Ignore Mary Poppins. Find Fun in the Medicine.

17:28 minutes


“Gamification” is a popular buzz word that describes the process of making boring or difficult things fun. Need to train for that marathon? Download an app and turn your workout into a zombie chase. Have a ton of chores? Use your smartphone to turn your to-do list into an adventure quest. Gamification apps suggest you can have the best of both worlds: You can play games and be productive. In other words, they promise to make life more fun.

So it will come as a surprise that popular game developer Ian Bogost is staunchly against gamification. Bogost argues that these apps employ a trope used by “that renowned philosopher of fun,” Mary Poppins: They add a little sugar to something that is otherwise distasteful, like sitting in traffic or cleaning house. Instead Bogost suggests we approach these tasks for what they are, study them, and discover the mechanism by which we can “play” with them, like an instrument. Making your morning coffee doesn’t have to be a slog if you experiment with different roasts, experiment with the ratio of water to coffee grounds, and learn what makes a particular brew bitter or sweet.

So what can we do to find more time to play in ordinary life? Bogost joins Ira to discuss the secret of games and what it really means for something to be “fun.”

Segment Guests

Ian Bogost

Ian Bogost is an American philosopher and video game designer. His new book is called “Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, The Uses of Boredom, and the Secrets of Games.” He’s based in Atlanta, GA.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” Hi. I’m Ira Flatow.

One of the mundane jobs I had in college was working at the engineering school library. And what I mostly did was to Xerox articles for people. I would wrestle these big, heavy books, place them face down on the glass of the Xerox machine. It was really kind of boring, day after day, hour after hour.

So I made it into a game, a sort of a challenge. If I could copy one page, flip the page, flip the book over, copy the second, without the machine turning off, I would win.

I didn’t realize what I was doing at that time, which was gamifying my chore, until I came across a book written by my next guest. He is a game developer.

He developed a very popular competitor to “Farmville.” Perhaps you’ve played it. It’s called “Cow Clicker.” You would think that being a gamer that he’d be into the idea of gamifying your life, but no. He says you don’t need to transform things like chores and exercise into games to make them fun. The fun is trapped inside those tasks.

And he’s here to tell us how we can learn to play anything, which just so happens to be the name of his new book.

Ian Bogost is a professor of media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a contributing editor at “The Atlantic.” His new book is “Play Anything, the Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games.”

Ian, welcome to “Science Friday.”

IAN BOGOST: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Did I make a game out of that, or did I not? What was I doing there?

IAN BOGOST: You were playing the copier. That’s what I would say. You were playing the experience of copying.


IAN BOGOST: And it’s absolutely fine to call it a game too if you’d like to.

IRA FLATOW: And so why do you not like to make things into games? Why do you think that we should not be doing that?

IAN BOGOST: Well, part of the problem is this word or this trend, gamification, which you just mentioned, which suggests that games are this sort of secret world where people want to do things, and they pursue them maybe obsessively, and if we could only trap that obsession and apply it to ordinary life, to sort of spread it atop ordinary life, then we would enjoy those other experiences more.

But the problem with that is that the real reason that games are interesting, that they’re appealing to us, isn’t for those incidental features like how many points I get. I mean, nobody plays Tetris for the points. They do it for the experience of manipulating four squares that are stuck together as they fall.

So when we think of games as these outcomes, then we tend not to see them as arbitrary experiences that force us to set aside the more ordinary or the obvious uses of things. And it’s really engaging with those actual uses of things, what something really is, that’s the playful experience. Whereas the gaming experience often tends to be kind of sugar coating of something else with the sweetener of games.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because you use Mary Poppins as being someone who was a bad example of, what, a spoonful of sugar?

IAN BOGOST: Right. You take something, and instead of engaging it for what it is, then you spread sugar atop it, metaphorically, in order to make it taste better. But then once that sugar is gone, which happens very quickly, then the real true reality of whatever the task is that you’re doing, that just comes right back, and you’re still faced with exactly the same problem you faced before.

IRA FLATOW: So is the idea then to tackle the problem like just head on, and to try to out think it or plan it, instead of saying I’m going to make a game out of it? And try to enjoy it for what it is?

IAN BOGOST: A lot of this is a process of getting out of our heads, of ceasing to be so obsessed with our feelings, and what we desire, what we think we desire, and finding gratification for ourselves as the kind of primary goal or the primary purpose that we set ourselves to. And instead, when we’re faced with a task, or a problem, or a thing, or a person, whatever it is, it could be your job, it could be your commute, it could be a difficult challenge like parenting, it could be an ordinary experience like emptying the dishwasher, to focus on that thing. What are its properties? What are its limitations and constraints? What can you do with it? How does it work?

And how can you engage with those questions in order to produce some kind of more gratified and deeper experience of that thing? And that’s where fun comes from as well, from that kind of pursuit of depth, digging into something for what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because great challenges– Let me just think of, for example, a crossword puzzle, a very hard crossword puzzle. It’s fun because it’s challenging. You know, when you do the Monday “Times” puzzle, it’s too easy. You do it in 10 minutes. When you get the Saturday one, you’re stuck, because it’s so difficult. But you enjoy the challenge of that.

IAN BOGOST: We really want things to resist us. And we have the most fun when they resist us.

So if you think of an activity, an ordinary one like driving a car, why is it more fun to drive a manual transmission vehicle? It’s because you have to manipulate the device more. It’s resisting you, or learning knitting, or something like that. The yarn and the needles, they resist you immediately. They’re not telling you what to do. And you have to learn how to manipulate them.

And then over time they kind of release these secrets. Oh, you can make a you sweater. You can make a scarf. You can make some socks by understanding these simple steps.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number, if you’d like to call in and talk about this new book. Ian Bogost, author of “Play Anything, the Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games.” You can also tweet us @SciFri.

So what is the limits and the uses of boredom? I mean, we all have to do tedious things that we hate to do. For example, mowing the lawn. You talked about how you take mowing the lawn and turn it into something else.

IAN BOGOST: Well, boredom is like a signal flare. When you feel boredom it says, there’s something here, there’s something going on. You’re about to find the real depth of the thing that you’re engaged with, because you’ve stopped finding all the obvious things.

That’s what you experienced with the photocopier. OK, I understand like the rote task. Now, where does it end? How efficiently can I produce these photocopies?

And I do talk in the book quite a bit about lawn care, which has become an obsession of mine, after not caring about it at all. You know, it’s like this task, you’ve got to do that, got to go mow the lawn.


IAN BOGOST: But once you start working with it, instead of seeing it as if only I could get through this boring thing in order that I can get on to the real stuff I really want to do, then I’d be content, we tend to realize, well, then the next thing, no, that’s not quite satisfying either. And we can do that forever.

So instead, that moment of boredom or feeling frustration, that’s a moment that gives you pause. And you can say, OK, what I really need to do is kind of dig in, learn more, and figure out how I can manipulate this object or this situation in order to get more gratification out of it.

And in my case that meant learning all sorts of things about how types of grass work. And I was just working this morning on one of my lawns, trying to level it out nice and even so we can put down some new sod this season. I’m very excited about this.

And, you know, being out there with the ground, with the dirt, it’s not that it’s exciting because it’s nature instead of the computer. It’s because I’m very deliberately manipulating the material world, and I understand more about that material world as I’m manipulating it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because as Richard Feynman used to say, I see the beauty in the things. Not just on the outside, but in the inside.

IAN BOGOST: Yeah. Getting deeper into something. Yeah. Exactly. Seeing more of its properties, and kind of how it works, and what it does, rather than what it does for you.


Well, speaking of what it does for you and getting into the right frame of mind, I find that there is a little bit of mindfulness in what you’re talking about, being happy to be where you are doing what you’re doing, and taking pleasure in that.

