The real value of philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost’s new book, Play Anything, didn’t hit me until I made several failed attempts to write this review. Since the central theme is play, I felt compelled to offer readers something fun—to fashion what Bogost describes as a playground.
It did not go well.
My first inspiration was drawn from Bogost’s account of an artistic school known as Oulipo, which crafts its products according to arbitrary constraints. Using a constraint that found popularity through Oulipo, I would try to dash off a manuscript without using our most common symbol (as I am in this paragraph, starting with My) and wax rhapsodic about how imposing random limits is actually magical, to show how Bogost’s approach in Play Anything can transform boring forms of writing into fun!
Alas, I quickly found that I’m not as skilled at writing without the letter e as, say, the French writer Georges Perec, who managed to write an entire novel without the vowel—nor his intrepid translator Gilbert Adair, who gave us A Void, the English version of Perec’s La Disparition, while also sticking to the same constraint. Bogost uses their accomplishments as support for his convincing and counterintuitive claim that play isn’t about freedom from constraints but rather the opposite. “Play is an activity we associate with freedom, with being able to do whatever we want,” he writes. That’s a mistake, and it can lead to perpetual dissatisfaction because reality is fundamentally constrained. In fact, Bogost says freedom itself isn’t about freedom from constraints. True freedom, the freedom we experience in play, is not “an escape from imposed restrictions.” It’s “a practice of working within adopted constraints.” The result of this practice: fun.
So if not Oulipo, what constraints could I adopt in this review? Maybe it would be better to focus less on myself and more on building a game for the reader. I contacted my editor and asked if we could turn the review into a contest, a classic game. Another compelling part of Bogost’s argument is that successful play happens when we take the mundane—work, chores, the daily commute, a typical book review—and “defamiliarize” it by willing ourselves to see the potential for meaningfulness and engagement that we hadn’t noticed before. Bogost describes the process of defamiliarization as creating a playground. We’ve all done this. Washing dishes becomes a race to finish each dish before the song that’s playing on your headphones. Your commute becomes an opportunity to hunt for hidden acronyms in license plates.
I had it! We’d make the review a game by offering prizes for the most liked comment on this review. There would be one rule: Comments could only use words from the review itself, and only as many times as they appeared here. Suddenly the whole review would be defamiliarized, the words transformed from mundane sentences to raw material for a competition. Perhaps there’d be another rule—that comments had to be written as sonnets, since Bogost provides detailed treatment of sonnets as another example of artificial constraints. Or haikus, since we live in the Twitter age. Play! Fun!
And then, while waiting for my editor’s response, it hit me. I was missing the central point of Play Anything. After all, Bogost is also the author of “Gamification is Bullshit.” He loves games, but he doesn’t want to turn everything into a game. To do so is to reject the constraints already built into the world, as if reality is deficient. But usually it’s we who are deficient in our ability to appreciate it: “A job is made fun not by turning it into a game, but by deeply and deliberately pursuing it as a job.” Here I was, straining to turn work into play, to turn a book review into something else. Yet for Bogost, the key to play and fun is the ability to embrace a book review for what it is—to understand the restraints and respect them. My mistake was taking what he refers to as the Mary Poppins approach—the idea that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down—and applying it to life. Bullshit, says Bogost. A better way to make the medicine go down is to deeply appreciate its identity as medicine, its ability to cure you. Getting rid of the bitterness is a misguided attempt to create false freedom. But understanding that the bitterness comes from the active ingredient and embracing it will result in real freedom.
In rejecting the book review as book review, I was falling prey to what Bogost sees as a serious disease of modernity, dubbed “ironoia.” Like paranoia, ironoia is an attitude born of fear—fear that the things we encounter and the choices we make and the work we produce will be boring, or worthless, or tasteless, or immoral, that all of everything that is will, in the end, let us down. Book review? Boring! Who’d want to read my book review? The ironist’s response, like mine, is to hold the object of fear at a distance, through parody or transformation of its essence. Instead of a book review, an Oulipo exercise. Instead of reading a book review, entering a contest. Instead of commenting on the content of an article, comment on the act of commenting on an article. (I love you, Slate readers!)
Bogost learned firsthand about people’s extraordinary ability to have fun through embracing constraint when he designed a Facebook game called “Cow Clicker.” Meant as a parody of games like “FarmVille” and not something for anyone to actually play, “Cow Clicker” distilled social games to their essence and then poked fun at them by making the game intentionally boring. Click on a picture of a cow every six hours, get a point called a “click.” Invite friends to join your “pasture,” and each time they click, you get a click too. Pay for in-game currency (“mooney”) and you can buy more cows. It was like a first-person shooter with only one weapon, one door, and an endless stream of zombies, each one bleeding a little more than the last when you killed it.
To Bogost’s surprise, the game became “easily the most successful game [he] ever produced.” Tens of thousands of people played it. They sincerely appreciated his creation, meeting friends through “Cow Clicker,” having fun within constraints that had been created specifically as an object lesson about the predatory hollowness of social gaming.
As a result, Bogost came to further appreciate a fundamental philosophical truth that he emphasizes in Play Anything: Objects and experiences, in and of themselves, are shot through with potential meaning even when they are designed to be meaningless. Ironoiacs, fearing meaninglessness in the world (or thinking themselves superior to the world), attempt to create meaning by mocking the original intent of a given experience, game, or other endeavor. Yet that layer, says Bogost, is thin and egotistical—it can only sustain itself through ironoiacs’ embrace of their own ironic distance from whatever they’re mocking. More importantly, in doing this, the ironist is only really playing with his or herself. When you actually play a game, like the earnest Cow Clickers did, you don’t mock the rules—that’s what a spoilsport does. Nor, in most cases, do you invent your own rules—that’s the job of the game designer. To play a game properly is to recognize and respect the game’s constraints, and the result is fun.
I said earlier that defamiliarizing the world happens in the act of creating playgrounds. But create is a deceptive verb that suggests you are at the center of the act. In successful play, you simply discover or acknowledge the playground that’s already there. The fun that results, cautions Bogost, won’t necessarily make you happy. Fun and funny sound the same, but fun can happen without jokes or laughter. As anyone who has had fun playing a serious game of soccer or chess can tell you, fun isn’t the opposite of sadness or seriousness. Fun is instead the opposite of boredom, and play is attitude that produces it.
When I began writing this review, I was trying to be playful according to my old preconceptions of play. But when I really listened to Bogost, I remembered that to play, we must “pursue a greater respect for the things, people, and situations around us.” Part of the reason I ignored lines like that one is that I, too, am afflicted by ironoia. Ironoaics are constitutionally allergic to self-help—it’s too earnest for them. My guess is that Bogost knows his target audience is filled with people like me, and he does his best to conceal the self-help or deliver it obliquely. But honestly, one of the book’s great virtues is the self-help. Reading it helped me to realize I didn’t need to treat self-help ironically, that the reason I wrote an entire essay mocking self-help was, in part, born of my inability to respect and appreciate self-help for what it is. Since I couldn’t play it, I ironized it instead.
So. At the very least, I can tell you that a great way to have fun with the job of writing a book review—to play while writing it—is by pursuing it earnestly and seriously as a book review. A humble, highly constrained genre. You tell people about the book. You tell them whether you think it’s worth reading. (Yes.) And then, instead of allowing your ego to ruin everything by trying to make it cool, you move on in search of the next playground.