“It is frustrating that people still think of board games as being like Monopoly, just going on forever and ever, with players sat there circling the drain until it’s over,” laughs Chris Backe, “when there’s a new generation of board games that allow us to explore aspects of ourselves we don’t generally get to explore. It’s like the movies or novels, only with games you’re not a watcher but a participant. With games, we get to step out of our skin”.

Backe is a rare beast: he’s a full-time board game designer, always working up 20 or so new concepts for his company No Box. He’s testing them, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and over recent years seeing his industry enjoy a huge revival—to the tune of USD16b in annual sales, thanks in part to the pandemic. Over his years in the business, he has concluded this: it’s not that people like to play, but that they need to play. And not just in structured ways, as with games or sports, but in manners that have no purpose at all beyond the pleasure of doing them. We’re not just talking about children here; we’re talking about grown-ups too.

“I’m a strong proponent of the idea that adults should play, by which I mean play that is defined as self-chosen and self-directed, not driven by coaches, not something you have to do,” says psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn and one of the world’s leading scholars of play. “All play in a sense has rules, maybe handed down [from] generation to generation, sometimes implicit, sometimes just made-up on the spot. But we all need to play more. Play has made us what we are”.

And not just us. All mammals play, from dolphins to dogs. One theory proposes that those mammals are capable of using objects as tools. Like a monkey using a stone to break open shellfish, for example, or the first instance when a stone is used as a toy. Utility came later. Others stress how, despite its energy expenditure, and even the occasional injury, natural selection has not weeded play out, as might be expected.

In part that’s because play is often a process of exercise or stress relief, both good for us. But it also has a much more important role. One key idea—first proposed by Karl Groos in his The Play of Man (1901)—is that play not only allows the nervous system to develop ready for certain activities later in life but it also functions as a kind of practice. Of those skills required for survival, learning to cope with unexpected events, and preparation for doing things as a competent adult.

The skills and values explored in play can be specific to a child’s culture—Groos suggested the likes of hunting, skiing, canoeing or horse-riding. It seems that children’s readiness to play at these is instinctual; they observe and mimic without being prompted. The skills can also be more universal. Play, for example, is often social—first is the need to decide together what and how to play, so cooperation and communication are essential.

In fact, animals that are more dependent on their group for survival tend to play more, with, as Gray argues, hunter-gatherer societies positively suffusing nearly all they do with play. From religion to work and ways of settling disputes, all the better to suppress any drive to dominate. In play, you have to learn to control your impulses, like in play fighting where you’re almost hitting your opponent but never actually. It’s as much mental as physical too. Being self-directed, play also fosters creativity, imagination, experimentation and independence.

It’s why, argues Rene Proyer, professor of psychology at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, while some of us play in more obvious, more socially acceptable ways—he cites those who play video games, use colouring books for “mindfulness” or who build the complex sets LEGO created specifically for adults (“Adults welcome,” as its ad has it)—we all tend to play in one way or another. Humour, fantasy, daydreaming, sexuality all offer forms of play, as does language, as the very phrase “wordplay” suggests. People often use play as a means of getting through repetitive tasks, inventing challenges for themselves, he notes.

“[If you play with children] you soon learn that almost anything and everything can be play. But, in a way, adults are more free to play because our worlds are larger [than children’s],” Proyer suggests. “And there are good reasons to continue to play as adults, even the opportunity it brings for continued learning. But the easiest answer to the question of why adults should play—and the most correct one—is that it’s fun. Play can be used to maintain alertness, or to keep you in the moment. It’s through play that you can enter a ‘flow state’.”

This idea, of being fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment, is now more commonly cited about sport or the production of art—but it was first proposed, by the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in 1990.

And yet the evolutionary necessity of play has long been side-lined, even denigrated. Sebastian Deterding, professor of design engineering at Imperial College, London, and a researcher in playful design, says play got in the way of industrialisation and its need for reliable labour. Capitalism saw play as a waste of time; play became associated not with positivity but with the Bacchanalian wildness of festivals.

“Even in the Medieval period kings would complain about peasants playing cards rather than improving their archery or doing something ‘useful’. And religions have often had bans on games because of their relationship to gambling,” he says. “Today in the [first] world the norm is to have roles and duties — as an employee, as a parent—while caring for oneself and one’s dependents. And play doesn’t fit into that. It’s seen as trivial in a culture in which everything is measured in terms of productivity. Even sleep and fitness are about improving your ability to fulfil your social role, while sport is considered to have the necessary function of being a community ritual.”

Historically some games got what Detarding calls a “free pass”: early board games—the likes of Snakes and Ladders—were morality tales dressed up as games, while chess or backgammon were associated with a kind of brain-training. Even when play is discussed today there is, he says, often some vague kind of attempt to legitimise it—it’s a way of getting the family together, or it’s for the improvement of one’s well-being, “even that the PlayStation you just bought was in the sale,” he laughs. “But attitudes to play are changing—there’s more institutional approval, for example, with big museums running exhibitions on video-gaming; there’s more questioning of the values we’re expected to subscribe to. There’s also been a lot of boredom over recent years”.

