Book Review: Play Anything by Ian Bogost
I recently read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Here is my review. While not generally the type of book where spoilers should be an issue, you might not want my summaries of his ideas or my (somewhat negative) take to shade your impressions if you plan on reading it yourself.
What are the big ideas?
Bogost introduces the term “playground” which he asserts is a better term for the same concept as the “magic circle” of a game. The idea is that a playground creates a boundary around the space (both physical and conceptual) in which play happens. It’s a virtual membrane that separates what’s part of play from the rest of the universe.
He makes the case that “fun” isn’t a synonym for “pleasure”; that fun isn’t “the effect of enjoyment released by a system” but is the experience of operating a system, especially operating it in a novel way.
He believes that humanity is beset by the malady “ironoia” (irony + the suffix of paranoia), an estrangement from things caused by fear of things. He asserts that the commonly suggested antidotes to irony, sincerity or earnestness, are themselves merely manifestations of ironoia.
Since his conception of fun involves interacting with things on their own terms he thinks you can have fun by interacting with almost anything, and this is the way you engage in worldfulness, which he says is better than many alternative approaches to life because it doesn’t selfishly recast everything in the universe in terms of what it can or can’t do for you emotionally the way that irony, asceticism, or mindfulness do. This worldfulness is the true opposition to ironoia.
For a book where selfishness or egocentrism are the cardinal sins of other schools of thought (like Buddhism, for example, which Bogost sees as people selfishly try to avoid suffering by reducing their sense of attachment) the writing in this book came across to me as remarkably self-involved. An anecdote about walking in a mall with his daughter becomes a parable about the nature of play, his misadventures in lawn care demonstrate how profoundly he has recast interactions with things in terms of play, his trip to WalMart… I’m not entirely sure what he wanted us to take away from his WalMart experience, but what I took away is how culturally disconnected he is from people who shop at WalMart. I found some of the writing to be nearly laugh-out-loud funny in terms of how insular it seemed, e.g.:
Now I know what you’re thinking: Does he talk about David Foster Wallace? Because David Foster Wallace must be contended with. Actually you’re probably not thinking that, but I get the impression that Ian Bogost thinks you are, and he has no plans to disappoint you. A lot of the quirks of the writing, like constantly circling back to David Foster Wallace, struck me as weirdly projecting his own hangups onto the world.
And being so inside his own head and disconnected from what other people believe is a problem, because one of his projects is busting what he perceives as public misconceptions. Some of that may be deserved, such as the sense that “fun” is shallow, carefree, and disengaged (to bust that simply take a look at a strategy gamer who is fully employing their mind in a very organized and purposeful way). But some of it is bewildering, since it’s not clear to me that he has an accurate sense of what people actually believe. His focus on “things” seemed odd to me for most of the book since components of many games are purely conceptual, e.g. the rules of the game, and have no physical embodiment or material properties. Near the end he finally explains why he’s focusing on physical things so much:
When we talk about “things,” we most often mean them as concepts or abstractions in our minds, rather than as, well, things – toasters or wind or combine harvesters. As with happiness, things become things of ours. “How are things?” you ask a friend. “I dunno,” she replies, “things are weird,” or “A strange thing happened to me on the way home,” or “The thing I like most about you is that you’re so thoughtful to ask!”
He thinks that when most people hear the word “things” they’ll think of mental abstractions rather than physical objects? On what planet? I try to be humble about projecting what I think as what “everybody” thinks since that’s a common human failing, but I’d be amazed if Bogost wasn’t the one who was out of step there.
Does it deliver on substance?
I’m not sure. There are some things the book says that seem right to me and which would probably seem novel to many, but I found myself grading Bogost’s claims as “close, but not quite” relative to some of the things I’ve been thinking myself, and I wasn’t motivated to shift my views toward anything Bogost said. Some of his claims seem insufficient enough to strike me as wrong. For example, he says “Fun comes from the attention and care you bring to something, even stupid, seemingly boring activities”. As I snarkily observed on social media, wouldn’t that hypothesis predict that filling out tax forms is fun? He also vaguely observes that embracing constraints has something to do with fun, but as any game designer should be aware not just any constraints will do, some work better than others at being fun, and it’s not a simplistic “more = better” relationship. So I think he’s getting in the right ballpark with regard to fun and play, but since he doesn’t engage with what seem to me to be obvious follow-up questions it seemed inadequate to me.
He also has a larger cultural project of combating “ironoia”. I wasn’t persuaded that he had either adequately diagnosed a problem or offered a good solution. First, his contention that irony, especially internet irony culture, is motivated by a fear of things struck me as extremely dubious. It seems to me that irony is often more about social positioning – it supplies you with an all-purpose “smart seeming” take that doesn’t put you at risk of having the wrong taste or opinion because your true position (if you have one) is obscured. That it distances you from actually engaging with things is a side-effect, not the goal. And the sense that other other people are motivated by fear can so easily be a self-serving attempt to make the speaker seem brave by comparison that we ought to be skeptical of claims of that sort, and Bogost doesn’t make an especially strong case to overcome that skepticism. Since I found his foundation so shaky I had a difficult time following many of his arguments that built on it, most of them stuck me as rhetorical rather than substantive.
Second, while he lands some good shots (it is a bit egocentric to evaluate your relationship to everything through the lens of how it makes you feel) they felt haphazard to me, like they were more about posturing than making a comprehensive case for his worldview or against the ones he criticizes. Maybe this points out a flaw in his worldview – if he’s just paying with public philosophy by seeing how the joints move when he pushes on things then there’s no guarantee that he makes the machine move in a way accomplishes anything except witnessing the machine move.
I can’t recommend this book. Perhaps others would get more out of the philosophizing than I did, or be less turned off by writing that’s emanating from within a cultural bubble, but it seems to me that everything worthwhile about this book could be gotten more effectively somewhere else. Maybe “playground” is a better term than “magic circle”? But if it is it’s not so obviously better that the switching costs seem warranted. And the idea that the world should be treated as something to be engaged with rather than escaped or endured seems like a worthwhile one, but I’d rather see a more robust and compelling case made for it.
This book came to my attention via a post by Paul Czege who seems to have a more positive take than I do:
Here are some posts the chronicle some more “real time” reactions I had as I was reading: