Instinct(ive) play behaviour in human and non-human players

Hanna Elina Wirman, Ida Kathrine Hammeleff Jørgensen

Research output: Contribution to conference - NOT published in proceeding or journalConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


Instinctive stands in opposition to thoughtful. It is free from causal reasoning and deductive logic that bases on knowledge from past experience (Garrett 1997). Acknowledging how little is confirmed about the origins, importance or evolution of play in humans and non-humans (e.g. Burghardt 2005), the part of instinctual also remains a mystery. In Wirman’s recent studies (e.g. Wirman 2015), however, we can recognise a human tendency to see ‘instinctive’ in animal behaviour while ‘play’ substitutes it in categorising human actions. This poses intriguing questions for multispecies game and play studies: Why is it commonsensical to label an animal’s touch screen interaction as ‘instinctive’?

While we consider a human ‘playing’ a game? How much do we actually know about the instinctive aspects of human and non-human animal play behaviour? What is the specific importance and role of instincts in human play? What kind of definition of ‘instinctual’ is meaningful for the study of games and play? Finally, how to design for instinctual or for non-instinctual play?

While many such questions remain out of the reach of a humanist or a design researcher, this paper aims to focus on one single aspect of instinctive play. The paper looks at different types of games from physical duels to online multiplayers and based on those identify ‘instances of instinctual’ in play. The paper presumes that game mechanics and game platforms frame and limit player’s possibilities for purely non-deductive approach and it is very much the nature of games to force their player to learn to continue. Learning in itself, as a foundation for achievement, is based on reasoning and seemingly opposite to instinct. From this point of view, extended play (Myers 2010) and progression are keys to understanding and separating instinctive from non-instinctive in gameplay. Fortunately, the field of primate studies and animal play lend themselves well to the study of instinctive in play. Side by side, the paper studies how such research approaches instinctive animal play behaviour and what is said about motivations for different types of play in the broadly understood field of games studies.

Claiming play itself as an instinct (e.g. Caillois 1958/2001; Gray 2013) is beyond the question under consideration. The paper draws from Huizinga (1950/2014) where he writes that reasons to play form a phenomenon far more complex than a single (innate) instinct. Caillois’ (2001) game types are nevertheless considered in parallel to ‘instinctive.’ When Caillois describes his concept of free form play, paidia, he calls these “manifestations of the play instinct.” This brings the paper back to the question of different species’ play tendencies as Caillois uses examples of a cat, a dog and an infant those describe those who engage in paidia kind of play. Here a specific type of play is associated with instincts and typically assumes a ‘lower’ skill or capacity of maneuvering an object. This paper will continue this line of thought further investigating what is it that constitutes instinctive in multispecies game studies of different game types and playing styles.


Burghardt, G.M. The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2005.

Caillois, R. Man, Play and Games. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Gray, P. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. New York, Basic Books, 2013.

Garrett, D. Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy. Oxford University Press. New York, New York, 1997.

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Ct, USA, Martino Publishing, 1950/2014.

Myers, D. Play redux: The form of computer games. The University of Michigan Press and The University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2010.

Wirman, H. Uncomfortable Resemblance in Online Animal-technology Videos. Minding Animals Conference, New Delhi, India, 13-20 January 2015.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventCentral and Eastern European Game Studies Conference 2015: Distributed Game Studies - Jagellonian University, Krakow, Poland
Duration: 21 Oct 201524 Oct 2015
Conference number: 2


ConferenceCentral and Eastern European Game Studies Conference 2015
LocationJagellonian University
Internet address


  • Instinct
  • Animal play
  • Game genres
  • Multispecies research
  • Playing styles


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