"games...," Þóra Kristín / flickr


letter | 8.14.17

The importance of play

Why I don't feel embarrassed about my "guilty" pleasures.


I spend a lot of time indulging in silly things. Things that should probably make me feel ashamed or embarrassed, things that should revoke all the hipster points I’ve spent years accumulating. I used to feel ashamed for these so-called “guilty” pleasures – for fangirling hard for Warped Tour bands from the 2000s, for still watching The Real World, for following Kylie Jenner on Snapchat – but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to celebrate and embrace anything that makes me happy, regardless of how silly, useless, unintelligent, or unstimulating other people might perceive it to be. With a perpetually pessimistic news cycle, it seems counter-intuitive to push away anything that brings me joy because it’s not cool. Or not serious enough. Or not useful.

In other words, I’ve come to embrace the importance of play in my daily life, of engaging in activities that aren’t overtly practical but do tend to be enjoyable or bring pleasure.

If you’re a human being, then you’re aware how often daily life is joyless and simply about getting from one place to another, or finishing one task so as to move on to the next one. Even much of the culture we ingest – the books, movies, music, podcasts, TV, etc. – is often not particularly or completely joyful, which can, this joylessness or not-quite-joyfulness, stem from many places: our personal tastes, sure (I might not find joy in reading a book like Ulysses, but I can understand why, for other reasons, it might be good to read), and/or that harsh and perpetually judging critic that just won’t turn off long enough to buy in. I’ve found this especially hard myself, this self-critic thing – as an editor, teacher, and fiction writer, the critic in my mind is constantly yapping, prodding, pushing. It’s a draining experience – writing, along with other forms of art, often requires a profound degree of self-reflexivity: we interrogate ourselves, our intentions, our relationship to the world around us, in order to create stuff (books, music, movies, sculptures, memes, etc.) that are, in some way, true to our experience. What I mean is that we follow that old saying – literally it’s ancient, inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and then used a lot by Plato – “know thyself.”

 Know yourself.

Which again, it’s exhausting, because the self is not a single, cohesive thing, but a collection of things, of relationships and experiences, and examining the self is sort of like inspecting the various grains of sand on the beach: it's all sand, sure, but the close-up reveals that there are different textures, colors, shapes.

Play – “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose” – has multiple functions: in children, child psychologists have found, play works as a kind of dress rehearsal of adult activity; kids play in order to “try on” different roles and learn important skills, like sharing, leading, and rule-following.  And of course, it helps relieve stress by allowing us to escape, for a little while, certain real-life problems that tend to hold our brains hostage. “The joy of play,” writes Peter Gray, a psychologist and researcher at Boston College, “is the ecstatic feeling of liberty.”

The benefits of letting your mind “play” have, in fact, been written about extensively and are quite obvious – not only does it relieve stress, it improves mood, boosts creativity, makes you healthier. Plus, as acclaimed television writer Shonda Rhimes puts it, it lets her feel “the hum,” the productive workflow that she claims only happens after periods of uninterrupted play – but more on this in a minute.

According to Gray, play “is defined in terms of a confluence of several characteristics:”

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed;
  2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life;
  5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

To apply these criteria to my own guilty-pleasures-as-play contention, I’ve found that when I simply accept that yes, okay, I will watch that sappy romantic comedy rerun (when I choose – see (1) above), that the time spent engaging in so-called “guilty” pleasure turns into a kind of meditation (see (4) and (5)). And while I do value this meditative aspect, this time spent recharging and maybe incubating new or difficult ideas, I find it’s the play I value even more: the time spent engaging in activities simply for the pleasure of it (see (2)), devoid of any practicality.

So much has been written about how pop culture rots your brain that I think we can safely skip the argument and move on to a more complex one. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction,” David Foster Wallace makes the case that television “can become malignantly addictive,” and that instead of functioning as a stress-relieving distraction, it “purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life.” More specifically, Wallace asserts that TV has engendered a vicious cycle:

If it’s true that many Americans are lonely, and if it’s true that many lonely people are prodigious TV-watchers, and it’s true that lonely people find in television’s 2-D images relief from their stressful reluctance to be around real human beings, then it’s also obvious that the more time spent at home alone watching TV, the less time spent in the world of real human beings, and that the less time spent in the real human world, the harder it becomes not to feel inadequate to the tasks involved in being a part of the world, thus fundamentally apart from it, alienated from it, solipsistic, lonely.

There is truth to Wallace’s argument: look no further than Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s assertion that sleep is among Netflix’s primary competitors. Or think about the rise of bromance comedies: the protagonists of these movies and shows are emotionally and mentally underdeveloped; they’re teenagers living inside adult bodies, with behaviors clearly, and sometimes explicitly, molded through years of sitcom-watching and video-game playing.

Pop culture, what Wallace calls “Low Art, the sort of art that has to please people in order to get their money,” aims first to make you lonely, and then to reassure you (that it will keep you company). Wallace’s Low Art is a kidnapper whose goal is to create a Stockholm Syndrome in its participants. This is not untrue, but I think it’s more a criticism of addiction than of pop culture (or Low Art). Wallace, I think, misses an important point about Low Art’s ease-of-access, its ability to “engage without demanding,” which is that it lowers the barrier to uninterrupted play, which itself can lead to what Shonda Rhimes, quoted above, calls the “hum,” or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi has famously termed flow, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

According to Csikszentmilhalyi, “the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before” following a flow activity. Csikszentmilhalyi equates this increasing complexity with growth; in other words, flow activities help us grow as people. The idea, as Rhimes describes it, is that “work doesn’t work without play…the more I play the freer my mind becomes. The more I play the better I work. The more I play the more I feel the hum.” Play functions as a recharge activity, yes, but it also feeds into the work – that mental freedom Rhimes talks about, the “ecstatic feeling of liberty,” that Peter Gray describes, which blossoms from the self-choice and imagination that play provides, is fundamental to work. It’s what gets us innovating, regardless of the sort of work we do.

I’ve been a happier, more productive person since deciding to own up to my guilty pleasure pop culture consumption. I must reiterate: why ever feel ashamed for finding joy, for playing? Celebrate it, pass it on, go play.

- Rachel Kolman, contributing culture editor