Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Social Play

  • Marios ShialosEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1073-1



In most mammalian species including humans, Social Play describes playful activities, such as tumbling, chasing, and making faces, among two or more individuals that support the development of mutually beneficial connections between them.


Social play involves a variety of playful activities that are directed towards other people (Pellis and Pellis 2007), involving at the very least two interacting players exhibiting behaviors that highlight the context of the relationship between them (Gleason 2017). For young primates, social play is the stage that involves making use of their peers for the purpose of social exploration characterized by at least two basic social play patterns: rough-and-tumble play or contact play, e.g., wrestling, pulling, biting, and rolling, and, approach-withdrawal or noncontact play, i.e., taking turns swiftly chasing back and forth each other across an area, with regular interchange between the roles of leader and follower (Harlow 1969). Some additional expressions of social play in both humans and animals include chasing, play-fighting, and peek-a-boo while more cognitively sophisticated forms found largely in human children include sociodramatic and construction play (Graham and Burghardt 2010).

Social Play – An Overview

To engage in social play, a very common mammalian activity (Durand and Schank 2015), at least two individuals are needed which are commonly from, but not limited to, the same species (Graham and Burghardt 2010). Another definition views social play as a “state of engagement” where both partners alternate behaviors that they modify each time based on each other’s reactions in a successive order, hence, these behaviors meet two criteria where on one hand they are alternating and contingent on each other and on the other hand they appear to be nonliteral or abstract (Garvey 1974). For example, in play-fighting the attacker might intentionally let his guard down, something unlikely to happen in a real fight, so that the defender can counterattack (Pellis et al. 2010).

When at least two children are alone in a room together there are four possible “play” states that can take place: (a) social non-play (a joint activity that does not involve play, e.g., work together to fix a toy that was broken), (b) non-social non-play (e.g., even though they are in the same room, they explore independently), (c) non-social play (e.g., play acting imaginative scenarios independently, e.g., one is playing the doctor and the other is playing the cook), (d) social play (collaboratively playing together, e.g., hide and seek) (Garvey 1974). There is additional support from behavioral studies and observations with juvenile rats which differentiate social type behaviors as between related and unrelated to play (Vanderschuren et al. 1997). According to Burghardt (2011), there are five criteria that describe play behavior, which state that: “Play (1) is incompletely functional in the context in which it appears; (2) spontaneous, pleasurable, rewarding, or voluntary; (3) differs from other more serious behaviors in form (e.g., exaggerated) or timing (e.g., occurring early in life before the more serious version is needed); (4) is repeated, but not in abnormal and unvarying stereotypic form (e.g., distressed rocking or pacing); and (5) is initiated in the absence of acute or chronic stress.”

One of the most common forms of social play found in animals is rough-and-tumble play also called play-fighting and accounts roughly for 10% of play activities in human children (Pellis et al. 2010). Rough-and-tumble play or play fighting is a competitive form of social play with the most amount of research (Pellis and Pellis 2007). The differences between play-fighting and actual fighting lay in five specific details: (a) during play-fighting there is no competition for vital resources, (b) the players show restraint and avoid doing serious, if any, harm, (c) there are reversing roles between the two players of attack, defense, and counterattack, (d) the act brings both parties closer together, and (e) for humans and many other species, play is communicated through distinctive signs from the face and body (Pellis et al. 2010). Despite the similarities to other sexual or aggressive behaviors, these differences that describe social play postulate it a distinct category of behavior and not only a precursor of adult type behaviors (Vanderschuren et al. 1997).