IAN BOGOST: Right. And I think that’s right. I think where mindfulness stops being useful is when it returns all of that sensation or that attitude of attention back to the self.

And sometimes with mindfulness advocacy what we see is, I need to be true to myself. I want to find my emotions and my center. And it implies that the world is really here for me, for me to derive pleasure from, and I need to stop and just understand what I would like to accomplish, and then I can get to the work of accomplishing it.

But, in fact, we’re living in a time where there’s just so much around us, so much information, so many things, that that is bound to fail.

So the initial impetus of mindfulness, of stopping and looking more carefully, I think that’s very useful. And then beyond that, I would suggest this term worldfullness is kind of the flipside of mindfulness. If we extend that attention back out to the world, what can I do with these things that I’m faced with, whether or not I sort of chose them, whether or not they represent my goals and my desires or compatibility with my inner sensations? That’s the next stage.

IRA FLATOW: And whether you’re going to actually see any results from what you’re doing.

I know when you’re on your lawn you must have a picture in your mind of how much better it’s going to be when you’re done with it.

IAN BOGOST: And part of the exercise of working with something is working with it over time, of learning something new, of understanding that the universe operates at a temporal scale that’s far longer than what the human mind does. And that all these things that we’re faced with, my lawn isn’t really concerned with me, even though I put it there.

And so when I work with it, I have to get outside my own head and ask, well, OK, how does a lawn work? And by doing that I am able to sort of short circuit this desire to get immediate results and immediate gratification.

Of course, there’s so many ways to get immediate gratification these days that it’s become difficult to exercise that muscle.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting.

Our number 844-724-8255.

Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Wyoming, Toby in Wyoming. Hi, welcome to “Science Friday.”

TOBY: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’m wondering if your guest has considered what he’s been looking into in terms of addiction?

I am a recovering alcoholic and I have found that it wasn’t until I learned to be present in the moment with whatever I’m doing that I started to be able to grasp a lot of the principles of sobriety and recovery.

And I think I tell a lot of newcomers to AA that, for me, the simplest solution is learning to be as present as I possibly can in the moment of whatever I’m doing. So I would just look forward to his comments. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you Toby. Ian?

IAN BOGOST: I think Toby makes a great point, which is that presence implies a kind of honesty, and a kind of earnestness. Not just in yourself, that you’re sort of saying what you mean, but that you’re facing the world as it really is.

And facing something difficult like an addiction, I mean this is a major thing to overcome. It requires that kind of honesty, and also a humility, that there’s something that’s kind of inside of you as an addict that has to be overcome. But it’s not fully inside of you. It’s also encircling other things in the world, whatever substance or experience the addiction is swirling around.

And that same attitude of being just deeply honest and deliberate about, here’s what I’m facing in the world, here’s how it works, here’s what it is, that applies to ordinary experiences and ordinary objects too.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I know I care for a lot of plants. I have three dozen plants I have to water every week. And, you know, it’s into the sink, out of the back, around, whatever. And it’s tedious. But I’m trying to be mindful at the time that I’m doing it that it’s also making me relax. It’s having another effect I hadn’t counted on when I started doing this.

IAN BOGOST: Yeah. I mean, being in the presence of something else in the world is deeply pleasurable. It gives you the feeling that you’re not alone. And we tend to think that only people or maybe pets can give us that sensation. But the truth is that almost anything can, if we respect it in kind of the same way that we respect individuals, which may sound surprising or even weird to some. But it really is the way of extending that respect, and embracing that humility.

IRA FLATOW: Ian Bogost is author of “Play Anything, the Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games,” on “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International.

Lots of people are interested in this. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Boston. Meg in Boston. Hi. Welcome to “Science Friday.”

MEG: Hi. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

MEG: Good. I had a question about fostering this appreciation of [INAUDIBLE] in children who’s [INAUDIBLE] with video games and apps that offer this instant gratification. And it’s so difficult to get them to just sit, be bored, dig in, and develop this kind of grit that you’re kind of talking about. Do you have any insight on that?

IAN BOGOST: Right. That’s definitely true. And I would even suggest that it’s not just kids. In fact, it’s mostly all of us. All of us adults who have this difficulty facing the world as it doesn’t relate to our devices and our gadgets.

And one of the things you can do is apply other kinds of limits and constraints to your life that are different from the ones that you would pursue under ordinary circumstances.

So when I go outside to work on my lawn, I just leave my phone inside in the house. This seems like an obvious and simple thing to do. But it’s all that’s really necessary to help structure my attention toward the work that I’m going to be doing outdoors. Because if it’s in my pocket I’m just going to pick it up and look at it all the time.

Kids actually have some lessons to teach us maybe in this regard, even though it’s true that with all the devices and screens sometimes it’s hard to get them to do other things. And that’s that kids tend to be very willing to pick up anything and kind of make use of it, to play it. You know, you say, OK, well, why don’t you go play outside. And immediately the kids pick up a stick, or they make up a game. And who can go down the steps fastest?

So that tendency among children to take things and manipulate them, but partly because they don’t have the resources to buy or to produce alternatives, you know, the world isn’t made for them but one that they’re reacting to.

So removing those devices from kids’ lives, even if just temporarily, I think that’s the first step that we can take. And it’s also something that doesn’t have to be permanent. I mean, we are living in a technological world. We can’t get away from these gadgets. We need to learn how to use them for better or worse.

But I think that’s a tip that anybody can learn from, not just kids and parents.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Andrew in Danvers, Massachusetts. Hi Andrew.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

ANDREW: Thanks for taking my call.

I’m a middle school band teacher. And one of the most frustrating things is getting kids to practice. You know, they often view it as a chore, or they view it as something they have to do. But I’m doing what I can to try to show them the joy of kind of digging deep, understanding their instrument, and kind of mastering those technical aspects, and how that facilitates better play in the repertoire that we approach. Any thoughts from your guest on how to incorporate the idea of making some of those, like scales, and drills, and things like that they start off practicing, making those enjoyable, and finding the play in there?

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Good question. Ian?

IAN BOGOST: I’m really proud that Andrew brought up instruments, because, of course, musical instruments are something that we play too. And one of the great things about instruments is that they have very limited kind of physical apparatuses that we can manipulate, the fretboards and strings of a guitar, or the chambers of a brass instrument. And through those small number of physical apparatuses, we can produce theoretically infinite patterns of sound. It’s kind of magical.

But one of the most important things that I think we can learn from play is that it only works, and it works best when you apply constraints and limitations to it. So the fact that you can show your students, for example, that most pop songs are made out of the same four chords. There’s actually a couple of great videos on YouTube about this.

And this shows that even if you don’t know much about an instrument already, there’s a whole lot of possibility. There’s a large possibility space for music.

And then with a particular instrument that can be extended. What are some compositions that you can provide or that you can invite using just a single scale, or a particular chord progression, or maybe several different notes? And who can create their own composition with those materials? To try to show that that limited knowledge that you have when you’re starting out with an instrument, or when you’re in the kind of intermediary stage, that you don’t have to wait for that to bear fruit, that it can actually be immediately meaningful.

IRA FLATOW: It’s an interesting book Ian. Thank you for writing it. It’s got some interesting thoughts in it.

IAN BOGOST: Yeah. Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: Ian Bogost is the professor of media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a contributing editor at “The Atlantic.”

His new book is “Play Anything, the Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games.” Thanks for joining us today.

IAN BOGOST: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Charles Bergquist is our director. Our senior producer, Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alexa Lim, Annie Minoff, Christie Taylor, and Katie Hiler. Luke Groskin is our video producer, Rich Kim our technical director. Sarah Fishman and Jack Horowitz, our engineers at the controls here at the studio of our production partners, the City University of New York.

If you will allow me a little personal aside today, a shout out to my daughter Anna, who passed the bar today. Go you-hoo Anna out there.

I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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