A three-part humanities lecture about play, with wine and hors d’oeuvres on the last evening? I cleared my calendar. For years I have grumbled that the world of ideas is too dour. This year’s speaker, Ian Bogost, invents games. He wrote a book called Play Anything. His cultural commentary for The Atlantic is witty and astute. New to Washington University, he holds a joint professorship with engineering and arts and sciences and directs film and media studies. Those in the audience who already know him grin when he is introduced as a man at war with boredom.
Play is not the opposite of work, Bogost points out. Play means working with something, the way a carpenter works with wood or a potter with clay. And the most satisfying play is rather hard work, because it means overcoming some sort of resistance in order “to let the fun escape.” Later, he adds that “the real work of play is finding it everywhere.”
Play waits for us, yet we struggle to recognize what it is. And no wonder: the best philosopher of play we have to date is Mary Poppins. “‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,’” Bogost repeats with a shudder. “A spoonful of sugar covers something, it weighs it down and turns it into a lie.” Mary Poppins’s cheery little song does a good job covering the tedium of the kids’ chores, but only because the chores are quick, done by the time she hits the last verse. Imagine if you had a full day’s work to do, Bogost suggests, and you had to sing that song over and over again, sanity hanging in the balance.
The problem with that proverbial spoonful of sugar, which he concedes could occasionally be a useful distraction, is that it assumes chores can never be fun in themselves. We drive ourselves crazy by constantly trying to distract, disguise, reinvent—and this is not sustainable. Yet when we fail, we feel guilty, because if we could have only pumped enough energy and determination into that miserable task, we could have transformed it.
The opposite response, millennial detachment, is more bitter than sweet. Our default response is now “skepticism, a wink and a sneer,” Bogost says, because we are consumed by “this sense that anything could go wrong at any moment, and everything has become untrustworthy.
“The traditional sense of irony is saying or doing the opposite of what you mean,” he says. “But now, irony is refusing to reveal whether or not you mean what you say. It exists to keep reality at a distance,” lest it disappoint us.
Several years ago, Bogost recalls, a young faculty member at Princeton dismissed hipster irony as an escape route, a credit card you never have to pay for. But irony is not simply an escape from earnestness, he notes: “It’s escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt.” No one can tell—online or IRL—which emotion lies beneath our words, because “we are so concerned that something might surprise us with disappointment or calamity that we resist engaging.”
Examples flash through my memory, younger friends and colleagues who baffled me with their combination of wistfulness and cynicism. This new sort of irony is almost a cultural illness, Bogost says, and I want to applaud. We have ironized away all possibility. “What if something better comes along?” we think, and never commit to anything. “We are constantly asking of everything and everyone, ‘Prove to me that you are worth my time.’”
Because we have so little time? I wonder. Because we are already unhappy, so we dread disappointment twice as hard? Whatever its cause, skepticism freezes the spirit of play. It makes camaraderie impossible. And it just plain does not work.
“You don’t arrive at fun by expanding the circumstances to make them less wretched,” Bogost says, “or by waiting for less wretched circumstances to arrive. You do it by embracing the wretched circumstances themselves. . . . taking something for what it truly is and following that through to its extreme, refusing to ironize it.”
I squirm in my seat, recross my legs. Though I agree with his words, I have spent a lifetime perfecting magic tricks that allow me to endure (not embrace) wretched circumstances. Sometimes I find somebody else to
commiserate with and we laugh our way through the hell together, or I imagine the circumstances into something different, or I dream up some use for my suffering, deciding it will make a great scene in a novel someday. What Bogost suggests is more Zen, and braver.
He also makes me realize how Puritan I am, brushing aside games that seem a waste of time. “A game is something good enough on its own,” he says firmly, calling the ability to accept the game’s terms, however inefficient or silly, “the lusory attitude.”
I go home and look up what I lack. Lusory. Used in play; composed in a playful attitude. An archaic word, hardly helpful. But “lusory attitude” is a phrase coined by the philosopher Bernard Suits in 1978, because he wanted to name the psychological willingness to accept the arbitrary rules of a game in order to play.
Granted, we do this every morning with life itself. But Bogost has an example even dearer to my heart: golf. “Golf is meant to be annoying and stupid and foolish,” he says, confirming lifelong suspicions. “It’s a game made from the accidental nuisances of the natural environment, which is bent and twisted into a challenge.”
I feel something inside me soften.
I am not alone in mocking certain kinds of play, though. U.S. culture only approves of child’s play, or sport, or obsessive hobbies that amuse the rest of us. Otherwise, we see play as immature and self-indulgent. But “what if there’s something in the structure of play itself that was always deeply serious?” Bogost asks. (And why, I wonder, do we always assume seriousness and laughter are opposites?)
From my notes each evening, I am beginning to build a definition of play. It can be a creative spin on the everyday, like wordplay. The dance of something, like the play of light and shadow. The give in something, like the play in a steering wheel, that allows it to stay flexible and responsive. What does all that have in common? “Play is free movement,” game designers say, “within a more rigid structure.”
But play is more than a verb; it is also “the feeling of using something, of exploring what an object, experience, or relationship can do,” Bogost says. And it is an attitude—a lusory one I need to cultivate. And sometimes, it is a quality outside us: “Play is in objects themselves and in how we explore the capacities and affordances of them.”
The most mundane routine can be turned into play, Bogost notes, because there is always more to be discovered—and fun to be had by discovering it. Whenever we create structure and limitations, we are building ourselves a playground, a contained space in which it will be safe to play. That happens in an arena, a temple, a magic circle, a court of justice; at a temple; at a card table; on stage, on screen, on a tennis court. “Anything can be a ground for play, once the materials are taken seriously.”
A playground is not a place where you can do anything you want, though. It has rules and boundaries and companions who will cry foul. “Play isn’t about you, as it turns out,” Bogost remarks. “It’s about everything else, and what you manage to do with it.”
The paradox I like to forget is that it is the limits of play, not the wild, self-indulgent freedom we think we crave, that make creativity possible.
Through the series, Bogost drops phrases that strike me as deeply wise, the sort of thing Erasmus or the laughing Buddha might say. One word recurs with a frequency that surprises me: “Treat the thing for what it is, with absurd respect.” “Play isn’t distraction, not at all. It’s attention—deep, respectful attention.” “When something feels fun, you have given it respect.”
And while he is determined not to say all this “in a singsongy, pop-psych way,” he does nudge us toward a better self with his wry observations: “When you try to build an activity solely from your own desires and feelings, it ends up being less stable.” “You have to let the fun be bigger than you, and you have to trust it.” “Games are the aesthetic form of ordinary life”—a way to see its absurdities clearly, and a way to practice.
What are we practicing? Outwitting obstacles. Relinquishing judgment. Accepting the worst for what it is. Engaging with even the most mundane experience. Letting the world intrigue and surprise and delight us.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.