According to Bekoff (2001), because of the similarities with aggressive behaviors, play needs to be communicated to the social partner beforehand in an effort to reach a consensus on the activity avoiding the chance for it to be interpreted as a threat (e.g., perceived as an intention to fight or predation). Exaggerating normal behavior or the use of plain old smiles and giggles can reflect the intent to play and that the presented play activity or behavior is neither threatening nor meant to be taken literally (Garvey 1974). What is more, Bekoff (2001) expresses the value of “role-reversing” (where the dominant individual voluntarily behaves in a manner unlikely to transpire in real events, e.g., rolling over) and “self-handicapping” (e.g., biting less intensely) in social play to balance the scales of power and make their intention of continuing to play known to their partner. These actions have the added benefit of allowing juveniles the opportunity to practice and learn valuable skills that would otherwise cost them their survival if not properly mastered (e.g., practicing counterattacks during play-fighting that will be extremely valuable in a real fight happening in the future).

Bekoff (2001) further proposed that in a sense social play may have facilitated the evolution of social morality, specifically the value in playing fairly during a game where innocence in play and forgiveness of any transgressions prevails over competition while allowing to safely practice cooperative skills – especially to younger players still on the learning curve and not thus far perceived as anyone’s adversary. Through social play, rules for social conduct have evolved, practiced, and learned to monitor acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and establish the grounds for social morality to be generalized across other real-life situations. Also, this social conduct assists the development of trust placed from one partner to another as well as the development of a preference to finding partners that play fairly quite possibly extending to represent the integrity and stability of a group of individuals. In addition, the author explains that for the duration of the “socialization period,” a short but critical time interval during the early development, self-responsibility about one’s own welfare is waived so that social skills development happens at a faster pace while social play deprivation during this critical time period can result in unwanted consequences.

Eckerman et al. (1975) separated 60 children in three different age groups; 10–12, 16–18, and 22–24 months of age (10 pairs each) and observed them during a novel play setting with both mothers and peers present. They found that children between 10 and 12 months of age preferred solitary play; from 16 to 18 months of age, children chose to play more with their mothers; and from 22 to 24 months, children preferred to play more with their peers. In other words, similar to Harlow’s (1969) reports with young primates as age increases and social play interaction begins to involve more people, the children’s preference turns to their peers rather than their parents. Additionally, Eckerman et al. (1975) observed that by the second year of life, children’s behaviors towards other children closely resembled those cultivated through contact with significant adult figures in their lives such as “smile, laugh, vocalize and gesture to one another, show and offer toys, imitate each other, struggle, and engage in reciprocal play” rather than those learned during play with inanimate objects. Possible explanations behind these sex differences in social play may very well lay in the different prenatal hormonal exposures between males and females(Meaney 1988) or the aftermath of the many discrepancies different cultures have between them (Michael and Crook 1973). Despite the fact that there are relatively few data regarding the survival and reproductive benefits of social play, it is widely accepted that both short-term and long-term benefits among different age groups, species, and sexes deviate (age and sex differences exist even within the same species) (Bekoff 2001). Additionally, Meaney et al. (1985) reported a large number of studies to illustrate that sex differences do exist in mammalian species’ social play, yet, the authors caution that these differences are not universal for all species. For instance, they provided research-based evidence from several studies which indicated that males prefer and engage more intensely in play-fighting than females even though their play is not qualitatively different; during chase-play, males tend to be the most frequent chasers and play-mothering (e.g., play acting with baby dolls) is far more prominent in female social play.

Social competency’s development is favored through the play-fighting interaction (Pellis and Pellis 2007) and social play may represent an extension of a social learning process in young mammals where they learn and practice new skills with their peers (Meaney 1988). Evidence suggests that autistic children can demonstrate successful social adaptation by incorporating their thematic ritualistic activities (i.e., repetitive behaviors) in social play interactions with their siblings, leading to social skills and affect improvement sustained to at least a 3-month follow-up measure (Baker 2000). Durand and Schank (2015) proposed a theoretical model were social play evolved because it allows juveniles to practice cooperation for a common goal and retain this skill as adults. However, they stress that for it to be adaptive, the potential fitness costs of social play, such as increased risk of predation, injury, energy, and foraging loss, must be significantly less than the long term benefits.

