Much of our time is spent on menial tasks: sitting in traffic, grocery shopping, washing dishes, etc. But what if we could find more fun in those activities, without seeking distraction?
That’s what Ian Bogost suggests we do in his latest book “Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games.”
Bogost is a philosopher and game designer and is most famous for Cow Clicker, a parody of Facebook games that took on a life of its own.
His inspiration for the book came from a visit to the mall with his daughter, when she was about four years old.
“We were running this errand in the mall and I was just trying to get done and get out,” he said.
In the crowded mall, he was getting annoyed and trying to pull his daughter along with him, when he looked down and realized that she was playing a type of game.
“She had her head pointed straight down, looking at her feet, and she was trying to time her steps so that her feet would fall within the square ceramic tiles that would line the mall floor,” he said.
It’s not unlike a game kids have been playing for decades, a variation of “don’t step on the crack.”
“She recognized that, yes, this was not an experience she had chosen, but found something in it that made it interesting… that made it different from what it was,” he said.
What Bogost took from this experience was the idea that we can mold our experiences into something enjoyable, even when they’re not necessarily meant to be enjoyed.
“There’s a famous argument by a psychologist named Barry Schwartz that he calls the paradox of choice — that you go to the market to get shampoo or mustard or something, and there’s all these different flavors of mustard and how do you choose? It’s an impossible choice. And as a result of all of this surplus when you choose poorly you’re disappointed with the mustard that you bought. It’s your fault because you could have made a different choice,” he said.
“And so when we surround ourselves with conditions — this is the schedule that’s on my calendar; these are the health conditions under which I have to learn to live; these are the proclivities of my family; these are the physical properties of my home or my neighborhood — then the question becomes, well, what what can I do with them?”
Now, this is not to say that every negative situation should be turned to a positive. And there doesn’t need to be a technological solution for every problem. But there are advantages to boredom, Bogost argues.
“The experience of play is that of understanding that there are a set of conditions. Either you work within those conditions or you find a new set of conditions,” Bogost said.
“So if you have a boring job it might just be wrong for you. Maybe it’s under utilizing your talents or your expectations. Maybe you’ve learned all there is to learn in that job and you’re ready to move on. But maybe you haven’t yet given it a chance or found a way to get better at that job. Which isn’t to say that we should all just be content in the conditions that we currently find ourselves within, but that we should ask those questions. What more is there to learn? Maybe I need to go talk to my boss. Maybe I need to find a different role in this environment. Maybe I need to to pursue the work that I’m doing in a different way in order to see if I can get better at it. All of those acts, all of those actions, those courses of remedy require first understanding, well, what is this feeling of boredom or of disappointment that I’m first facing?”
“Boredom to me is a good signal. It’s a good sign that you are on the right track, actually. It’s not that when you feel bored you should give up what you’re doing and move on to the next thing. But it’s a sign that you have done many things already with whatever it is you’re working with. You’ve found the obvious ways of using them and now you’re ready to go even deeper. It’s like a challenge: when you feel bored you realize, OK, I’ve found the tentative bottom of this experience and now is there something more there that I haven’t seen? And then maybe you perk up and look in greater detail.”
This might seem like an overly optimistic perspective. But Bogost claims that it’s also a way to inject meaning into what might otherwise seem like meaningless activities.
“When you think about it, all of the stuff that we do, all the chaff in our lives — emptying the dishwasher and driving to work and figuring out how to organize the kids schedules — if that’s what we spent most of our time doing, we don’t spend most of our time doing all the dramatic, supposedly meaningful, punctuating affairs of life that go in the family album… if we can’t make that routine not just tolerable but delightful, maybe even joyous, then how do we expect to get by”?