The Paradox About Play That Can Make You A Better Creative In 2017

Think you know what simple words like “play” and “fun” mean? Ian Bogost’s latest book Play Anything will bake your noodle.

The Paradox About Play That Can Make You A Better Creative In 2017
[Photo: Howard George/Getty Images]

In a world where creative hyphenates have become the norm, game designer-philosopher Ian Bogost stands out. His most famous game, Cow Clicker, began as an impish parody of Facebook games like Farmville but took on non-ironic life of its own. He’s written a book-length appreciation of a single line of BASIC code and a metaphysical monograph about the inner lives of burritos. Now with his latest book, Play Anything, Bogost applies his catholic intelligence to the phenonemon of philosophical life-hacking. Think game design meets confessional memoir meets “This Is Water” meets Marie Kondo, with a dash of “here’s what’s wrong and/or right with our entire culture” polemicism thrown in, too.


“I’m not sure it was a good idea to make a milkshake out of all of [those things],” Bogost jokes. “Maybe it’s too much at once for some readers.” But Play Anything, as its wide-eyed title promises, is anything but intimidating. And what it’s about is actually quite simple. You’ve got “playing” all wrong, the book argues—it’s much stranger, simpler, and grander than you ever imagined.

Along the way, Bogost unpacks the meaning of play, creativity, satisfaction, connection, and (arguably) life. If that can’t make you a better designer—and human—what can? Buckle up, though—because Bogost’s big idea is a paradoxical one.

Your imagination is overrated, not special, and quite possibly your own worst enemy (deal with it)

Bogost has a serious beef with what most creative types consider their defining and most precious attribute: a “rich inner world.” After all, aren’t imagination and introspection the very things that set the Picassos and Woolfs of the world apart from the shmucks in gray flannel suits?

Short answer: nope. Whatever wonders that may reside within your own special-snowflake skull wilt in comparison to the fractally unfolding immensity of plain old reality. According to Bogost, “play” happens in the world, not in your head. Which means that anything—literally anything—can become an instrument or game, a plaything and a playground, if we’re simply willing to look beyond the confines of our own navels.

“There’s a profoundly stupid story I tell [about] this,” Bogost tells Co.Design. “I was working feverishly in my office near the basement stairwell. My wife came down to get a gallon of milk from the downstairs fridge. As she was walking up, she tripped and the milk hit the stairs at just the right angle, on what must have been a weak seam in the plastic jug, so that the seam split and all the milk gushed out of the thing. I’ve never seen that much milk in one place before.

“But what’s interesting here isn’t that I could have lost my temper and didn’t,” Bogost continues. “Rather, what’s interesting is that a milk jug could have a weak spot like that. Or that a gallon is so much milk when it’s on the floor. Or that sound of the thick liquid tumbling over the tread. Or that I have to know the construction term ‘tread’ to talk about the story in the first place.”


Bogost calls this stance “worldfulness” (as opposed to mindfulness), and it’s the bedrock of his philosophy of play. “I think that’s the lesson,” he says. “Everything is kind of ridiculous. Waiting for the ‘good stuff’ is a recipe for tragedy.”

Like the maximalist photography of Andreas Gursky, Bogost’s writing in Play Anything often revels in the details of everyday reality to an intoxicating degree. Here’s the author drowning his consciousness in the lumpen sensuality of a Wal-Mart aisle:

Equally tragic is our incessant focus on own “creative” subjectivity as an Archimedean lever for engaging with the world. “Taken to its extreme, culture’s obsession with creativity and imagination often assumes that the material world can be utterly overcome by the world of ideas,” Bogost says. “The problem is that we have overemphasized the role of imagination and deemphasized that of the actual world that exists all around us. There’s so much that isn’t you and me.”

The worldfulness that Bogost calls “playful” is easily witnessed in small children. Bogost writes about his daughter who, while being dragged through a mall by her irritable father, still manages to discover and play a series of games with the floor tiles. “Living playfully isn’t about you, it turns out,” Bogost writes. “It’s about everything else, and what you manage to do with it.”

And the trick, for the rest of us, isn’t channelling our inner five-year-olds. It’s getting out of our damn heads in the first place.

Play Anything has other red-pill ideas, too. (Fun, to Bogost, is “the opposite of happiness,” “the cold, indifferent stupidity of something that is just what it is”—which sounds way more depressing than his argument actually turns out to be.) But it’s Bogost’s inversion of mindfulness that lifts his book above the ranks of life-hacking-manuals-turned-virtue-signaling props such as “This Is Water” or “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”


Bogost gestures repeatedly toward the celebrated authors of both those in Play Anything’s pages, like frenemies whose company he enjoys while holding them in mild contempt. He treats David Foster Wallace as an exasperating, tragically terminal case of what can happen when we heap too much responsibility on the shoulders of our own minds and subjective experience—failing, whether by action, omission, or ignorance, to step outside ourselves and truly “play.” As for Marie Kondo, Bogost regards her as a well-meaning ideologue whose superficially appealing acid test for distinguishing junk from “things that spark joy” belies an incoherent, narcissistic, and ultimately joyless ascetisism.

[Photo: Howard George/Getty Images]

Unlike Kondo’s book, Play Anything purposefully contains no bullet-pointed scripts for implementing its author’s ideas. “I don’t feel compelled to require the reader to adopt my position as the sole and definitive answer for all situations and circumstances,” Bogost says. “And I think that position is consistent with the ideas themselves: If you really can play anything, then by necessity there is a time for deep and worldful attention, and a time for throwing your shit away when it doesn’t bring you joy, and a time for brusque pragmatism, too.”

That may sound like an intellectual cop-out, but it’s actually the logical consequence of taking Bogost’s book seriously. As with Alien Phenomenology, his philosophy book about the inscrutable “experiences” of kudzu, dust bunnies, and nuclear explosions, Bogost is playing at the border of nonsense and coherence, the categorical and the particular. He’s picking up the ideas, concepts, and very words “play” and “fun” and treating them as playthings, with their metaphysical and historical context as playgrounds. He’s working them in a state of simultaneous seriousness and insouciance, like a toddler with a pile of Duplo blocks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Play Anything doesn’t always make a ton of sense; occasionally it feels as flimsily argued or superficially wise as anything in the mindfulness section of Barnes & Noble.

But mostly, it’s (wait for it) fun. And not in the denatured sense that VC pitch decks sometimes deploy to describe frictionless interactions within shopping apps. Play Anything is fun in the very way that Bogost wants to explain—which, perversely, can’t ever quite be abstracted into mere description. It is as incompressible in its delights and frustrations and challenges and illuminations as any toy, instrument, game, or playground. An honest review of it would be only two words long: Read it. Or perhaps just one, itself compressible into a single emojified bit: PLAY. ▶️

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.