Social Play Interactions During Childhood

A critical developmental stage of childhood during the preschool years (before the age of 6) involves building a strong foundation of social competence through the initiation and maintenance of positive social interactions that facilitate later school success (Veiga et al. 2016). Even in the early stages of infancy, some form of social play begins from mutually playful interactions between newborns and their primary caregivers; however, once peer interactions commence this adult-infant social play synergy will eventually lose its precedency and be replaced by other children (Whaley 1990). Having said that, for infants social play begins from their first smiles and once they are more communicatively adept it takes the form of babbling and cooing with their primary caregivers which empowers them to learn social rules through an adult-infant socialization and cultivate essential skills such as turn taking and role repetition (Frost et al. 2011, pp. 111–112).

Frost et al. (2011, pp. 151–152) defined six categories of observable social play behaviors based on the work of Parten (1932) that describe the development of social play in preschoolers. These categories include: “unoccupied behavior” – child is not playing but is mobile, active, and observes the room; “onlooker behavior” – the child is not playing and mostly observes his/her peers playing and may occasionally speak to them; “solitary play” – around 2–3 years of age, the child plays with his/her own toys by himself but does not engage other children and uses different toys than the other children; “parallel play” – the child uses the same toys as other children and plays beside but not with them; “associative play” – children play together in a common activity without sacrificing individual interests for a common group goal; and “cooperative play” – group play characterized of shared goals that are negotiated and comparable to adult situations. Additionally, they emphasize that children may progress in and out of these stages at a faster pace because contemporary child care is more advanced and readily available than the early 1930s.

According to Veiga et al. (2016), there are distinguishable variations and patterns that can be seen while observing children play, e.g., “children jump, use objects to facilitate pretend play, chase one another, pretend to be someone else and so on,” which can be further separated into four distinctive forms of play: fantasy play (begins around the age of two and involves playing with an object using imaginative thinking rather than the objects’ actual properties), role play (begins around the third year of life and involves play acting imaginative scenarios with peers) – both described as an extension of pretend play, and exercise play (starts during the first year and increasingly peaks during the fifth year of life and involves the child playing using motor skill-based activities such as running or hopping) and, finally, rough-and-tumble play (peaks in frequency around 6–10 years of age and involves behaviors that may appear aggressive, such as chasing or wrestling, but in the context of play are socially important) – both described as an extension of physical play. Furthermore, there are different relationships between different types of play and different cognitive abilities; e.g., group pretend play promoted increased use of adjectives and prepositions in children’s speech in contrast to solitary or dyadic play, while tabletop toys decreased children’s performance on creativity tasks conceivably because they are usually played in solitary or in pairs and they do not favor creative thinking (Holmes et al. 2017).

Adults and siblings offer different supporting roles during play activities with children on the grounds that adults provide structured play activities with increasing difficulty, much like a scaffolding, that allows children to practice and develop more complex play whereas siblings provide a play partner for the toddlers where they can use and master the skills they have developed (Frost et al. 2011, p. 113). Nevertheless, children often participate in social play with seemingly no one present in the room with them. Gleason (2017) elaborated on the unique ability of humans due to their highly evolved cognitive functioning to reap benefits from social play through the act of imagination and fantasy alone. The author explained that children play with their imaginary companions to practice skills, experience positive and negative emotions, experiment and rehearse real life events in a relationship, with no considerable risks to their well-being, leading to a more adaptive social development. Instead of only playing with real partners, children gain the added advantage of being able to create a personally customized partner capable of suiting their needs which opens the door for higher social competence, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills development. What is more, the author suggested that from an evolutionary standpoint, imaginary companions cannot be explained from having benefits to evolutionary fitness since not all children create them and yet they typically develop the necessary social skills to form healthy relationships. In turn, considering that usually children use imaginary companions in direct relevance to relationships with their significant others, imaginary companions are probably an adaptation by-product from the evolution of imagination and the highly evolved neurobiological systems that promote relationship formation.

