Applying the Concept of Play For Your Wellbeing
How we can apply the concept of play to get through life more joyfully
We all know the feeling: Our keys are lost, the baby won’t stop screaming, our computer’s frozen, and suddenly it feels like our whole life is careening toward disaster. The frustration in those moments can be all-consuming. But what if we reframe these mundane crises as opportunities for us to live more playful and engaged lives?
In his new book, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, philosopher and video game designer Ian Bogost explains how we can apply principles of play to life’s most infuriating moments, so they become tolerable, and perhaps improbably, even fun. Bogost shares more about remembering how to play.
When we think about play, we normally think of it as doing some sort of freewheeling, unstructured activity, but you argue that this isn’t play at all, so what is play?
Play is, generally speaking, the operation of structures constrained by limitations. In other words, it is how we describe free movement within a system. So, for example, when we maneuver a soccer ball without using our hands or manipulate the falling boxes in Tetris, we are at play, and it’s the game’s rules that transform senseless repetitive motion into play.
There are parallels to draw here between games and our everyday lives. For most of us, life is characterized by the rules and limitations that come with parenting or marriage or work. We are faced with constraints on our time and on our money. Our greatest frustrations occur as we try to navigate these everyday obligations and obstacles. Usually, we feel these mundane tasks are the stuff we have to do before we get to do the stuff we want to do. The tragedy here is that the stuff we have to do takes up most of our time. If we can’t find pleasure or gratification in these moments, if we are just waiting for our obligations to be over and done with so we can move on to pursuing more desirable activities, then we’re well and truly screwed. Life will feel intolerable.
But, on the other hand, if we treat everything - every object, person, or situation - with the same respect and deliberateness we afford games and hobbies, then we will find delight and gratification throughout our lives day-to-day. Play is the tool that can help us find the novelty and wonder in what we think of as tedious.
How does this work?
Think about when you first sit down to play a game. You have to consider your surroundings and acknowledge the game’s rules and structures. This same principle applies when we are finding the “play“in commuting or standing in line at the store or loading the dishwasher, we must first look around us and observe the world outside of our own thoughts and emotions in order to see the structures at work.
The next step is to stop obsessing over how we would like our lives to be in that moment and accept the situation as it is. So we don’t waste time wishing for all traffic around us to disappear, rather we accept that we’re surrounded by slow-moving cars. We can’t change that. Traffic is the constraint or limitation of our evening commute.
Once we acknowledge our surroundings, stop fixating on our own desires and accept the limitations of a given situation, then play can begin. To return to example of our evening commute, once we’re able to stop being preoccupied with ourselves and our personal frustrations, we can look around us and notice a turn-off we hadn’t seen before. We’ve found a new way home and our boring commute became interesting. We’ve also learned something new about this task we thought we knew so well.
When we think of play in this way, we are being deliberate, curious and attentive participants in our world, and our commute is no longer something to suffer through, but something we can become good at. It is an opportunity for discovery.
But isn’t it also true that this kind-of workaday activity - commuting, running errands or sitting through meetings - can be painfully boring? Most of us try to eliminate boredom as quickly as possible. We reach for our phones at the first sign. Is play another tool to alleviate boredom?
No, boredom is important part of play. It’s a sign that we’re ready to advance to the next level of whatever it is that is boring us. It sounds counterintuitive, but the moment you feel bored, you should pay closer attention to the situation or activity that feels so boring. Chances are, once you dig in to it, you’ll see how to pivot or adjust your approach to the situation. Boredom is the indication that there is something more to play with; you haven’t discovered what that is yet.
A major reason, maybe even the major reason we want to play is to have fun; is that true here? Where does fun enter into the play principle?
I often explain fun as “the exhaust that’s given off when we play.” Fun is the byproduct of play, and it is a sign that something interesting has just happened. If play is how we discover the infinite possibilities inherent to a constrained system, then fun is the delight we feel after we’ve experienced those possibilities for the first time. And there is nothing more fun than when we find something new in something familiar. When we learn to live playfully, we can have fun when we’re stuck in traffic, as easily as we have fun when we’re out with friends. Play allows us to experience fun anytime and everywhere.
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