Play is important for the development of complex social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills. Play provides young individuals with a safe space to practice new behaviors without grave repercussions. While most animals engage in play, only humans engage in rule-based games. Which kinds of games people play – competitive or cooperative – may depend on their cultural background. In a new study, researchers from Leipzig, Jena, Gera, and Australia screened historical data to answer the question whether cultures play games that correspond to how cooperative they are.
Humans all over the world play games, but games are not played equally throughout the world’s cultures. Humans might use games to store and teach cultural-specific information to community members. For example, if you think of the last game that you played, was it a cooperative game, a competitive game, or a game that you played by yourself? “If you live in Germany, chances are high that you played a competitive game,” says Sarah Leisterer-Peoples, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “We think that games might reflect aspects of human cultures, such as how competitive and cooperative the cultures are.”
Previous research suggests that in socially hierarchical cultures, or those with differences in status and wealth, competitive games are played frequently. And the opposite has also been suggested—in egalitarian cultures, or those with little or no differences in status and wealth, games tend to be more cooperative. However, previous studies have investigated this relationship in only a small handful of cultures, thus limiting the breadth of this claim. In a new study making use of historical data, researchers from Leipzig, Jena, Gera, and Australia aimed to answer the question whether the games cultures play correspond to how cooperative they are.