The choice of play materials, ranging from toys meant to be played alone to toys that are best utilized with the company of others places a significant impact to children’s social behaviors (Quilitch and Risley 1973; Ivory and McCollum 1999). Providing either “isolate” or “social” toys to children of 7-years age average revealed a 16–78% preference in social play activities, respectively. This data illustrates that in order to maximize therapeutic benefits for children with social deficits (e.g., autism), practitioners could incorporate play materials into therapy that promote social and cooperative play (Quilitch and Risley 1973). Lastly, there are considerable developmental benefits for children engaging in social play, for instance, the storytelling of children was more enriched with verbs after the engagement in pretend play (Holmes et al. 2017), exercise play at the school’s playground during preschool years facilitates later development of social competence (Veiga et al. 2016), and social play can accurately predict greater involvement in the outdoor preschool environment (Miranda et al. 2017).

Massively Multiplayer Online Games

A more recent form of social play emerged because of the popular use of the internet which equipped video gaming with a social component creating the growing phenomenon of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Online social play causes a shift in the play setting from a real world to a virtual world setting that comes with its own set of challenges for the unacquainted and yet semantically interacting online players (Frost et al. 2011, p. 366). Ducheneaut et al. (2006) examined one of the most popular MMOGs, World of Warcraft (WoW), and indicated that even though MMOGs create a distinct social environment at least in the early stages of the game, players use others as their audience for their achievements in the game instead of interacting in cooperative activities with them. Additionally, they suggest that MMOGs act as a “virtual Skinner box” where the player’s actions are reinforced getting them hooked to the online game, making WoW an excellent example of how operant conditioning coupled with a social environment that emphasizes success versus failure can in fact become highly addictive. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) have many features similar to single player games (Ducheneaut and Moore 2004) yet their social nature enables players to experience collaborative activities that hone their teamwork skills (Cole and Griffiths 2007) and rewards them by seeking and gaining reputation within a virtually constructed social community (Yee 2002).

A recent study found that adults aged over 55 years were able to develop meaningful relationships with their online World of Warcraft friends. However, their difficulty was to extent this online friendships and incorporate them into their real lives, possibly because of the long distance between them or a general difficulty to transform online friendships to real life ones (Zhang and Kaufman 2017). In addition, research into MMORPGs revealed that for people who are uncomfortable with parts of their self-image (e.g., appearance, gender, sexuality, age, etc.), the social environment created by MMORPGs can facilitate their ability to express genuinely and additionally provide them with a great opportunity to create lasting and meaningful friendships or partners (Cole and Griffiths 2007). This evidence may suggest that MMOGs are the next step of social play evolution where children and adults could practice basic skills of social interaction safely and at a low personal cost in a virtual world.

The Neurobiology of Social Play Behavior

Observational studies indicate that generally species with more developed forebrains exhibit more frequent and complex forms of play (Pellis et al. 1992). Social play possesses significant merits in social development and some of its numerous functions illustrated by experiments using play deprivation include: social group organization or building ties between group members, to facilitate the development (on a cognitive level) of the ability to express and understand communicative signals between conspecifics which may in turn improve their ability to cope with social conflicts, and offer an opportunity to practice a variety of behaviors in a sequence in an effort to find out the ones that are most compatible to each other and eventually form advanced combinations (Vanderschuren et al. 1997).

Characterized by its inherent reward value, and because the power reward has positively reinforcing behaviors, social play can act as a well-used behavior learning incentive in animal studies (Vanderschuren et al. 1997). On account of this existing biological reward system which is influenced by social play behaviors, social play is expressed differently based on the pleasure and motivation experienced during the activity (Achterberg et al. 2016). Survival of the species depends on behaviors that are considered as naturally rewarding some of which include feeding, drinking, and sexual reproduction (Vanderschuren et al. 1997).

