Gateways to Culture: Play, Games, Metaphors, and Institutions

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 Penn State University
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In this essay I develop a case for games as a primitive form of culture and an early arrival at our ancestors’ cultural gates. I analyze the modest intellectual prerequisites for game behavior including the use of metaphor, a reliance on constitutive rules, and an ability to understand the logic of entailment. In arguing for its early arrival during the late Middle and Upper Paleolithic, I develop a case for its powerful adaptive qualities in terms of both natural and sexual selection. I accept ecological dominance coupled with an increasing sense of self as primary sources of selection pressure. I show how these two factors threatened homeostatic balances ranging from low arousal and atrophy to malaise, depression, and anomie. I suggest that an antidote or adaptation was found in culturally-enhanced forms of play — that is, formal, rule-governed games. The upshot of this analysis is a broadened discussion of cultural adaptation from one that often focuses on cooperation, social complexity, and language to other fundamental issues related to survival — namely, increased leisure time, enhanced arousal needs, and the health and physical skills required for a hunter-forager existence.

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