Games and play and work

The book Games: Agency as Art, specifically this overview and this podcast episode, have come up in a couple different conversations anyway.

What makes something a game? In Nguyen’s telling, as I understand it, there’s about two core bits, and one optional but often-present bit:

  1. Arbitrary but well-defined goals: you always know what you’re trying to do
  2. Arbitrary but well-defined constraints: you always know what you can and can’t do
  3. Often, progress indicators (or points): you know how close you are to your goals 1

In other words: finally, a challenge with clear parameters and units of progression (from the amazing ebbits)

Once you define these goals, constraints, and maybe progress indicators, you can just zone out of the rest of life. You don’t have to worry about your taxes or your chores while you’re playing the game; you’ve defined, “all I have to do is get the most victory points/save the princess/run the fastest.” Now, not 100% - you want to make sure you don’t hurt yourself physically, you have to remember to drink water, you don’t want to say a hurtful thing to your friend just to get more victory points - but the more you can zoom into just the game, the more engrossing it is. This is kind of exciting and kind of toxic. In Nguyen’s words:

And games are toxic for me when we just get hyper-narrowed on the point system and we never think about the larger outcome of the point system. We never think about what our life is like or what the activity is like under that point system. … What I’m worried about is those cases when the point system blocks out everything else from your universe and you don’t see any of the other stuff.

some examples of games

some things that are not games

why do I care right now

I’m thinking a lot about what kind of work I want to continue to do. I’m really good at playing games! If someone sets up a task for me as a game, I’m great at it; if not, I’ll often turn it into a game and then be good at it.

Some things are not games, and cannot be made into games. Research is one, whether we mean “discover something new to humanity and write a paper” or just “discover how to make this thing work at your company for your circumstances.”

I talked to someone recently who’s a few years ahead of me who framed my current dilemma as, “do I want to play more games? or do I want to get better at not-playing-games?”

I’m not actually sure! This question implies a value judgment, as does our constant cultural valorization of Research, but… maybe if you can make a good career out of playing games, maybe just go for that. (Outside of work, either way, I’ll have a lot of time to learn to play not-games. Living your life is a pretty good not-game. So is raising kids.)

One thing I’ve been noticing in the meantime is, when I try to turn non-games into games 4. Like, set out a list of goals for myself when I’m doing researchy tasks so that, even if I “make no progress”, I can at least check off boxes and feel good. “Feel good” is really important, because when you train for 20 years to play games, not-games can feel really depressing. But that is only one part of the process.


  1. Sometimes, instead of/in addition to points, you have well-doled-out epiphanies. Rewards you unlock along the way actually let you learn more about the world, not just “number go up.” These are even more delicious! ↩︎

  2. God, everything you do until you’re like 22 is a game! Stapled to your diploma should be a big warning label: “everything after this point in your professional life is different! your skills may or may not help you!” Also school should be less gamey! But I digress. ↩︎

  3. Notably, “play” and “games” are different. It’s ironic that we say “play games” - I almost feel like we should say “game games.” ↩︎

  4. Yes this is “gamification”, maybe, but let’s not get into that. The main distinction: games that you create for yourself are so different than games that someone else (especially some corporation) creates for you. ↩︎


blog 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010