Michael Ashcroft

September 13, 2021

Design games so you enjoy playing them

One of my metaphysical axioms is that existence is fundamentally playful.

Yes, this was inspired by Alan Watts, but he got it from Hindu cosmology, so I’m okay with this not being an original idea. It just sits well with me.

Playfulness is that which happens for its own sake. To inquire as to the purpose of play is to miss the point, and if you ask a child what they’re playing for you will get a confused expression. The point of play is play! What a silly question, grown up.

Play is also inherently unforced and unforcible. The most effective way to prevent play is to try to be playful. And the harder you try, the more serious you become and the more play eludes you. You can try this with children (although please don’t): commanding them to play for their aunts and uncles will just cause them to freeze or they'll learn to 'perform' play. That state of grace has to emerge naturally!

It’s easy to think of play as something that exists outside our normal lives and routines, something frivolous in which we may occasionally indulge.

No. Playfulness is a state of mind, a state of being, a perspective.

Photo by eleonora on Unsplash

Navigating the world in a playful way doesn’t mean you can’t play towards a particular goal. It just means that the goal you want to achieve can’t be more important than how you attain it.

Or, as Alan puts it:

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”

The point of dancing is to dance, but you can still dance in a coordinated way with a partner such that you both end up at a certain place on the dance floor.

This is how we can make progress towards our goals in a playful way. I want to build muscle, so it makes sense for me find resistance exercises that I enjoy and eat food that I find delicious. I want to write a lot, so it makes sense for me to write about things that bring me to life, to write for people who appreciate my writing and to use tools that I enjoy.

I also want to maintain a sufficient level of not caring about whether or not I actually achieve my goals. It might happen, it might not, who cares, I’m just enjoying the ride. And by enjoying the ride it actually becomes more likely that I’ll keep doing the things that will allow my goals to ‘just be achieved’ one day.

This is increasingly how I approach the things I want to do in my life. I remember that it’s all a game. I still choose to play it sincerely, but ultimately I seek to unwind the forcing mechanisms that serve to get me stuck.

The liberating insight from all this is that if some area of life isn’t experienced as playful then you can change things until it is. Make the game easier, make it more challenging, include other players, find new players, change the rules, flout the rules! Do whatever you can to make it lighter, easier, more fun. This isn't always easy, but it is a move that's available.


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