The evolution of pretense
Francis Steen at UCLA has written an article with Stephanie A. Owens on Evolutions pedagogy. It discusses the evolution of pretense play, and describes how children take delight in pretense while at the same time remaining aware of the reality of the present:
In pretend play, a bench can become a spaceship, the playground can be transformed into a faraway planet, and your friend can be turned into a terrifying alien monster. While you are engaged in pretend play, you retain the awareness that your spaceship is really a bench, that you have not traveled into outer space, and that your friend is not a monster. Such instances of pretend play, prototypically associated with young children, are common and familiar. The full distribution of the phenomenon is more difficult to determine. Many species of animals engage in activities that resemble children's pretend play, such as play fighting and play chasing. Certain forms of popular and mass entertainment, such as theatrical performances and movies, appear to involve culturally elaborate forms of pretend play. The enjoyment derived from pretending to be someone you are not, doing something you are not really doing, in a place where you are not located, using resources you don't actually have, is such a common experience that we rarely stop to consider how paradoxical it is. A good model of children's pretend play may be helpful for understanding a range of related phenomena.
The conclusion to this article, as I, the humble media scholar read it, is that play, and particularly pretense play that demands role-play, immersion, narrative and fantasy, is a necessary way to learn how to deal with the environment and the complex human society. Which may mean that computer games are not just fun, but absolutely necessary, in order to deal with a world where computers channel increasingly powerful media and influence the very society we need to learn how to master.