Motivation and incentives in social play are affected by dopaminergic neurotransmission (Achterberg et al. 2016) which is concurrent with research showing that the rewards gained from social play behaviors is underlined by an activation of the opioid and dopamine systems in the brain (Vanderschuren et al. 1997). In conjunction with this, research-based evidence illustrate that social behaviors increase after opioid drug treatments; however, social play is not guaranteed to increase from the stimulation of dopaminergic neurotransmission even though forebrain dopamine levels appear to increase during social play activities (Vanderschuren et al. 1997). Achterberg et al. (2016) examined the different effects of dopaminergic and noradrenergic signaling using an operant conditioning task and two psychostimulant drugs (methylphenidate and cocaine) on the social play behaviors of rats and found that while dopamine acts as a stimulant in social play’s motivation, it shows no influence over its expression; however, noradrenaline affects negatively the motivation and alters the expression of social play behavior. Evidence such as these indicates that social play is an independent category of behavior not only because of distinctive behaviors found only in such an engagement but because of specific neurobiological pathways triggered during social play (Vanderschuren et al. 1997).

To investigate the neural mechanisms during play, intact and decorticated rats were compared, indicating that those with removed cortices attacked and defended during play-fighting as frequently as their intact or decorticated pairs, hence a subcortical mechanism’s involvement was proposed (Pellis et al. 1992). Pellis et al. (2010) discussed evidence of several studies to show the effects of the subcortical structure, amygdala, on regulating social behavior. They argued on research showing that play-fighting frequency as well as social recognition is impaired in rats with amygdala damage and that organisms with larger amygdala exhibit more play behaviors. They further explain that amygdala’s role in monitoring fear and impulses during play fighting is essential since an animal’s fear can prevent it from accepting another conspecifics’ intention to play and minimizes social contact or inhibits them from controlling their impulses making them for unreliable play partners. Conversely, there is another perspective which views that a larger brain affects the production of more complex forms of play indirectly by extending the period of development and growth allowing for more play opportunities to occur (Pellis et al. 1992). In addition, there are some implications of mirror neurons firing when individuals share their intentions to partake in a social interaction (e.g., play), but it still warrants more research (Bekoff 2001). Lastly, some alterations of the amygdala have been shown in autistic people, which might offer an explanation for the difficulties they face with social contact consequentially causing individuals with autism to demonstrate poor social play (Pellis et al. 2010).


In response to social play’s positive impact on social and cognitive development (Achterberg et al. 2016), evolutionary forces may have facilitated through positive selection the continuation of genes coding for a predisposition in the human species to engage in social play activities to increase fitness (i.e., individual reproductive success that also reflects the adaptation degree of an organism to its habitat) and therefore improve chances of survival. For instance, similar to primates’ rough-and-tumble play, young human children engage in this type of social play with similar patterns since it increases chances of survival by enabling them to experience the sensation of being the dominant individual which in turn endorses self-confidence in future social interactions (Frost et al. 2011, pp. 150–151). Some other benefits of social play include advanced language abilities in children (Holmes et al. 2017) as well as opportunities to foster their creativity (Frost et al. 2011, p. 163).

Even though there are significant findings from several studies about the many benefits of social play, there are important limitations in the applicability of the results. Not surprisingly, most research on social play, especially in play-fighting, is carried using nonhuman animals that are most often of the rat species, mainly because of the practical (Pellis and Pellis 2007) and ethical limitations in conducting such experiments with human subjects which may in turn commend using caution when generalizing these same finding onto the human species. Additionally, it is worth noting that some researchers have advised that even if a child engages frequently in social play activities, it does not in any way guarantee a socially competent or maladjustment free adolescence (Frost et al. 2011, p. 194). Nevertheless, these limitations aim to increase awareness for more creative experimental testing and should not undermine the aforementioned developmental and evolutionary benefits of social play or the importance of informing adults and schools about the advantages in encouraging social play engagement in children.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Deptartment of PsychologyUniversity of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus