back to books

Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games

Ian Bogost

Personal Thoughts

Summary Notes

What does it mean to play?

  • What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris—as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not?
  • That’s what it means to play. To take something—anything—on its own terms, to treat it as if its existence were reasonable.
  • Play, generalized, is the operation of structures constrained by limitations.
  • Play is not an alternative to work, nor a salve for misery.
  • Play is a way of operating a constrained system in a gratifying way.
  • Play cultivates humility, for it requires us to treat things as they are rather than as we wish them to be.

“A Spoonful of Sugar”

  • Nothing has been spared the cursed attempt to “make it fun”; everything whatsoever hopes to transform itself into a delightful little morsel of sugar in your mouth.
  • Mary Poppins. In one of the most memorable quips from the Disney film, the Victorian nanny opines on the ways “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
  • Listen to the song again closely. She only offers two examples of her theory: a robin that sings a song while fashioning a nest, and a honeybee that enjoys a sip of nectar while buzzing from bud to bud.
  • Still, the song does a good job summarizing our current attitudes toward fun: it makes some supposedly miserable thing enjoyable. Make it something for me, something that I find palatable.
  • “A Spoonful of Sugar” offers considerably less advice about enjoyment than it appears to do. Essentially, it recommends covering over drudgery—just as the robin’s song hides the boredom of nest-building, so Poppins’s song hides the boredom of cleanup.
  • In ev’ry job that must be done There is an element of fun You find the fun, and snap! The job’s a game - Mary Poppins

Fun is the Opposite of Happiness 

  • For two centuries now, optimism and happiness have triumphed in replacing the lost guidance of spiritualism.
  • It’s a far cry from Marie Kondo’s idea that we ought to surround ourselves with objects that spark joy.
  • But it’s no surprise that joy would sell more books (and destroy more apparently joyless socks, skirts, books, and other trifles) than would more ambiguous sensations.
  • “Happiness,” the company’s shill reads, “is a combination of how satisfied you are with your life + how good you feel on a day-to-day basis.”
  • Happiness science or positive psychology mostly get us back to the same place we started, and the same place we’ve been with happiness since utilitarianism: appeals to our own self-interested outcomes.

Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games

Ian Bogost

Some other book notes you might like

Back to notes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.