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Games we play mimic real-world behavior, says new study

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These new findings suggest that the games we play reflect the socio-ecological characteristics of the culture we are in.

Humans play games around the world, although games are not equally popular in all civilizations. Humans may use games to both store and teach culturally relevant information to members of their communities.

For instance, consider the last game you played: was it cooperative, competitive, or solo?

“If you live in Germany, chances are high that you played a competitive game,” said 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.”

According to a previous study, competitive games are played frequently in socially hierarchical civilizations or those with differences in position and money. It’s also been proposed that games are more cooperative in egalitarian civilizations, or those with minimal or no distinctions in position and income. However, past research has only looked into this relationship in a small number of cultures, limiting the scope of this claim.

Researchers from Germany (Leipzig, Jena, Gera) and Australia used historical data to answer the question of whether the games cultures play correspond to how cooperative they are.

In the first phase, the researchers combed through a database of historical games played by Pacific cultures.

“The cultures in our study lived in a broad geographic range, spanning the Pacific Ocean. The cultures were very diverse, but also shared similarities, which allow for a comparison on several aspects of the cultures,” said Leisterer-Peoples.

When two groups live next door to each other, for example, they may share some traits, such as how they receive their food, but they may differ in other areas, such as competitive behavior standards.

“We tried to hone in on these differences, while accounting for their similarities,” added Leisterer-Peoples.

In a subsequent stage, the researchers found cultural features that suggest how cooperative they might be.

“One of the difficulties with historical data is that you can’t go back in time to do interviews with people from different cultures, but have to rely on the historical documentation of these cultures,” said Leisterer-Peoples.

They focused at how socially hierarchical societies were constructed, how often individuals of a culture clashed with one another, how often cultures clashed with one another, and how often group members hunted and fished in groups, among other things.

“These are real-world proxies for cooperative behavior”, says Leisterer-Peoples.

Finally, scientists were able to find 25 cultures that had historical data on both the games they played and related cultural features readily available.

Researchers discovered that societies that frequently clash with other cultures have more cooperative games than competitive ones. Cultures that have frequent disagreements with their own community members, on the other hand, have more competitive games than cooperative games. What kinds of games were played have little to do with how socially hierarchical the civilizations were or whether they fished and hunted in groups.

“These findings might be non-intuitive at first glance, but make sense in light of theories on the evolution of cooperation in cultural groups. In times of conflict with other cultures, group members have to cooperate with one another and compete with their opponents. This is reflected in the kinds of games that are played—games with competing groups. And when there’s a lot of conflict among the members of a group, they tend to play games that are competitive. These findings suggest that the games we play reflect the socio-ecological characteristics of the culture that we are in,” explained the study author.

Games may be one way for children to learn and practice group norms since they resemble real-world behavior.

Source: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259746

Image Credit: iStock

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