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On Playing

Posted on:January 8, 2024 at 08:00 PM

An InstaX Mini photo of a holiday balloon at the Hudson Yards shopping mall in New York

Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve found myself playing quite a bit. I was lucky enough to travel to L.A. for the first time with my friend David, and as we walked around the empty beaches of Santa Monica in the warm winter, I marveled at the sounds and textures of the sand and the water, how they compared to beaches in Miami and New Jersey, and played with the sand. We also saw a number of exercise structures at the famous Muscle Beach and saw highly athletic people casually swinging from ring to ring, climbing ropes, flipping around poles and playing with it. We tried to play with them too, albeit with much less success.

David had watched Gran Turismo on the flight over, and had racing games on his mind. We found a gaming arcade and bought some tokens and played racing games. Back home I installed Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a third person action hack-and-slash which is secretly a rhythm game, requiring your Shinobi protagonist to deflect or dodge enemy attacks at perfect timing. I find myself dying at the hands of these bosses 20-40 times before I can beat them, and then it’s so satisfying. It’s such a good game. The cinematography, music, and story is rich enough for you to go on an emotional journey with jump scares and feats of fancy where you fling yourself into the unknown. But it also teaches me to breathe, to be calm and detached, and to be patient, for I cannot beat the toughest enemies if I’m not emotionally centered.

I’ve also been playing with a FujiFilm InstaX Mini, a birthday present, which prints out photos on film instantly. I’ve never had such a camera, and have been experimenting in different lighting, material, and focus. The film is expensive, about a dollar a shot, which makes me more intentional about taking pictures. It also makes the output more memorable and cherished.

My aunt got me a Lumi keyboard for Christmas. It is an electronic keyboard that can connect to my iPad via bluetooth and, using the accompanying app, is teaching me to play the piano. They seem to have done a lot of research into how people learn: the lessons span videos, interactive sections, gamification, and time tracking. They encourage you to play often in short bursts, and to keep a streak going. It feels quite approachable to only play 10 minutes a day, and know that even that can have some measurable impact on skill.

A friend organized a Whiffle Ball game on Christmas Eve, and a bunch of folks showed up. As one who mainly does exercise for aspirational fitness, it was more fun than I expected to be active for a game. Also fun playing with other people.

Finally, I’ve installed Stable Diffusion XL using Fooocus on my computer to play around with text-to-image models. I’ve been curious about generative AI for a while now, and have used the web-based offerings. This feels like a step beyond, to have it running locally, to play with the different settings and parameters and see how they influence the output.

All this play has made me think about the ways in which I was, or rather was not, playing routinely before. Video games come and go, although I do find myself watching YouTube as my main pastime. Games are more active and engaged, and thus a slightly superior form of entertainment.

But play goes beyond entertainment. Yes, a core part of play is that there is no objective, no benefit, no larger purpose than the pure enjoyment of the activity. Or if there is, it’s secondary to the fun. Yes maybe I’ll get better at playing piano as a result of Lumi, but what’s more important to me is that it makes learning piano fun, rather than a chore, which is why I hadn’t pursued it before. The fun part appeals to an internal motivation, rather than external, which is key in getting people engaged in an intuitive and sustainable way.

Play builds intuition in the happiest of ways: through repetition, through feedback, through a cycle of pleasure and anticipation and delight and reward, that we seem to have evolved hard wiring for. It is why we fight, why we work, so that we can get to a point of rest and relaxation and play.

I would like to incorporate play into my life more. Of course I would, look who’s talking. I, who struggle with motivation and discipline and a healthy routine, who procrastinates and ignores and whittles away my time, would like to have more play in my life. But I genuinely believe it would help. If I can find a way to make things more playful, perhaps I can actually do more things. A spoonful of sugar, as they say.

It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to mold your world to fit your tendencies. Best not waste it.