How to Use Fun to Find Meaning in Life

Ian Bogost's book "Play Anything" advises looking outside yourself to see the world as it really is.

Play Anything by Ian Bogost
Basic Books / Gregory Miller / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Ian Bogost is really into things. He’s been my colleague for the three years I’ve worked at The Atlantic, and in that time, there have been a lot of chats in our work Slack-room about video games and Soylent and Tab and typewriters and the new iPhone’s missing headphone jack. He also edits Object Lessons, a series that goes super in-depth on the history and meaning of things, like cardigans and meatballs.

So it’s not surprising to those who know him that his newest book, Play Anything, is mostly about stuff, all the stuff that makes up the world, from the duct tape at Walmart with the boys of One Direction printed on it to his lawnmower. (He talks about his lawnmower a lot.) By paying attention to this stuff instead of just dismissing it, we can find meaning, he says.

Rather than turning ever more and more inward, if we get out of our heads and pay attention to the abundance of stuff in the world, we learn things and make discoveries. According to Bogost, that’s what it means to play with things. (This applies to intangible things, too, like relationships or ideas.) In this way, play, he says, is a defense against irony and meaninglessness.

“This demand to make something wholly from nothing, by sheer force of will,” is eating away at us, he writes. Instead, he suggests that “you accept that meaning can come from outside of you rather than from within. Perhaps, even, that it must.

I spoke with Bogost about what fun and play mean for adults, and how taking the world as it is instead of struggling against it can provide some relief. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Julie Beck: I see now why you wanted me to be the one to interview you about this book, because you start from the premise that the universe is indifferent and life is an unending hellscape of disappointment and we have to find a way to get through it anyway! And that is 100 percent my thing.

Ian Bogost: [Laughs]

Beck: You really zero in on a big problem in our culture: [The belief that] you are supposed to be able to somehow generate everything you need to be happy and content from within yourself.

Bogost: It’s interesting because it’s a very secular worldview. It’s not that you’re looking to God, and it's also not that you're looking to some other source of outside meaning, and we have those sources—our families or our jobs. But the modern world is very wealthy, it's full of options. It’s not like “This is the land I was born on and I have to make the most of it, and these are the people who are near me, and so they will become my family.” We have so many choices that it's only always our fault if we’re malcontent.

Beck: The answer to every dissatisfaction always seems to be to just work more on yourself, or take better care of yourself. Practice gratitude, or exercise more, or take more baths. Just change how you feel. If you’re lonely, just figure out how to enjoy being alone more! If you can’t have the things you want, just don't want those things anymore!

Bogost: We’re so trained to think of life that way, that it circles around us as individuals. Our ideas of happiness, gratification, contentment, satisfaction, all demand that those feelings come from within us. If you flip that on its head and say “What if I took the world at face value?” and then ask “What can I do with what is given?” it’s an interesting trick to turn around the whole problem of how you feel.

Beck: The way you define “fun” and “play” in the book aren’t the ways that most people would define them off the top of their heads. Can you explain what you mean by them?

Bogost: I think the most important way to understand play is that it's this property that's in things. Like there’s play in a mechanism. For example, there’s some play in the steering column before it engages as you're turning the wheel.

Beck: Play as a noun rather than a verb?

Bogost: That's an interesting way of thinking about it. Play is this process of operating the world, of manipulating things. It's related to experimentation, and it's related to pleasure, but not defined by it. Normally we think of play as the opposite of work. Work is the thing you have to do, and then there's play, the thing you choose to do. But if you think of play as being in things, there are things that are playable, then it becomes the work of figuring out what a thing can do.

Beck: Quick sidebar: What do you think of the phrase "Work hard, play hard?"

Bogost: Any phrase that suggests play is this domain that’s the opposite of work, or the thing that you do when you're done working, should trouble us. Because it means that play is always relegated to the exhaust of life. It's the thing that you do after you do the important stuff, it's what you do on your own time. Play becomes a distraction, something you don't really need to do. It's not for serious people. They work hard, they don't play hard. Yes, you can say play hard, but that really means, keep working hard, right?

