You have to admit that a book containing the following passage is worth more than a passing glance: “God help me for admitting it, but I enjoy circulating through the Atlanta Walmart more than I enjoy visits to the Atlanta High Museum of Art–my hometown mausoleum for culture rather than consumption.”
The book in question is Ian Bogost’s intriguing PLAY ANYTHING: THE PLEASURE OF LIMITS, THE USES OF BOREDOM, AND THE SECRET OF GAMES (2017). Bogost is best known for his work with video games, and as the author of books like HOW TO TALK ABOUT VIDEOGAMES, THE GEEK’S CHICHUHUA, PERSUASIVE GAMES, AND ALIEN PHENOMENOLOGY.
In his latest volume, Bogost revises our thinking (or mine, at least) about the definitions of terms like “play,” “games,” and “fun,” that we generally take for granted. Before I read this book I had always thought that “play” and “fun” were synonymous and that both defined activities that represent escapes from the structure and rigor of the everyday world of work, rules, and regulations. In other words, we play to escape work, and we have fun when we are released from rules and boundaries. According to Bogost, these “common sense” assumptions should be questioned.
The basic premise of Bogost’s book is very simple: “Play isn’t doing what we want, but doing what we can with the materials we find along the way. And fun isn’t the experience of pleasure, but the outcome of tinkering with a small part of the world in a surprising way.” So, play and fun don’t represent the elimination of boundaries, but the recognition that we need to learn how to be as creative as possible within the boundaries we have been given. Bogost calls these the “playgrounds” of life. Everything can be envisoned as a playground with boundaries and materials, which Bogost calls “content.” In this sense, life basically consists of play within the confines of playgrounds–and playgrounds can take the form of schools, hospitals, churches, restaurants, homes, and practically anything within which we live and work. And these playgrounds are not build just for us, so we have to find ways to use these well-defined playgrounds in the most creative way possible.
A good example is what we get out of watching sports. When you think about it, sports like football and basketball should be anything but fun, because in order to play (or watch) you have to be willing to work within a tightly restricted and constricted environment. We are not free, for example, to increase or decrease the number of players in these games, the dimensions of their playing fields, or the rules that govern them. So, where’s the fun in all that? It is, as Bogost says, what we do with what we are given. How to make something endlessly watchable or playable given all these constrictions is the key to defining play, fun, and creativity. In this sense we can “play anything,” as the book’s title implies. As Bogost points out, play “entails a paradox: it is an activity of freedom and pleasure and openness and possibility, but it arises from limiting freedoms rather than expanding them.” It is within these limits that play and fun are possible.
One of the most thought-provoking passages in Bogost’s book proposes several of the many ways we can describe a book and its uses. Here is a great example of how we are called upon to be creative with the things we given. A book “can be read as a tool to disseminate knowledge”, placed on a shelf for display of the owner’s “particular interests and aspirations,” serve as “a booster seat” at the banquet table, as a gift, acquisitioned for the public library, become a “makeshift fan or a provisional visor on a hot, bright summer afternoon.” And, last but not least, a book can be “rolled up and used as a deadly weapon against a fly or mosquito,” used a doorstop, a leveler for an unsteady table, compost for a landfill, or, perhaps most creatively, as food for a goat. In this case, we can’t alter the dimensions, weight, or number of pages of this particular book, but we can play with it in any number of configurations, showing very well how creativity is the art of making do with the limitations we are given.
Bogost’s ideas have given me new tools to think with and have inspired me to imagine the possibilities that exist in a world of limitations. A similar approach is taken by a book I have yet to read. The just-published-last-week book by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman, THE RUNAWAY SPECIES: HOW HUMAN CREATIVITY REMAKES THE WORLD, is the perfect companion to PLAY ANYTHING. As an advocate of creativity, curiosity, and connectedness in my own classes, I am intrigued by Brandt and Eagleman’s chapter on “The Creative School,” where they state that “Creativity is not a spectator sport. Exposure and performance are valuable, but it’s not enough to listen to Beethoven and act out Shakespeare. Students have to get on the playing field and do the bending, breaking and blending themselves.” In other words, the classroom should be the place where students–and teachers–learn how to be creative within the framework of limitations. And, as Bogost reminds us, they need to treat both the museum and Walmart as places where learning (and play and fun) can take place.
See you next week with another visit to the playground known as “Kelly’s Place.”