Triadic and collaborative play by gorillas in social games with objects
Tanner, Joanne E. & Byrne, Richard W. (2010). Animal Cognition DOI *10.1007/s10071-009-0308-y*
Do gorillas and other great apes play games like we do, competing enthusiastically with each other over totally useless objects like footballs and Frisbees?
Gorillas play games just like we do, competing enthusiastically with each other over totally useless objects like footballs and Frisbees. Whatís more, their games help psychologists trace the evolutionary origins of how we understand other people. The games involved balls, bags and leather pieces as the focus of attention, typically with both play partners paying attention to one particular play object, often changing possession of a ball or bag many times.
Just like we would, the gorillas used gestures and displays of the object to keep the action going, and if the game slowed down or stopped a gorilla would use varied tactics to get it going again. The players were also considerate of otherís abilities: an older and more skilled gorilla seeming to realize that if it used all of its potential, the younger one wouldnít be able to compete, so the older gorilla would slow down the pace.
This kind of shared activity and joint attention with another person, to things outside of oneself, begins around 9 months of age in humans. Although this process has been suggested to be unique to humans, there have been some previous signs that our closest relatives among the African great apes might also show similar abilities. Bonobos have been reported to engage in social play involving objects, and researchers on chimpanzee play have found chimpanzees to share attention in other contexts. Tanner and Byrneís discovery shows that the evolutionary history of the ability to take othersí perceptions and goals into account dates back to the time that humans shared ancestry with gorillas, over 6 million years ago.
The gorillasí games were videotaped at the San Francisco Zoo in 5 different years, and involved 5 different pairs of gorillas. Though the age at which gorilla games begin may be later in gorillas than in humans, and may depend on the challenges and artifacts available in a particular groupís habitat, gorillas definitely enjoy the same kind of sporting competition we do!