“In one sense play is on the up, especially coming out of the pandemic. People had a lot of time on their hands that previously they hadn’t, and turned to play as something to do, even as a way of dealing with the situation,” says Jeremy Saucier, assistant vice president at The Strong National Museum of Play in New York and editor of the American Journal of Play. “Sure, play has long been associated with childhood—play is ‘what kids do’—even as many adults became more open to it, and even if they might not have called it ‘play’. Yet there’s still a certain risk in revealing that you ‘play’ in modern culture. Play is still considered to be frivolous in a highly competitive world”.

Unless, of course, that highly competitive world co-opts play in the pursuit of improved efficiency in business or consumer engagement with a product: the so-called ‘gamification’ of the workplace and education, in training and marketing. This reveals a philosophical conundrum. “Play has so many possibilities and there are ways to harness it to bring all sorts of benefits. But if you assign a purpose to play, is it still really play?” asks Saucier. “The danger is to recognise that play is good for us and then trying to throw play into everything. Then it just becomes performative”.

Remarkably, even play among children is under attack. Ana Fabrega, founder of Synthesis—an educational system based on the idea that children are hard-wired to learn skills the likes of collaboration, autonomy and competence through play—was a career teacher with experience in school systems around the world. She notes how with the notable exception of the education system in Finland, time for free, unstructured play has increasingly been squeezed out of school timetables in favour of academic study and the pursuit of higher grades.

It’s not just in schools either. “We’re seeing the rise of a culture of safetyism in which parents don’t want to expose their children to even the slightest risk, even though the instinct to explore risk [through dicing with heights, speed, dangerous tools or elements, and so on] is fundamental to children from a very young age,” she says. “Play is being trained out of us, so it’s no wonder that by the time we leave education, we tend to think of it as not being serious. But we have to take play seriously—it matters, not least because it’s the engine of invention”.

According to Peter Gray, the last 50 years or so have seen other cultural influences gradually erode children’s access to free play too, notably the rise of TV and, more recently, gaming devices keeping children within the domestic sphere rather than being “free range” and out in the world. In parallel, this period has seen a huge rise in all sorts of mental disorders among young people.

“The whole reason why childhood is so long is to acquire the characteristics necessary to be an adult. You’re gradually given more and more freedom and so must learn to solve your own problems—how to keep your playmates happy, how to deal with differences,” says Gray. “Now we have generations who have grown up without that [training] and absolutely it’s had a [negative] impact on them”.

In 1955 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens (playful man) proposed that human culture arises and advances through play; that the pillars of culture, from art to literature, philosophy to the law, arise at times when adults had the freedom and time to play. It’s through play that we innovate. That might not bode so well for a globalised world in the 21st century.

Indeed, Gray says there is evidence to suggest that the good mood fostered by play allows people to perform better at the kind of problem-solving that requires novel thinking. And that, since the 1980s, curtailed childhood play has had a marked negative impact on creativity, as far as it can be measured. “Play teaches creativity, so now we’re producing far fewer creative people in an era when society really needs people to be creative,” he argues. But, he adds, we’re also seeing it reflected starkly in what he notes as the reduced independence and competence of current late teens and 20-somethings. He worries that this will likely become the norm for future generations unless the greater free rein to play, which was historically given to children, is rapidly reinstated.

“We’re seeing high rates of emotional breakdown among college students, for example, often for what would have been considered very trivial reasons a generation ago,” he observes. “Lacking the beneficial childhood experience of play, they haven’t learnt to steel themselves [against challenges], to understand that you can have a negative experience and somehow you survive. There’s an inability to accept negative consequences and to take responsibility for their own failures. Our changing regard for the importance of play [in childhood] is behind all of this”.

That also suggests why we need to take a more positive view of play more broadly, not just for tomorrow’s children and the adults they will become, but for adults today. Rene Proyer notes that the huge popularity of smartphone- and console-based video gaming—an industry that has long since eclipsed the film business, for example—suggests that the desire is there. The average age of a gamer now? 33, with players equally split between men and women. We just need to be more open about embracing the benefits of play—and to recognise that playfulness as a state of mind is a skill that can be developed.

“For a long time, it was thought that video games were just for kids. Back in the ’80s I was almost embarrassed to tell other grown-ups what I did for a living,” says David Mullich, the leading video-game designer for the likes of Disney, Apple and Activision. “Now everyone is slowly discovering how essential play is. It’s in play that we cast off our responsibilities, fears and certainties to engage in challenges that have no material outcome. It’s through play that we find catharsis. We find new meanings in the world. Without play, we wouldn’t be fully human.”