Thanks to digital technology, modern life often promises us a world full of limitless possibilities where you’ll never have to be bored again. But what if that promise of limitlessness and freedom actually contributes to our lives feeling dull, flat, and full of anxiety? What if embracing constraints and even boredom can give our lives more texture and heft?
That’s what my guest today argues in his book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. His name is Ian Bogost, he’s a professor of philosophy and, get this, a video game designer. Today on the show, Ian and I discuss why modern life can often be filled with existential angst, why we live in an age of irony that’s supercharged by the internet, and how looking at the world as a metaphorical playground can help you feel more grounded and present in reality. This show is full of counterintuitive wisdom and ready-to-work tools that can help you live a more fulfilling life.
- How Ian became a video game-designing philosopher
- The long history of philosophers using art and games to explore philosophical questions
- How Ian’s philosophy career influenced his game design
- Why modern life can fill us with anxiety and flatness at the same time
- Why existentialism is psychologically and spiritually exhausting
- What David Foster Wallace got wrong about living a good life in the modern age
- Why irony infuses contemporary culture and how the internet supercharges it
- How most people try to combat irony and why it usually fails
- How play can help counter irony and the flatness of modern life
- Why play is the driving force of human culture
- The difference between restraints and constraints and why constraints are better at providing a more fulfilling life
- What exactly does “fun” mean?
- Why novelty and fun requires repetition
- Why boredom can lead to meaning
- How to approach the mundanity of life with a playful attitude
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Oregon Trail
- Cow Clicker
- Progress Paradox
- The Paradox of Choice
- Good News! Your Life Isn’t Limitless
- My podcast with Barry Schwartz about Practical Wisdom
- Freedom From, Freedom To
- My podcast with Matthew Crawford about The World Beyond Your Head
- My podcast with Jamie Smith about life in a secular age
- “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace
- Three Wolf Shirt
- Make Your Own McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish Sandwich
- The Problem with Minimalism
- My podcast with Mark Kingwell about trout fishing, boredom, and the meaning of life
- How to Unclog a Drain
Play Anything is one of the most incisive books I’ve read this year. Bogost provides sharp insights into the feeling of today’s culture, particularly the hyper-irony that exists online. But he doesn’t stop there. He provides some great, practical advice on how to live a fuller life by harnessing the limitations and constraints of games. Pick up a copy of Play Anything on Amazon and check out is his site bogost.com for more information about his work.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Thanks to digital technology, modern life often promises us a world full of limitless possibilities where you’ll never have to be bored again. What if that promise of limitlessness and freedom actually contributes to our lives feeling dull, flat, and full of anxiety? What if embracing constraints and even boredom can give our lives more texture and heft?
That’s what my guest today argues in his book Play Anything. His name is Ian Bogost, he’s a professor of philosophy and, get this, a video game designer. Today on the show Ian and I discuss why modern life often can be filled with existential angst, why we live in an age of irony that’s super charged by the internet, and how looking at the world as a metaphorical playground can help you feel more grounded and present in reality. This show is full of counterintuitive wisdom and ready to work tools that can help you live a more fulfilling life. After the show’s over check out the show notes at aom.is/bogost. That’s spelled B-O-G-O-S-T.
Ian Bogost, welcome to the show.
Ian Bogost: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: You got a great book out. It’s called Play Anything: The Pleasures of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Really it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Ian Bogost: Oh awesome.
Brett McKay: You hit on a lot of topics and ideas that I’ve felt and couldn’t articulate about our modern day so I love it. Before we get into the book, let’s talk about your background because I think it’ll help listeners get an idea of where you’re coming from and also your background is just really dang interesting.
You’re a philosopher, professor of media studies, and a video game designer, which is two things you don’t see paired together every day. How did that happen? How did you become a philosopher/video game designer?
Ian Bogost: Yeah. Yeah. It’s actually not as weird as it sounds, but I admit, it does sound very strange. It’s not as weird as it sounds because actually there’s a long history of philosophers who worked in other media, as artists and creators, especially as novelists, as playwrights. Sartre, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp, who’s more well known as an artist, eventually became a master chess player later in life.
Sometimes it goes the other way too, which isn’t necessarily to associate myself with folks of that level of prestige, but just to suggest that there is this long history of philosophy and art intersecting. Often it’s because in games or in novels or in painting or in chess even, you see aspects of the abstract world which is what we think about when we think about philosophy and philosophical questions, they become concretized. That’s one way of bringing those worlds together.
As far as me myself, my background is not necessarily that of the two universes that never meet, but the question of what does technology have to do with arts and culture and how do those worlds converse. It’s always been the interest for me since I was a kid even. Games are a particularly interesting kind of technology, computer technology, precisely because they were some of the first elements where computation became cultural. Entertainment became a place where we tried to do something other than work with machines. That’s always been interesting to me.
Also games offer this kind of way of getting underneath some of the assumptions that we make. They’re these interesting philosophical playgrounds, they offer this strange, skewed, weird view of everyday life. You take a field and you add a ball and some lines to it and that transforms it into a soccer pitch, into something totally different. Or you take some cubes that are spotted with dots and you hurl them onto a green felt and that becomes something entirely different, this trial for chance and wagers. Or even you stick four squares together in different patterns and make them fall on a screen and that becomes Tetris.
Games are like this place where we trick ourselves into seeing and then working with things that we’d otherwise overlook. Games certainly aren’t the only way to do that, but as I’ve moved through my career as a philosopher and a game designer, it’s become clear that that’s one of the features of games that’s most interesting and most relevant to both domains.
Brett McKay: Right. Your focus in philosophy, is it games sort of like, it’s like Wittgenstein wrote about games if I remember from a philosophy course.
Ian Bogost: Wittgenstein used games as an example of a particular problem with language because there’s this challenge with word games so we’d normally know what it refers to. Games were an excellent example of a concept Wittgenstein called family resemblance. What different games have in common is not that they’re all instances of some super ordinate category but that they share these overlapping features. Donuts are another example of that, by the way. It’s like what makes a donut a donut is that it comes in the donut box, more or less.
My interest in philosophy, it’s related to games when it is, but it’s actually much higher level and a bit broader, the area of philosophy that’s of particular interest to me is called metaphysics. Metaphysics is a field that addresses the fundamental nature of being. Metaphysicians ask questions like what does it mean for something to exist in the first place and what kinds of things exist and what’s the relationship between the things that do at some fundamental level, at a level that sits before even science, before we begin engaging with how me might manipulate and understand the material world.
One of the problems in this discipline, in metaphysics, that I work on- which ends up being a theme of the book and I should clarify that you don’t need to know anything about philosophy to get it in the book- one of those themes is that people tend to think of themselves as being at the center of existence. This is true even centuries after the Copernican Revolution, even when we know that the universe is enormous and we’re this tiny corner of it. Still nevertheless in philosophy and even in science, we tend to worry most about the relationship between people and other things, between ourselves or our communities and the rest of the world. That makes sense because we’re in our bodies and in our neighborhoods and in our countries and so forth.
In doing that we tend to overlook all of the equally interesting and powerfully weird stuff that happens in between other stuff. Even the stuff that we humans have made. There’s this infinite mystery in every toaster and on every freeway and in every big box store. Those problems at a philosophical level are of great interest to me and they’re some of the motivations for exploring the themes in the book.
Brett McKay: Right. We’ll get into that idea that we’re the center of the universe, how that can lead us astray. How has your philosophy career influenced your game design?
Ian Bogost: It’s done so in a number of ways. When I started working on games professionally, which is about 20 years ago at the rise of the internet, and some of the games that I worked on at that time, that I had the opportunity to work on, were very different than ordinary games. The internet made it possible to distribute stuff directly and without the publishing apparatus that we were used to in store bought materials. I happened to be working in advertising at the time so I got involved in the early days of applying games to marketing and advertising.
This was interesting enough at the time, but one of the questions I began asking myself then was what other kinds of purposes could games be put to? This was a business use of an entertainment medium that we tend to associate with kids, or we certainly don’t associate with utility. There had been a long history of games as educational tools by that time. Everyone probably played Oregon Trail or games like that in the eighties and nineties and that was one possible use.
I began thinking about the relationships between those kinds of uses and wondering what others there might be so I began working very extensively in games about social issues and politics. At my studio we made the first official presidential campaign game for Howard Dean in 2003. We worked on games about all sorts of strange issues you wouldn’t think of seeing in games like tort reform and errand running and educational policy. We made some games about airport security in the time when all of the TSA stuff was happening.
The philosophical motivation for some of those questions was the field of rhetoric, the philosophical domain of rhetoric, how do you express ideas, how do you persuade people, how do you change their opinions. Games are different from speech or from writing or from images in that in a game you can model something about the world. You can make this little miniature copy of it that you can work with, that you can manipulate. In so doing, at least this is my contention as a philosopher as much as a game designer, in manipulating that little model of the world you could experience something about what it might be like to live in a version of the world if those ideas had been true. It’s like a natural way of thinking about experimenting with social policy or with public policy or with just ways of behaving and living that are different from our own.
Now admittedly, this use of games is still somewhat marginalized or hasn’t become predominant in the commercial sphere, but it’s a good example of one of the underlying uses of games that sits under the radar, nevertheless is taking place every day.
Brett McKay: Awesome. We’ll talk about your game, I think we can talk about Cow Clicker or Click the Cow or whatever.
Ian Bogost: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Maybe we’ll talk about that later on.
Ian Bogost: Yeah. We can definitely talk- Cow Clicker is sort of my great infamy, so it’s always worth bringing up.
Brett McKay: All right. Let’s talk about Play Anything where you take insights from your career as a philosopher and game designer to make- when I was reading it I was thinking, as I was reading, this is a really countercultural case on how to make our modern enemy filled lives more meaningful.
Before we get to the prescription, let’s talk about the cultural and philosophical problems you’re trying to address in the book. Start off, you mentioned it earlier I think, but what are the underlying philosophical paradigms of our feelings of angst and frustration and restlessness that we have, that a lot of people experience these days?
Ian Bogost: Yeah. One of the biggest problems of modern life, I think, is that we live in this time of enormous surplus, enormous plenty. We have more than we ever have had before, we can get access to almost anything immediately. Information is so enormously accessible that it costs nothing to access it. In spite of all this we still feel miserable and we feel miserable more and more and maybe even more intensely miserable the more surplus, the more plenty we seem to acquire. This is a paradox. How is it that we ended up in a situation where, provided all of the material wealth, relatively speaking especially in the West … plenty that we have access to that nevertheless we still feel like our lives are getting worse and worse and worse. There have been attempts to ask questions about this problem before.
One of the figures that I talk about a little bit in the book is the psychologist Barry Schwartz who wrote this book called The Paradox of Choice maybe a dozen years ago. One of his insights was that when you have all these choices then in theory you should be more gratified because you have so many options. You have options for spouses and options for shampoo and mustard alike. The problem actually is that the more options we have then the more a bad choice becomes your fault, you internalize that sense of despair and of regret for having made what turned out to be a bad choice. It was really only a bad choice because you felt like you had other choices.
If you extend that to the contemporary world, that condition hasn’t gotten any better, in fact, it’s only gotten worse. Online life has amplified that. In addition to infinite shampoos or mustards at the store, now we have access to almost anything. It’s immediately accessible with almost no switch in cost. We go through this anxiety of all of the options we have, all of the missed opportunities or the potential missed opportunities that we face almost constantly. It’s the kind of thing that makes you hold off until the very last minute to make plans with people because you’re just not sure if something better might come along. We do that with everything.
In spite of all this, we seem at the same time to believe that a relatively small and maybe increasingly smaller number of things and people and activities could provide us with the contentment that we supposedly savor.
I think fundamentally this problem, it comes down to the idea of freedom of our interpretation of what it would mean to be free. We’re obsessed with this idea of freedom but we think it means escape. If only I could do what I want then I’d be content. I just need to rest myself out of this moil of stuff that I have to do that I don’t want to do. On the other side of it I’ll find the things that can provide me pleasure once I overcome the supposed nuisances or obstacles that are in the way.
Once we do so, those things that were supposedly going to bring us pleasure only become additional nuisances and obstacles. That becomes this endless chain of misery. That’s the problem that we have to overcome. To overcome it, as seems obvious once you start looking at the problem directly, we have to find a way of finding not just contentment or satisfaction, but joy and delight in all of those things that we previously characterized as nuisances, all of the shopping trips and the commuting and the lawn mowing and the ordinary stuff of daily life.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess as you mentioned earlier too, all these choices and all these things, it puts us in the center of the universe. We live inside of our heads and when reality doesn’t match the ideal in our head we get frustrated.
Ian Bogost: Yeah, which it never does because the world is outside our head actually. The sense of entitlement that we have, not in the sense that I think I deserve a certain kind of a job or a certain kind of partner, but rather just the sense that we are owed some debt by the universe and that it should respond to us in a way that gives us gratification.
This is a starting point of a whole set of anxieties and this is also where anger and misery and even violence come from. Then to respond to that through negativity, through nihilism, to say the universe is fundamentally unconcerned and therefore nothing matters, that can’t be the answer either. It’s understandable why we sometimes despair in that way, but we know exactly where that leads and it doesn’t lead anywhere good.
In the face of the knowledge that we live in this secular age where we can’t seek singular meaning outside of ourselves, whether it’s in God or even just in culture because culture is so multivarious now, then we need a way for all of those individual encounters with ordinary objects, ordinary things, ordinary people to bare meaning without that meaning having to be produced from within us, without us having to invent it all the time.
Brett McKay: Right. It sounds like you’re going against existentialism a bit. That’s the one thing, I find existentialism attractive but then when you think about it, it’s like God that’s a lot of pressure. I got to come up with meaning for my life. That’s hard.
Ian Bogost: It’s too much pressure. Nobody can do it. If you try you can do it for a little while and then you become overwhelmed with the burden.
The funny thing about this solution, which is- one of the people I talk about pretty extensively in the book is the writer David Foster Wallace. This is one of the solutions that Wallace suggests, that if we can trick ourselves into thinking that other people might have it worse off than I do, flip the bit on our sense of despair or of disorientation, then this is one way of attaching ourselves to something larger.
This is just an impossible idea. It’s nice to think about and certainly there are moments in your life when you can calm yourself down or you can resist ratcheting up a conflict or something by imagining that the person in front of you at the supermarket line who’s taking a long time has some difficult challenge they’re facing in their lives and you should just chill out. That’s just doomed to failure as a matter of course. It’s just a huge enormous burden.
Even despite the temptation maybe to pursue that kind of logic, why would we even have to? Why make up stories about the world as you might imagine it to be when instead you could look at the world and see how much it has to offer for you to work with. This requires a different way of looking and then responding to the things we find around us everyday, which is really the fundamental idea in the book, that you can play anything. What I mean by that is that anything whatsoever can become a source of delight and pleasure if you work with it and treat it for what it is.
Brett McKay: Right. I thought that was an interesting argument you made with David Foster Wallace. That whole idea of flipping the switch came from that essay, that speech, This Is Water.
Ian Bogost: Right. It was a commencement address at Kenyon College.
Brett McKay: Right. It sounds great, but you’re right though because what it does is you’re just basically living reality in your head. You have to create this reality in your head that might not even exist.
Ian Bogost: Right. Then what are you supposed to do, come up with the worst case scenario for every situation so that you make sure that you’re deferring your own needs and desires to the worst possible response that someone else might have to it? It becomes this rat race for worst case scenarios. Even the burden itself becomes its own burden as you imagine even worse and worse and worse explanations for why other people or other situations are behaving in a way that you can’t respond to when you could be focusing all that energy in just actually working with the world, doing things with the materials that are given to you.
Of course it requires retraining ourselves, not just in order that we don’t get annoyed with the slow driver in front of us or something, which is where Wallace’s examples mostly live, but with the act of driving itself or the act of shopping itself or the act of cleaning up the leaves that are falling from the trees. All of that stuff that we think of as chaff, it has to become meat, there has to be some way that we can learn to attend to those opportunities and treat them as opportunities rather than as seeing them as these things that then we’d have to invent stories about in order that we could tolerate being around them.
Brett McKay: Right. You make the case that one response that we’ve gone to in our modern day to handle this existential pressure, this angst of so much choice and FOMO is irony. Irony carries a lot of hip social cache today. Everyone’s trying to be ironic and be meta. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll do that, but I’d hate myself after I do it. I’m like, why am I so dumb.
Let’s start off. How do you describe irony? I think Alanis Morissette might’ve steered people in the wrong direction what irony is.
Ian Bogost: Yeah. In its original meaning, irony in its literary sense, is language that says the opposite of what it means, but it’s actually become something slightly different. Now what irony means is saying or doing something in a way that prevents others from knowing if you even meant to mean it or not to mean it.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Ian Bogost: When you wear the trucker cap or drink PBR or post an Instagram of some strange flavor of potato chips that you found or whatever it is that you do, riding the Fixie bike, all of these silly things of hipster irony, it’s not so much that they are treating things as these fetishes, it’s rather that you can’t tell. You can never tell whether you or anyone else means to mean that they are attached and interested in those things or that they mean to spurn them and scorn them and sneer at them. It’s that undecidability, that uncertainty of knowing whether something is sincere or contemptuous that characterizes a contemporary irony.
It’s no surprise that we found ourselves in this situation because we have just all of this stuff, all of this surplus of ideas and things and information and encounters. In the face of that surplus, we’re still not able to find pleasure and delight in our lives. We have all of the things that we could possibly want and yet we still find them wanting. We recognize that under the surface that there’s this inconsistency and one response to it is to hold things at this distance. They threaten us that things might go awry, I’m not sure if that new IPA is going to be pleasurable or not so I’ll just talk about what a silly name it has on the internet.
Some of that anxiety, that ironic anxiety, does come from real social concern. I think we’re living in this time of austerity even as we’re also living in a time of great surplus. I think the rise of irony, with the rise of the internet also corresponds with austerity and with the economic collapse of the post 2008 great recession and all of these things that we once were able to take for granted, at least to some extent, many of those have fallen away.
Our fear is somewhat founded, our fear that things might bite us in the brain for having thought about them. There are reasons why, there are good reasons why that anxiety exists. We’ve extended that anxiety to everything whatsoever through this ironic distance, this detachment from things.
Brett McKay: Irony allows us to hedge our bets.
Ian Bogost: It’s a hedge, yeah, allows you to hedge your bets. I might or might not come back to this and treat it for what it is. Then of course by doing so we ensure that we never will.
Brett McKay: Right. How does the internet rocket boost this sense of irony that we have in our culture?
Ian Bogost: Almost everything we do online is ironic to some extent. Some of it is more ironic than others. Any meme or image that you see online can very quickly enter that ironic mode. Someone photo shops an image of something in order to turn it into something else or you’ve got infinite numbers of Trump or Hilary photos after the debates that then get turned into their own memes that then get turned into still further memes and then people screenshot the tweets or the Facebook posts of other people saying things that they find ridiculous or absurd and transform those into these- all of these layers upon layers upon layers of reconsumption and distancing.
The pop cultural version of this is also quite common in that the tendency that we have to talk about talking about things. Here’s a television show or a video game or whatever it is and it can always produce these images or gifs or what have you that allow you to take a portion of it and use it as a joke or a gag that appears to be engaging deeply with the material but actually distances you from really treating it for what it is.
Through that exercise of meme making and internet trips and so forth, we’ve also ironized ourself and our relationship to others just as much. You don’t even know anymore. Someone says something to you online and there’s the old joke about on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog, but in fact you don’t know that you don’t know that someone’s a dog or not, you’re not even sure maybe they’re a dog, maybe they’re not. You can’t take something seriously because it might be in jest, or even if it was serious then you’re interlocutor might say, “Oh no, no, I was just kidding, you misunderstood me.”
We live in this vat online where we’re never really sure what’s happening or why and part of it is because we don’t know anything about many of the folks that we encounter in this anonymity of online life, but also even when we start to, there’s just a whole barrage, another wave of new material comes pouring out as our screens scroll through the new content on Facebook or Instagram or what have you.
The internet has just amplified that existing sense of irony that was already present. Because we spend so much of our lives online, we have to do work and you have to interact with your friends and your family online, it’s impossible to avoid, you just can’t avoid it anymore.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. Yeah. When I was reading that it made me think of the three wolves t-shirt howling at the moon. That was a great example from a few years ago. I think a lot of people actually liked the t-shirt but they couldn’t say they liked the t-shirt because that wouldn’t be cool so they hedged their bets by saying “I’m wearing this thing, but isn’t it funny? Ha ha.”
Ian Bogost: Right. It’s a good example. It was ironic to wear it but then it was ironic to talk about not wearing it, or maybe you were wearing it, maybe you just photoshopped it onto yourself so you didn’t really have to wear it. I think the t-shirt is one of the prime examples because it’s so easy to make a t-shirt now that you find t-shirts for everything. It used to be actually quite difficult to get something onto a t-shirt, it was time and expense, you have to silkscreen it. We have all these services that we can use, which we have all this infrastructure for irony that we can tap into.
I’m just as guilty of this as anybody. It’s so tempting and so easy to do. Someone makes a quip online and you take a screen- I did this just the other week. Someone said something and I took the screenshot and put it on a t-shirt that you could get on one of those on demand printing services. It’s so easy to do that. Then of course the person I was talking to went and bought the t-shirt and took a pic.
On the one hand there’s this opportunity to engage with the conversation that we’re having, but on the other hand it’s easier to hold it at this distance or to cover it in plastic like your grandma’s sofa in order that you don’t have to engage with it. Instead you can talk about the idea of engaging with it instead.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s a solution that we’ve gone to to deal with this infinite choice that we have.
Ian Bogost: It works in the short term. It always works in the short term because you can go ha ha look what I did, look how I made a joke about the world. Then everyone laughs and you get a bunch of likes or retweets or whatever it is you’re looking for. Then five minutes pass and it doesn’t make you any happier or more content, you just have to find another source of that material. It’s almost like the logic of addiction.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. It’s not a long term solution.
Ian Bogost: It’s not a long term solution and then it’s not even a short term solution in the sense that you’re not taking delight in the joy of the three wolves shirt either. You’re neither building a platform through which you could develop a long term interest and meaning in something, nor are you developing a method by which you could get pleasure in all these random individual things that are constantly scrolling by us.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. How do most folks combat this irony and why does the way they usually approach it or try to combat it fail?
Ian Bogost: There’s this term I coined in the book ironoia which is sort of like paranoia for things. If paranoia is the mistrust of people then ironoia is the mistrust of things. That act of distancing, of holding things at arm’s length and saying okay well there’s something but I’m going to just wait and see if something better comes along or perhaps I mistrust that it might be of use or of interest to me.
That maneuver is half right and the half of it that’s right is in stopping, stopping your ordinary life and your ordinary tension and noting that there’s something before you in the universe. Okay, here’s this shirt or here’s this person or here’s this problem or here’s this task that I have to do, whatever it is. Then circumscribing it. Saying I’m going to draw a circle around this so that I can focus on it.
Then the ironic maneuver, what it does it says I’ve captured it, I’ve sealed it inside of this bubble like plastic wrap, like I’m going to put it on the shelf, and now I can dispose of it. I’ve successfully captured whatever that thing is in the world and I’ve caught it. It’s not going to do me further harm and I’ll just dispose of it as quickly as possible and move onto the next thing. The half that’s right, the approach that’s right, is in recognizing things as they exist, but then instead of casting them aside, waiting for the next thing to come along, you want to take that thing and begin to work with it to manipulate it to figure out what you can do with it.
Brett McKay: All right. Let’s talk about that. Your solution to that is you play with it, right?
Ian Bogost: You play with it.
Brett McKay: Right. I think most people, the way most people define play is not exactly how you define play. How do you define play or what do you mean by play?
Ian Bogost: Yeah. Most of the time when we hear play, we think it’s the opposite of work. Play is what you get to do after you’re done with what you have to do. Play is this experience of freedom or of being unfettered, not being held down by obligation or duty. Instead I would suggest thinking of play not as the opposite of work but as this thing that exists in materials.
One good analogy for this that we actually talk about as play is the play that’s present in a mechanism, like a steering column. There’s a little bit of play in the mechanism before it engages and begins turning the wheel or if you think about other domains that we use the word play for, like instruments. We play instruments, you play the guitar, you play the piano. It’s not that you’re doing whatever you want with the guitar or the piano, that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. When you play the guitar you’re taking its material properties, the strings and the fret board and the body of it and you’re holding it in a certain way and you’re manipulating it to produce the sounds that it’s capable of. Through that manipulation you can produce music. That’s what it means to play.
If you take that kind of analogy of the way that you play the guitar and you apply it to anything else, anything whatsoever, then play is a process of evaluating, understanding, and then responding to the material properties of things, so seeing what you can do with them, how you can incorporate them into your experience, and how you can treat them based on the constraints and limitations that they present to you rather than seeing them as these potential tools through which to achieve your own desires. As if you even knew what you wanted.
Brett McKay: Right. Let’s take a step back here. Going back … We play in playgrounds, you make this analogy of playgrounds. Playgrounds are these areas where you’d engage in play, but you say you can create playgrounds anywhere. A playground would be the musical instrument. They have these strings, they have frets, they have this board, and that’s the playground. You have this constraint that you have to deal with and then by dealing with that constraint you can actually create something pretty cool.
Ian Bogost: Right. If you’re to reject it, if you say this is preposterous, look at this idiotic object that someone claims I can play music with obviously I can’t. This is what happens when you pick up something like a guitar for the first time or a piano or a set of golf clubs is they’re hard and they resist you. They’re not that concerned about your pleasure or the pleasure you derive from using them. In order to make good on them, you have to engage with it, you have to take it serious for awhile. Okay, like how do I learn to play the guitar, what do I need to know about it, what have other people done before me, how does it actually operate. Over time you can develop this relationship with it.
Some people would say that’s a guitar, but you can’t possibly do that with errands or commuting or what have you. I think that’s absolutely false. You can do it with anything, the trick is in delivering, bringing that deep attention and commitment to it in the first place, which is where the idea of the playground is useful. You see kids do this all the time. Kids are just so good at finding play in anything. You can think of the playground as a physical enclosure, like you see in the park, but it’s also a conceptual one.
If you send your kids outside like, go play outside, they’ll run outside and then very quickly say, “What’s here?” “Oh there’s some sticks.” “What are these sticks?” “Let’s make up some rules about what the sticks are for or what they do.” and then taking into account the material properties of the stick is a thing that could be a sword or that you can throw or what have you. That sort of activity is possible with anything, it just requires being willing and open to seeing it for what it is and asking how you can manipulate it, how you can play it.
Brett McKay: Right. It sounds like what people do with irony, they make the playground, they take this object, they see it and they put a boundary around it, but then they just, like you said, throw it away-
Ian Bogost: Stop.
Brett McKay: They stop there.
Ian Bogost: Yeah. That’s exactly right. The first maneuver that ends up being an ironic one is to take something and remove it from the world to draw this playground or the circumscription around it, say huh here’s a thing, here’s the thing before me. I’m worried about it. It couldn’t possibly produce the pleasure it promises or that it doesn’t promise, let’s just talk about the idea that it might and then let’s dispose of it. If you engage with it really deeply, if you accept that invitation to enter that sphere and take it seriously, then you find just impossible depth.
One of the examples I have in the book is the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, which is a favorite of mine. There was this story a number of years ago about how to make your own Filet-O-Fish sandwich at home. It’s a great example of a moment online that could go toward irony or could go toward play. The ironizing move is to do this in order that you can laugh at the low quality food at McDonald’s or that you can take a picture of it, ha ha I made a Filet-O-Fish at home or that you can suspend this sense of whether you mean to exalt or to scorn the sandwich by talking about it or making it in your own kitchen.
The truth is that it’s actually super interesting to understand how industrial food is made and where it comes from and how you might recreate it in your own kitchen. By engaging with it in that serious way, even something as preposterous as a fast food sandwich, you’ve discovered something new about the world. That discovery of novelty is where the contentment comes from if you allow it to percolate.
Brett McKay: You quoted this one, I think it’s philosopher anthropologist where he makes the case that play is actually the driving force of human culture.
Ian Bogost: Yeah. If you think of play in this very general way, that play is the process of encircling something and then manipulating the contents that are within it, then all we’re really doing when we produce culture is playing. It’s just that it’s not play as this release or as the opposite of work or of duty, it’s play as the serious and deliberate manipulation of the materials that we find.
When you think about some of the examples, this is a Dutch anthropologist named Johan Huizinga and one of the examples that Huizinga uses is the court, the court room. The courts are a stage of play and they actually have something very much in common with the theater in some sense. This was one of the reasons why we like to watch courtroom dramas on television in fact. We have individuals, the judge and the jury and the attorneys and so forth who are playing roles. They are speaking and using the rules of law in a way that’s different from the way that we ordinary use language and performance in day to day life.
Through that manipulation, legal code, of rhetoric, of performance, they create a very real outcome. This is a serious context. You don’t necessarily need a serious context like that to understand how play produces culture, rather to understand that when you see play as this process of manipulating what you find rather than this process of escaping the world into the dreams in your own head, then you’re always being productive when you do it, you’re always being productive when you perform it.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s interesting you brought up the courtroom. There’s these roles, these defined words you’re supposed to say so there’s constraints, which makes it awesome. As you said, most people think of play as you just do whatever you want, but you say in order for play to be actually fun, we’ll talk about what fun means, there has to be constraints.
I thought it was interesting, you argue in the book that the way we often go about trying to improve our lives is through restraints. Can you talk about the difference between restraints and constraints and why constraints are the better way to go?
Ian Bogost: Yeah. We’re obsessed with asceticism suddenly. It’s one of the responses to this world of plenty that we live in. Oh I shouldn’t, I should that or I should really exercise more. I want to do this thing but I’m going to try to resist doing it because it would be better for me to do this other thing. Those are these negative and potentially ironizing moves that the logic of restraint demands that we perform.
If you flip that on its head and you instead accept the natural constraints that are built into the things that we find, which are sometimes exactly the same things. It’s not that I’m going to resist eating cake, it’s that if I’m interested in a certain kind of diet then I’m going to stock my pantry and kitchen with the kinds of foods I want to eat. Let me figure out how I’m going to go and find those and purchase them in a way that puts the right stuff around me such that when I go to eat I’m eating the things I want.
Or the act of constraint that you accept when you enter the sphere of a game, the pitch or the playground. If you find yourself on the football or the soccer field and you say I just refuse to accept the rules of the game, then you’re not playing, but by accepting those constraints you’re able to enter into the experience of sport. If you stop yourself, as you watch a soccer or football game, and you go this is ridiculous. What are these people doing? They could do anything they want. Why are they adhering to the rules of the game? It doesn’t make any sense. This is what makes the game what it is.
By looking for, accepting, and even inventing and applying new constraints to our lives we can flip this ironizing tendency to try to restrain ourselves. Oh I’m not going to have that second glass of wine or I really shouldn’t do this into a method of structuring our behavior around the limitations that we’ve either deliberately set up or that we’ve accepted in the world that we find.
One example of a set of constraints is the constraints of the people and things that we find in our daily lives, the actual properties of our family or our significant others, the actual properties of our homes or our jobs. We complain about those things all the time, if only my wife or my husband didn’t do this thing then things would be better in my marriage, or if only my job weren’t so miserable then I wouldn’t hate going to it. Even despite those sensations you can always flip them on their head and figure out what are the properties of those circumstances, what are the limitations and constraints that I can work within, what can I do in these situations and then how can I obsess over what is impossible.
Brett McKay: Right. Accept the world as it is and work with it, deal with it in a way.
Ian Bogost: Right. Of course there’s a point at which accepting the world becomes absurd or unpalatable or even destructive. It’s not a fatalistic suggestion that just take everything that already exists, that’s all that there can be, we can always alter that world too, but we have the sense that we have to dispose of things much more rapidly than we really need to. We fail to accept and to evaluate to find the constraints that are present and to work within them and instead we move immediately to rejection.
Because there’s so many other options now, there’s so many other options for everything. You don’t like that beer or that shampoo, there’s another one. You didn’t like this potential significant other, no problem, just swipe and find another one. We’ve enculturated ourselves to that notion of rejection rather than admitting the opportunity to stop and say, okay I’m going to treat this for what it is for a minute, see if there’s anything more that I can find, and then inevitably, inevitably there is. There’s always this hidden depths and things once you allow yourself to discover them.
Brett McKay: The other problem with restraint is that it’s exhausting. It’s like existentialism. It’s like trying to come up with meaning, restraining yourself all the time just exhausts you and it ends up failing in the long run.
Ian Bogost: Right. How many things can you reject before you’re out of things and then you’ve got to find new things which you then have been in the habit of rejecting and so you reject them too.
Changing that attitude from restraint to constraint is difficult, but we have these models for it. Games and play are one of the places we can look for those models. They are places where we … A game is a place where you accept the arbitrary absurdity of the world and instead of rejecting it you say okay I’m going to take it for what it is and mess around with it and that’s what play is.
If we can bring that same attitude to ordinary life, not just to entertainment or not just to sport or not just to the places where we normally think of play as taking place, then we can apply that same attitude, that same strategy for seeking pleasure, to ordinary things as much as extraordinary ones.
Brett McKay: Right. You talk about in the book the result of play is fun. Usually we put the two together. It’s not play if you’re not having fun, if you’re not having fun I’m going to stop doing this thing because it’s not playful.
Fun is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit and we use it just as this filler, just to describe things even though we don’t really mean it was fun, it was just sort of interesting. How do most people use fun and how do you define fun?
Ian Bogost: Fun is one of these amazing words that means almost nothing. If you stop yourself the next time you find yourself saying fun or you hear someone saying something was fun and ask what am I saying, what do they mean, you quickly realize actually I’m not sure. We have this intuitive sense that fun means pleasure, that fun is a kind of synonym for pleasure. Something was pleasurable, something was fun, and that’s what we desire most is to have fun, to gain pleasure from things. But in fact, many of the experiences that we describe as fun they tend to be actually quite difficult, even kind of miserable.
You come back in from a long run or a difficult day at the office and you’ve taken some gratification in the work that you’ve done, it was harrowing, but nevertheless it was positive, something pleasurable emerged from it. That idea of fun as this lightweight easy pleasure just turns out to be totally wrong. If you dig under it, what you find instead is that fun is like a placeholder for naming a process of discovering something new in something familiar. Fun is that process of discovery of novelty.
The reason it’s such a lightweight or thrown around placeholder term is because we tend not to be able to see and discover those moments, especially when they occur in ordinary life, when they’re not part of something remarkable. You go out for an evening or after dinner drinks or whatever, you’re hanging out with some friends or some coworkers or whatever and you get back home and your roommate or your spouse or whatever says, “How was it?” “Oh yeah I had fun.”
What you really mean by that is that you’ve found yourself in the situation that was the same one that you did last week, that you’ve done a million times, but there was still something new or there’s still something to learn about your friends. There’s still something interesting to be had in commiserating about life at the office or there’s still something interesting and novel to discover about the exact same path that you take on your jog or on your bicycle route.
That’s what fun is. It’s the discovery of novelty and especially the discovery of novelty in the almost sickening context of familiarity, when you can dig through an underfamiliarity and still find something new, that’s where fun comes from.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s like taking a look at the playgrounds in our lives, the conceptual and the real ones and then playing in them and then finding new things in the playground that you didn’t see before.
Ian Bogost: Which demands repetition right? This is one of the features of games is that they’re very repetitive. You go back again and again and you do the same things over and over and over again. Rather than trying them once and then testing whether they’re worthwhile and asking okay if so I’ll continue, if not I’ll give it up because there’s something else I can pursue instead.
That need to return to something, it’s intrinsic to play and it’s also required for fun to emerge. It’s very, very easy now not to bother trying something a second time, or to go back and go deeper, but there are many things that we can’t resist trying a second time. You’re going to have to empty the dishwasher tomorrow just like you did today and you’re going to have to drive to work tomorrow like you did today and you’re going to have to balance your checkbook and do your taxes. All of this stuff that we construe as miserable, we still have to do, we have to do it every day.
If we can dig under that familiarity and through play find novelty in those experiences, then they can be just as fun as the supposedly delightful activities that we pursue in order to seek pleasure.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Part of the subtitle of your book is the Pleasures of Boredom. We often think that boredom is terrible. That’s how people get into trouble, boredom is what leads people to the bottle, to porn, to all these distractions to distract them from the boredom, but you argue boredom’s a good thing. Why is boredom a good thing?
Ian Bogost: Boredom is a sign. It’s a signal, it’s like a flare that goes up that says okay now you’re ready to start. When you find yourself bored you’ve expended all the obvious choices, you’ve done the easy things and now the work can start in really determining what’s in a situation, what something means.
One of the places that you might find yourself bored is at work or in your car or you’ve got to go out and do errands. One of the examples I used in the book is the long haul flight with 14 hours on a plane. You start and you do all the things that aren’t being on a plane. You watch the movies and you eat the food and you read a book and you listen to music and play some games. You do all this stuff that’s meant to distract you from the experience of being stuck in this metal tube five miles above earth hurdling through space at 500 miles an hour.
Once you get over that, once you’ve done all the things that are not being in a plane just by being in a plane, then you’re faced with its reality. That’s terrifying. It’s one of the reasons why when we feel boredom we also feel anxiety. I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, and that’s where the fear begins to come from.
When you find boredom percolating up into your brain it’s a good sign that you’ve done all the easy work. You’ve expended the obvious choices. Then the invitation of boredom is to look again. Rather than to go okay there’s nothing more to do here I got to go find something else, to look again. What else can be played? What are the other opportunities that are presented by the experience you find yourself in.
Often that is the prerequisite to finding meaning. After you get through the easy tasks of doing whatever it is that you do in your job over and over and over again, then you can say how could I improve this or why am I even doing these things in the first place, let me try to go find out, or how could I make it better, or even maybe I need to be doing something else entirely. All of those kinds of revelations almost require you first to face boredom and then through boredom to direct your attention to what might overcome it, what might be possible in the face of that boredom.
Brett McKay: Let’s put these principles into action. We’ve kind of done it a bit, we’ve given some examples throughout the conversation, but let’s take the airplane example. You’re bored, you’ve done all the low hanging fruit. You’ve read, you’ve played your games, you’re still on the plane. How do you play or how do you approach the airplane with a playful mindset?
Ian Bogost: Right. The airplane is like … it’s my kryptonite almost. I find it so difficult. As an example it’s an interesting exercise I think for all of us. What it means to be on a plane is to face the sense of being crushed inside of your seat or to be next to someone that you maybe do or don’t want to talk to or to ask what the magazine says that you might read instead of pursuing some other activity.
All of those kinds of little seemingly meaningless activities, they’re kind of what make flight what it is. Even the cramped bathroom with the strange smell or walking down the aisle uncomfortably and being tilted off your feet by turbulence, those small experiences, as they add up, they produce the sum total effect of being on the plane. Maybe this isn’t something that you can do over and over again or that you even find yourself in a situation where it matters but it’s a exercise. It’s an exercise you perform in order that you can do it later with anything else.
I’ll give you another example which comes from … Many of the examples in the book just come from my own life because if the premise I’m advancing is that you need to find a way for your ordinary life to be meaningful then I better be able to look in my ordinary life to find meaning. One of the things that I’ve been facing in my community is a few years ago I got accidentally involved in local land use politics. This sounds like the most boring thing ever, like zoning and all of the regulations of zoning variances and how to change zoning and how to manage approvals for new and old construction in a historic district.
These sorts of activities, as I was thrust into them, they just seemed like overwhelming, ridiculous, but as I got more and more involved in this process of being a citizen member of a community and engaging with the aspects of planning the development of the future of my neighborhood and my city and my county and so forth, I realized there’s this whole universe underneath where I wanted to stop. The place I wanted to stop was somebody wants to build something I don’t like or something.
In fact once you dig below that, you realize there’s actually a whole world of urban planners and there’s a whole universe of knowledge, you could do your whole career around this. Who am I to cast to the side and pretend like there’s nothing meaningful to be found there? As I began to understand the constraints and limitations, legal, dealing with individuals in the community, managing the time that’s required to meet with a builder or to figure out how to get something done on the calendar of the planning commission. All of these sorts of things, those became the aspects of play.
It takes a bit of squinting, it takes a bit of work before you can see these supposed nuisances, like dealing with land use politics, as a game like anything else.
Brett McKay: Right. I’ve read the book just a few weeks ago, but even just trying to squint and try to find those things, it’s helped me look at things that I otherwise would’ve thought of as a nuisance as this is an opportunity to play with it. It suddenly becomes not such a nuisance, it’s actually, it’s kind of fun.
Ian Bogost: It becomes an opportunity because what else were you going to be doing with your time. Every time I find myself faced with something where nuis- it’s either boredom or it’s nuisance, where those are the sensations that well up in me, then I just try to stop and say okay what more is there that I’m not seeing.
My kitchen sink got clogged a few weeks back, pretty seriously clogged. I’ve become reasonably handy over my life, but this was really puzzling me. You can get annoyed. Instead of watching TV now I have to clear the sink, but this is an opportunity to understand something else about how plumbing works so I can improve my competence in DIY home maintenance and through doing so also learn something more about how my particular sink is constructed. Maybe if it’s not constructed properly I could pursue the remedy of that either through my own hands or by hiring my plumber, which then also requires you to find a plumber that you want to use.
All of those little moments, even though they seem insignificant, the things that we don’t want to think about so we can get onto the good stuff, there’s still meaning there too, it’s just that you have to treat it as such.
Brett McKay: Right. As you said earlier, this isn’t a fatalistic approach. You don’t necessarily have to accept everything the way it is. There’s sometimes you have to take the reality or the ideal in your head and you actually have to make that a reality because the current reality is completely unacceptable.
Ian Bogost: Yeah. Play, it doesn’t mean accepting all of the conditions of a particular set of constraints forever, as if they were brought down from the mountain or dictated by fate. Play can also involve applying new conditions, new constraints, new limitations or disposing of old ones. This is like minor or major matters, the kind of play that involves remedying the leaky faucet that I just mentioned. It’s not like well this is my life. My sink’s going to leak and it’s going to be clogged and that’s all I can do. No I have to involve something else, I have to introduce new concepts and new materials into the playground that is my sink.
The same is true of much weightier matters. If you think about social conditions or injustices that you want to remedy because the limitations of living in a world of racial violence for example are unacceptable. It’s not that you say that’s it, there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s that you have to muster a different imaginary circle, different playground around those elements of the world, and then say how could we manipulate them differently to produce a different outcome.
Brett McKay: Right. You create a new playground is what you’re doing.
Ian Bogost: Yeah, but to make that change in the first place, to make that new playground, you first start by acknowledging the reality that you want to change. You have to treat it for what it is and part of that process is accepting and understanding the circumstances rather than fighting them.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Ian this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book?
Ian Bogost: Yeah. The book’s available at your favorite book seller and you can also check out my website at bogost.com, B-O-G-O-S-T .com. There’s information about the book and links to other conversations and articles I’ve written that are on the same theme.
Brett McKay: All right. Ian Bogost. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Ian Bogost: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ian Bogost. He’s the author of the book Play Anything. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about Ian’s work at bogost.com and also check out the show notes at aom.is/bogost for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com.
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