Tuesday 21 October 2008

Research Bulletin: Entertainment as Play

Although art and entertainment differ in critical ways, art does have to entertain, that is to say: it must engage us. What is the basis for this engagement? In a recent article, Ed Tan (2008) has put forward a convincing hypothesis, which applies both to art and entertainment. It has two parts.

The first part of Tan's suggestion is that entertainment is a form of play, an extension of the pretend play of childhood. Thus, says Tan, if you see children playing a chase game, you may wonder why they are doing it. It is evidently enjoyable, but there is expenditure of effort that seems to make no sense. What happens in entertainment, says Tan, is related. How many films involve people running at full tilt along the sidewalk in pursuit of, or in the attempt to escape, someone else? How many involve car chases, detectives pursuing criminals, lovers pursuing loved ones? One would think that the predictability of this theme (and others like it) would make it tedious. In the same way one would expect that the limited scope of childhood chasing games would quickly make them tiresome. But these modes are enjoyable: they are forms of play. Play is one of the characteristics of being a mammal, not shared by other creatures.

The second part of Tan's suggestion is that we need to separate proximal (that is to say immediate) from distal (that is to say evolutionarily adaptive) causes. An explanation at the distal level might be that there have been selective advantages to populations that have engaged in the pretend play of chase games and the like, because they will have practiced social skills, come to understand at a practical level and perhaps at a metaphorical level what it is to pursue and to be pursued, come to understand the different roles and become able to enter into the minds of those in the other role. Tan argues that once we have separated proximal and distal causes, we can see that what links the proximal and the distal are emotions, which are immediate as well as being among the means by which genes pass on certain forms of motivation. In terms of immediacy, to engage emotionally in play is enjoyable. Just as all mammals play, all have a repertoire of social emotions. So the proximal cause for play is to take part vicariously in emotional activities such as chasing and being chased. All play is in a sense vicarious. Thus what movies do, what novels do, and—should I say it?—what plays do, is to extend this vicarious property. For children to play, adults often provide props such as school playgrounds. For adults, the props are the novel or the movie. As Tan puts it: "The entertainment experience is an episode of emotions in response to an ongoing guided imagination." The distal cause of this play might be to learn about, to obtain experience of, to undergo training in, to attune oneself to, the social world. We are the most social of all mammals, so perhaps it is natural that we should spend a good deal of time at pretend play, and not just during childhood.

Ed Tan (2008). Entertainment is emotion: The functional architecture of the entertainment experience. Media Psychology, 11, 28-51.

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