Not only is play a human cultural universal, but most animals are top-notch players too. Whether it a a pair of bear cubs splashing one another in a stream (where, judging by their mother's impatient reaction, they are supposed to be learning how to fish) or my dog, Snookers, running ever-expanding circles around the spruce tree in our yard back home - the animal instinct for aimless fun is clearly built in. Ditto for us wingless bipeds, especially when we are still at that stage of life when notions of accomplishment and making something of ourselves have yet to put the damper on just plain fooling around.
The transformation of pure play into competitive play - the ancient Greeks were Olympic champs at this - constituted one of the first such dampers. We went from pointless play to keeping one eye on the scoreboard. And our current dedication to sports as self-improvement, complete with personal trainers and strange garments made out of spandex, has virtually wiped out any lightheartedness remaining in play. Even when taking a walk, distance and elapsed time are now often recorded, then measured against previous records as we compete with ourselves for our personal best. Play is no longer something we do with our idle time, it is another ambitious activity crammed into our schedules.
-Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life