Last week I got to watch a couple of episodes of the first season of Black Mirror, a BBC anthology show that’s been called the technology version of The Twilight Zone. While the content pushed a number of envelopes, it did so to help us see something about the way we live life today, which isn’t always that easy or simple of a task. How do we regularly look at the world around us with fresh eyes?
According to Ian Bogost, we do it by “playing games.” From the preface to his new book, Play Anything:
The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That bounty results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make the games fun.
Which, quite honestly, is also true of good and engaging works of fiction. Bogost continues:
What is we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris- as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.
That’s what it means to play, To take something- anything- on its own terms, to treat it as if its existence were reasonable. The power of games lies not in their capacity to deliver rewards or enjoyment, but in the structured constraint of their design, which opens abundant possible spaces for play.
It truly is a well-rendered introduction, one that holds much promise for the rest of the book. It seems to be a good turn-around on the idea of play, which has become a watchword for 21st century entertainment and culture. From the preface’s last paragraph:
The ultimate lesson games give is not about gratification and reward, nor about media and technology, nor about art and design. It is a lesson about modesty, attention, and care. Play cultivates humility, for it requires us to treat things as they are rather than as we wish them to be. If we let it, play can be the secret to contentment. Not because it provides happiness or pleasure- although it certainly can- but because it helps us pursue a greater respect for the things, people, and situations around us.