The paradox of play: Real fun should be terrifying | New Scientist
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I took my not-quite-3-year-old to the local swimming pool. We splashed about a bit, both of us slightly bored. I followed her as she clambered in and out of the pool in one of those loops toddlers get stuck in. Then I accidentally did something fun. Helping her hop into the water, I hoisted her into the air slightly more than usual. She landed in the shallow water with a little skid and ended up on her bottom. “Again, again!” she cried with delight. And then: “What’s this game called?”
Familiar things – my hands, the pool, her feet – used in unfamiliar ways. It’s the secret of play. Somewhere between the ages of 4 and 40 we forget how to have fun in quite this way.
Ian Bogost realised this with his own young daughter in a shopping mall. In Play Anything, he recalls rushing her through a crowd, dragging her by the hand. She should have been miserable, but she used his pull across the tiled floor as a new constraint that made her don’t-step-on-the-cracks game more fun than usual.
As adults, our lives are just as filled with constraints. But we’re worse at dealing with them. Bogost, who is a writer, video game designer and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wants us to find the fun in everyday things. Doing so will let us lead happier, more meaningful lives – and find pleasure in work, trips to the supermarket, mowing the lawn and long-haul flights (“the closest an ordinary person can come to state-sponsored torture”). The problem is our flawed grasp of what fun is. “We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort,” he writes.
Part personal meditation, part guide to living a happier life, Play Anything is a Walden for the 2010s. But instead of Henry Thoreau’s 19th-century Massachusetts woodlands, Bogost invites us to celebrate strip malls, household chores and ready meals. Finding fun in these things involves work, he says – but it’s work in the same way that carpentry or exercise is.
Along the way, he picks a fight with Mary Poppins, arguing that “that renowned philosopher of fun” had it all wrong. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but as a maxim for dealing with the drudgery of everyday life her song was a sham. It is a mistake to dress things up as something they are not.
This way lies gamification. These days there’s an industry of consultants and app developers trying to make boring, miserable surveys, dead-end jobs or exercise fun through contrived rewards and meaningless metrics. Bogost is quick to take gamification apart. “Fun is not a feeling,” he writes. “And it’s certainly not the feeling of enjoying ourselves by doing exactly what we want, by making something easy or by rewarding ourselves with points, as if life is some… version of Space Invaders that turns chores into chortles.” Rather than push difficult things away by sugar-coating them, we must see them for what they are.
For Bogost, there’s fun to be had in things that are not obviously fun, but have to be done. “This is the pleasure of limits, the fun of play,” he writes. “Not doing what we want, but doing what we can with what is given.”
Such a change of outlook will be hard for some and Bogost knows it – especially when our default mode is often irony. We celebrate everything from Instagrams of Egg McMuffins to T-shirts of Macaulay Culkin, but commit to none of it. But who said finding the meaning of life was easy? “Terror is at work in real fun,” he explains. “The terror of facing the world as it really is.”