Credit: Courtesy the Author

Mary Poppins was an excellent nanny but a shitty philosopher. Her oft-quoted ditty about how a “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” is the wrong way to approach everyday tasks people associate with drudgery: brewing coffee, mowing the lawn, taking a trip to the store. Instead of rose-colored self-deception, humans should embrace the underappreciated wonder of tedious chores and engage them through acts of deliberate and focused “play.” With the right perspective, every medicine has always tasted like sugar.

That’s the gist of Play Anything—a knotty manual of contemporary self-help from Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. Bogost has frequently written about the transformative power of the complex, virtual worlds of video games. Now he’s turning that idea inside out: Play Anything wants readers to approach real life like they might a game of Tetris. The way to do so is by submitting to the constraints of tedious tasks and fully immersing yourself in the experience, no matter how small and ridiculous it might seem.

“Playing Tetris is this dumb action of moving geometric objects and it’s bizarrely compelling,” Bogost says. “The power of games lies not in their capacity to deliver rewards or careless enjoyment but in the structured constraint of their design that opens abundant possible spaces for play. What if we treated everything like Tetris? To take something—anything—on its own terms and treat it as if existence was reasonable.”

Bogost cites making coffee every day as a potentially overlooked recreational activity. Experimenting with new equipment and techniques can add to the brewer’s sense of understanding or mastery. Use a kitchen scale to measure grounds one day, and then estimate those measurements by eyesight on the next. Try a unique blend or tinker with varying temperatures for a new taste.

“Fun comes from the attention and care you bring to something that imposes arbitrary, often boring, even cruel limitations on what you—or anyone—can do with them,” Bogost says.

Learning how to be in the moment and appreciate the quotidian might sound a lot like the practice of mindfulness, or perpetually focusing one’s awareness on the present. But Bogost says there’s a key distinction: instead of centering inward on your own thoughts and feelings, direct your energies outward to understand a person, place, or a thing. It’s worldfulness, not mindfulness.

Mindfulness “is a narcissistic practice where you’re attuned to your own desires,” Bogost says. “The first step to enjoying playgrounds is to stop worrying about our own possible roles within them and instead to allow lawns and malls and soccer pitches to show us their desires.”

Bogost’s idea of playfulness is also a reaction to the video-game-inspired idea of gamification—adding an artificial layer of rewards and feedback to regular tasks to trick the brain into thinking those activities are fun. The Fitbits of the world don’t actually enhance interest in an activity over the long term, they simply add a slight and temporary novelty—a spoonful of Mary Poppins’s sugar for the digital age.

Still, a transition away from self-obsession and toward a kind of hyperattention to the real seems like wishful thinking in an era of ever-present technology built to flatter, distract, and persuade. Sometimes it’s more tempting to simply fire up the automatic coffeemaker and play Tetris on a smartphone.    v