more commonly believed to mediate incentive salience, i.e. the feeling of wanting something. Essentially, it helps discern certain actions as those which are worth repeating, which is very useful in learning and development, but can be problematical under certain circumstances. This isn’t the only result of dopamine, it serves a myriad of functions in the human body, but for now we’re focusing on dopamine’s role in the reward system and, specifically, an effect called the ’near-miss’ phenomenon.
It’s primarily been observed in gamblers, but the phenomenon can affect anyone. When we lose by a narrow margin at something, we still receive a release of dopamine from the reward system that encourages us to try again based on the belief we nearly won last time. For example, if you’re playing on a slot machine and get two matching symbols and one symbol a single row out of alignment, your brain will release a reward because of how close you were to accomplishing your goal. This seems odd because even if you ‘nearly’ won, the result was totally random and you definitely lost. But it starts to make sense when you consider that dopamine isn’t a strictly ‘pleasure’ chemical, it helps you mediate your motivation. Thinking of it in evolutionary terms, if you go hunting for food and only find a few empty bushes with no fruit, it benefits you to keep looking as you still need food. This motivation is important and so, if you fail to achieve a goal but come close, your brain will encourage you to try again.
This is generally a good thing but can lead to problems where playing games is concerned as you can end up with a false impression of probability. While the example given here is usually one of gambling, it can apply to just about anything where chance is a factor. This is because our brains are pre-disposed to attempt to find patterns even in an area where there is no pattern to be found, through a process called pattern recognition. This, combined with the ’near-miss’ phenomenon, can make certain games seem as though you are ‘due’ for a win after a consistent series of losses through what is known as the gambler’s fallacy.
The brain is still not fully understood, but at least when it comes to our predisposition to play games, we have a good understanding of what motivates us to play (the reward system) and why we retain the behaviour into adult life.