Ian Bogost is a game designer, a philosopher of technology and pop culture and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He still makes games for the 1977 Atari Video Computer System (Atari 2600) and one of them is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. He’ll discuss his new book “Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games” (Basic Books) at the Decatur Book Festival on Sept. 4, 1:15 p.m. at the Marriott Conference Center, Room C.
Why did you write this book at this time?
There are a number of trends for which the book may offer remedy. For example, gamification, which is the idea that your life would be better if every aspect of it had points and badges and the like. Happiness science and mindfulness, which offer some salve but put the individual too much at the center of contentment. The culture of technology, where an enormous surplus of ideas and activities and people and content are thrust at us all the time via our smartphones. Austerity, uncertainty and the feeling that anything can turn on us at any time. That fear prevents us from truly living. In the face of all these challenges, I felt like I had some remedies from unlikely and underexplored territory—play and game design, philosophy, arts and design.
What do you hope the reader will learn?
The book offers a different way to think about living in the world – through play, through limitation, through deliberateness, through humility. And through that practice, the reader can find gratification in anything – literally anything – they might encounter by finding new pleasures in our arbitrary and sometimes absurd reality.
The next time you hear someone calling an evening or an activity “fun,” stop yourself and ask what they are really trying to say. Maybe that it was enjoyable or gratifying—but that’s not quite right either. The weird thing about fun is that it seems to apply to miserable situations as much as pleasurable ones. You can get drenched in the rain on the way home and it can be “fun.” You can toil to the edge of physical exertion in a soccer match and it can be “fun.” You can lose your record, your pride, or even your money in a wager and it can still be “fun.” Fun isn’t really a kind of pleasure, at all. Instead, it’s the sensation we get from working something deliberately. From really digging deep in it. From finding something new in something familiar.
Speaking of play, talk about the Pokémon Go craze.
The first thing to understand about Pokémon Go is that nobody would be playing it if it weren’t Pokémon. If it were Tolstoy Go or even Pride and Prejudice Go, nobody would play that. The force and power of a very popular branded entertainment property that has two decades of history can make new things happen. In fact, there were many pervasive games and augmented reality games that preceded Pokémon Go. But they never took off. In press coverage of Pokémon Go, you’ll see much wringing of hands on all sides. Some lament that kids and adults are staring down at their phones catching pretend monsters. Others celebrate a multi-generational way to explore cities anew. Still others remark the curious meandering that Pokémon Go demands is a heck of a lot easier to do if you’re white than if you’re black. Guess what: everyone’s right. That’s part of the magic of play—to do it, you need to create a playground. You can do that literally, like kids drawing a marble circle on the pavement, or you can do it conceptually, like Pokémon does when it invites two decades of its players to read the maps of their communities in a different way. Play isn’t a mindless escape from boring reality. Instead, play is what happens when we accept limitations, narrow our focus, and—consequently—have fun. Which is also how to live a good life.
Janet Metzger narrates audiobooks and teaches courtroom persuasion at Emory School of Law.