Beck: It usually means drink.

Bogost: Right, it means people get totally drunk and go do foolish things. I think this dichotomy or opposition between work and play, between leisure and serious stuff, is definitely a bad way of thinking about the useful insights that play provides. You can experience play at work, not because you’re messing around or wasting time or something, but because you’re looking really deeply and seriously at things and asking what is possible, what can be done with them, what new ideas might emerge?

Beck: Then can you define fun?

Bogost: The problem with fun is we really don’t know what fun means at all. If you stop someone who's talking about something being fun, and say “Well what do you mean?” it’s almost impossible to answer. Generally speaking, when people use the word fun, it's like a placeholder. You know, “How was your evening?” “Oh it was fun.”

For me, what fun means is finding novelty in the suffocating familiarity of ordinary life. Every now and then if you try, you can discover something new. When we use this word fun, it sort of bangs up the ordinary and the extraordinary altogether. Fun has to do with habitual activities but then also terrifically novel or unusual ones. It works as a sort of strange milkshake of those concepts. When we think about play and games and the situations in which having fun is seen as an outcome, they often have to do with repetition. You're returning to something again, and even despite that similarity, you squeeze something new out of it.

Beck: So can it be both novel and horrible? Can a fresh horror be fun?

Bogost: Fun doesn’t have anything to do with pleasure, necessarily. I think this will be terrifically unintuitive for people. Because we're used to thinking of fun as a sort of synonym for light pleasure.  A fun movie is something that is pleasurable without being demanding, you don't have to think too hard.

But if you think about the contexts in which we talk about things being fun, often there’s a certain kind of misery or effort that's involved with it. The difficulty of travel, getting all your bags packed and your work done and navigating the airports and all that. That sort of struggle. With sports and games, you have fun despite working very hard, even despite failing repeatedly. Even the fun of a night out, you have to get somewhere and do all the conversational, social work of being out. There's effort involved. But then when you're finished, you can conclude, “Actually there was something gratifying about the hardship that I just encountered.” That discovery of novelty is where the molten core of fun is.

There's a whole bunch of stuff about mowing the lawn in the book. It’s an example I love because it’s the kind of thing that no one would intuitively call a fun experience, but then when you do it you discover something you haven’t seen before. Maybe this way of using my equipment will produce better results, or when the weather's like this I have to respond in that way. It's almost like, the more you’re drowning in familiarity, the better the fun is. It requires less novelty to produce even more gratification. And it's something that didn't come from you. It was about the other thing—the thing you were experiencing, or the people you were with, or the mechanism you were operating, or whatever it might be. It wasn’t you who had to come up with that meaning. It was given to you by the world. You allow yourself to discover the things that are already there when you play.

Beck: A lot of times you do see articles where people are complaining that adults don’t play anymore. And it’s weird because often those arguments are like, “Remember when you used to run around your backyard and pretend to be a princess or a cowboy? Isn’t it so awful that you don't do that anymore, and you’ve lost that creativity and freedom?” But I don't want to run around and pretend to be a princess. I'm not sad that I don't do that anymore. So what does play mean for adults? I mean, some adults LARP. But other than LARPing, how do we play?

Bogost: I think what you’re honing in on is that you don't want to be told, “Hey, do whatever you want.” That's what we think of when we think of play. It’s the thing where you get to do whatever you come up with in your own mind, all bets are off, there's no boundaries. But even when we tell kids to go play, what do the kids do? They come up with a set of constraints and structures. “Oh, we’re gonna build a fort out of clothes, and now that we're in the fort we're going to pretend that we're prisoners,” or whatever. The whole idea of play is in finding, acknowledging, and then working with the natural constraints and limitations that you find in the world.

I think the most important thing to realize about play is that it's this thing that's in stuff, it’s not in you. Play isn't you being clever, or finding a trick, or finding a way of covering over your own misery, or persuading someone to do what you want. It's the process of working with the materials that you find and discovering what's possible with them.

Beck: So you do stuff and then you sit back and see what happens.

Bogost: What happens and then what do you learn? Once you turn that corner it’s not even necessary to say “I’m playing,” the verb isn’t important. The playful perspective is not meant to turn your life into a game or a jungle gym. It’s rather that the activity is looking outside of yourself.

Beck: You mention this in the book, how people talk about making things fun, or gamifying things, as a way to make shitty tasks less shitty. So it’s just in service of doing more work.

Bogost: I definitely think that's one of the ways people have misused these notions of play and fun. We think we want enjoyment, and that enjoyment is incompatible with work, and somehow we have to import the pleasure into these miserable experiences. That takes for granted that there’s not fun or play to be found in the work itself. We have to always spread sugar on top of it in order that we can tolerate swallowing the things we’re supposed to do, which is an incredibly depressing way of thinking about living your life. Not just that your work or your home life would be so miserable that you have to slather sugar on it, but then the sugar is all you’re tasting. If that's the only way that I'm finding meaning, then we have this sort of mental diabetes that we're descending into.

Beck: I listen to podcasts while I clean, or I watch Netflix while I'm folding my laundry. Am I doing it wrong?

Bogost: Well, maybe, maybe not. Everyone is different. But I think that is a good example of an opportunity to stop and say, “What would it be like if I took this thing for what it is rather than trying to slather that Mary Poppins sugar on top of it?” It’s not so much that there's some sort of Protestant work ethic that dictates that you must not watch Netflix while folding your laundry, but rather that the experience of folding laundry also has its own pleasure. That might just be like “Oh I know the size and shape of these garments and I can get better at folding them into neat piles.” Or the individual packing of the dishes into the dishwasher such that they are efficiently inserted but yet not so full that they don’t clean properly. These are dumb things. They're silly things. We think they couldn’t possibly be as interesting as listening to that interview on the podcast, or watching Netflix. Until you realize that actually a lot of the supposedly serious and meaningful and worthwhile content on the podcast or on the television is no more or less meaningful than the clothes in the laundry basket or the dishes in the sink. It's more a matter of the attention you’re willing to bring to them, where you’re willing to allow meaning and pleasure and the light to escape.

It’s not even that finding laundry pleasurable or delightful should be our goal rather than finding television delightful. It's that both laundry and television can be delightful. And once you get yourself on that path where you're willing to find something delightful in laundry and in dishwashers, it means that you train yourself to be able to find it almost anywhere in almost anything. And wouldn't we all rather have the possibility of finding pleasure and delight in literally anything we might encounter? Instead of assuming that actually there are only these three things where pleasure and delight are possible. Like oh, it’s television and socialization and work, and then everything else is  the smoke I have to somehow choke my way through in order to get to the good parts.

Beck: Nothing is more fun than television!

Bogost: I kind of agree.

Beck: I get it in terms of like objects, but a lot of people’s sadness comes from more ephemeral things. They want to make more friends, or they’re dating and it sucks. How do you “play” with these intangible things?

Bogost: It feels gross to talk about people with the same kinds of language that we talk about things with, but you and me and everyone, there are things about us that make us who we are, personality traits, or capacities that we have, or knowledge we possess or that we don’t possess, habits we have that are good or bad. Normally if you're dating, you’re looking for compatibility, and then the moment that there's incompatibility, you're like, “Well, swipe left on that, let’s just keep looking.” In some ways I think the same lessons apply to people that apply to objects. It’s just much easier to see that lesson in things because they're these fixed intangible lumps of stuff. People are not. They can change. My lawnmower can’t change in the way that my son can or that I can. But the idea of thinking of our relationships with people as also being structured by limitations and constraints can be useful.

I'll just give you one example. This is going to sound rudimentary. My wife, there's certain kinds of housework that she just doesn’t see as necessary to do in the way that I do. Things like the state of our closet or where things are in the kitchen. I have this almost unhealthily obsessive desire to have things in their place and she just totally doesn’t. And this is a potential point of conflict, of course. But there are also many things she can’t stand about me, and there are certain capacities that she has that are different than mine. The trick is to find compatibilities, and it's just much easier for me to do the chores that I can find tolerable, that bring me bizarre pleasure. Like the dishwasher, or whatever it is.

It’s allowing those properties of individuals to structure your relationship with them. This produces a greater depth of understanding and empathy. There are personality traits, or baggage from their backgrounds, goals that they have and the first thing I need to do is understand and then acknowledge and then accept those properties. That's kind of the baseline requirement to have a productive relationship.

I think fundamentally this honesty, this willingness to be frank and plain about the way that the world is, is a good first step. But that doesn’t mean that you get what you want. Forcing your spouse to stop doing that bad habit that drives you crazy, or making your kid be better at math or at art or at swimming, or making your parents or your in-laws not be annoying in the way that they're annoying, these are sometimes doomed goals. The question becomes not how can I change someone, or how can I change myself? But what about me doesn't change? What is true about someone else's nature? How can I work within those limits, how can I respect them, how can I understand them? Which doesn’t mean being happy about it. Then I'm not worried so much about “maybe this time will be different.” No, it won't be.

Beck: It never will be. There's this quote from this Jesse Ball book, and I definitely quoted it when I interviewed Heather Havrilesky, so sorry for double dipping, but I seriously think about it all the time. It says:

I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is.

I think about this in terms of relationships, yes, but also in terms of trying to write a story: You try to find what exists and you try to see what it is. Even though I think about that all the time, I’m really bad at doing it.

Bogost: It’s hard because we have been trained to think we have enormous power over the world. Whatever you dream, you can do. Anything can be bent to your will. But actually isn't it much more interesting to imagine that you’re quite small? Not in a powerless way, but there’s so much that is not you. There's just an enormous vast universe of possible intrigue out there and why not pay attention to it? Because then you're not burdened with trying to find that meaning in yourself all the time.

Part of the reason is that the universe is not particularly concerned with you. We don’t like to think of ourselves as subject to the forces of the world, we like to think of ourselves as exerting that force. I think a lot of the misery that people experience comes from that sensation of boundlessness, of infinite possibility. We’re stuck in these situations with other people and our stuff and our jobs, and thinking that we can extract ourselves from those seems doomed to me. Instead, how can we live within those systems of constraints? We don’t have to enjoy them, exactly, but at least acknowledge that those boundaries are real and that they structure our response to the world. And then once you do that, you allow yourself to say “I did my best given the circumstances.” It releases you from the burden of thinking of all the infinity of things that you could have done or all the ways the world could be different.

Beck: The thing I appreciate about this idea is that it's sort of in the middle of two weird tendencies that humans have. One is what we've been talking about this whole time, which is you just struggle so hard to try to make things happen the way you want them to and obviously that's never going to work. But then the other side of that, and this tends to be sometimes a more religious thing, is, “Oh you should just accept what is handed to you or just accept that that is the plan of the universe.” And you’re sort of saying, you can do what you can with what you have, but you're not going to change the whole world with it.

Bogost: Yeah, there's some kind of happy medium here. There’s some sort of meeting point, and to me that meeting point is much closer to the world than it is to you. The actual effort that you can exert upon the universe is fairly limited. So it’s helpful to be prepared to celebrate the tiny things that you can do, where you meet the world and you negotiate an outcome that’s quite tiny. But you can still make it feel remarkable. It’s a lot like the stupid example of lawnmowing, because no one wakes up and says, “Yay I get to mow the lawn!” But if I can find meaning there, then there’s nowhere I can’t find meaning.

It’s not that we’re out of control. It’s not fatalistic. It’s not something where the thing that I am meant to do will be given to me. God will not speak to me and tell me to mow my lawn today. But if you start the day not really expecting substantial change, but anticipating some small new revelation or some small alteration, then over time you’re able to find them in more places. To me, being able to find gratification in more venues, rather than greater gratification in a few, seems like a much more sane way of living.

We know exactly where the path to despair and insanity lies. It's in that sense that life is meaningless, there's nothing about today that's worth doing because it's just like yesterday and it's going to be just like tomorrow. But I think for everyone, nowadays in particular, it becomes harder and harder to deal with that day-to-day, and so looking for meaning in the ordinary seems like the most urgent thing that we can do.