avatarJaime Martínez Bowness


Breaking Free from the Games We Play: A Path to Mindful Living

We turn everyday playful activities into life rules and lose our spontaneity, freedom, and sense of joy — is there an antidote?

No more fun and games at the office. Image by DALL-E.

It’s well known that modern humans have been scientifically classified as Homo Sapiens — primates who create and transmit knowledge. Perhaps less known is that our evolutionary forefathers were classified as Homo Faber — primates who made tools—in allusion to our use of technology and the tool-handling possibilities that an opposable thumb, necessary to grip things, gave us.

But very few know that we’ve also been called Homo Ludens — the primates of play.

We are playful beings

A significant aspect of the human personality enjoys creating and playing games and uses playful competition—with ourselves and others—to maintain mental and physical health, establish social connections, and regulate emotions.

Throughout history, various cultures have enjoyed a range of board games and sports. The Mesopotamians, Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and Romans all had their own unique games. Some sports were physically demanding, like Greek sports, polo played by Persian nobility, and jousting by medieval knights and even the occasional king (probably undergoing a mid-life crisis.) The Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmecs played ball with their hips, while the Vikings played a form of dirt hockey.

Play has had military consequences, too. King Edward III of England banned a variety of Sunday games in the 14th century, leaving commoners with little to entertain themselves other than practicing longbow archery. This form of play proved to be beneficial, as English archers eventually became a deadly military force.

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga relished writing about these forms of entertainment in his now-classic book, Homo Ludens (1938). But since then, it’s been observed that many animal species also engage in play, not just us. Ravens roll over mid-flight and chase one another, “dive-bombing” and feinting in and out of one another’s way. Dolphins imitate each other. Elephants enjoy sliding down muddy slopes on their bellies. Anyone with a pet at home knows that playful silliness is one of the joys of animal companionship.

Our lack of regular play stifles us

It’s been argued that the seriousness of modern-day office work, with its lack of physical exertion, relaxed creativity, and intense in-person interaction — which characterize many forms of play — is largely to blame for today’s “office blues.”

So why do we ruin our games?

Academics like Huizinga and others have researched the concept of “gamification,” which refers to adapting everyday activities to game-like dynamics. However, what I find interesting and concerning is that we create games and then become controlled by them. We become anxious and inflexible about maintaining these games, as if we forgot that they were invented in the first place.

Moreover, these games are activities we have created for ourselves, not something imposed from the outside.

  • We hop in our car, open Waze, see our ETA, and then promptly choose to beat that estimate, getting worked up and angry as we drive. We choose to arrive earlier than calculated by the app, not because we NEED to, but for the pleasure of “proving the app wrong,” a playfulness that quickly becomes an angry determination.
  • Like secret circus performers or acrobats, we play “basketball” everywhere — hurling crumpled paper balls into trash bins, or dunking dirty clothes into the hamper from afar. We glide envelopes and documents onto tabletops, secretly aiming for them to land in a certain spot.
  • At stoplights, if we’re in the first row, we try to advance ahead of all other cars when the light turns green. When we change lanes, many of us — is it mostly men?—try to avoid touching the dashed white lanes with the car tires.
  • We set mental times and counters for everything — how many steps, how many seconds, how many minutes. We time stoplights (who hasn’t practiced their stoplight “mind powers”?), guesstimate the number of steps to reach the top of a flight of stairs — or try to beat our record by doing so in the least number of leg stretches — and contend against work colleagues to reach often arbitrarily set targets of all sorts.
  • Now that health apps and fitness gadgets are all around, fun goals such as hitting 10,000 steps daily suddenly turn into an obligation, where missing your target feels like forgetting to brush your teeth at night. What was once a playful challenge morphs into a rule.
  • And don’t get me started on social media, where users not only crave followers and likes but also use them to compare and compete with others.

It can be surprisingly easy for games to transform from a source of entertainment to a source of anxiety, even when the rewards are only symbolic.

Famous sociologist B.F. Skinner thought that individuals turned daily activities into games because they enjoyed the satisfaction of getting immediate feedback—quick wins and losses—and the feel-good rewards that came with winning. These are the same feedback and rewards that are often missing in the drudgery of regular work.

Okay, so people choose to play games and invent artificial obstacles to get things done because it’s rewarding and stimulating.

But why do we forget the games’ origin and hide our hands behind our backs?

Games become anxiety-ridden mandates because that’s what we turn everything into

German-American psychoanalyst Eric Fromm wrote in The Fear of Freedom (1941) that the vastness of individual freedom is often the cause of fear, anxiety, and alienation — of wanting to stay at home and not ever come out.

Any existentialist philosopher would agree.

Realizing that we’re utterly and hopelessly free feels awfully similar to meaninglessness. The first of the existentialists, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, wrote, “Anxiety is the vertigo of freedom.” That is, with great freedom and an abundance of choices comes great anxiety.

Humans desire to be free but also don’t want to be alone in a vast sea of possibilities

This is why people often prefer to submit to rules — even if complying with them (or failing to do so) produces anxiety of their own — rather than having to choose a life for themselves and be their own arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Keep in mind that when I say “right and wrong,” I’m not endorsing absolute nihilism, with murder, theft, and eating only the white filling in Oreos suddenly becoming okay.

Rather, I’m speaking of people having to decide for themselves whether to marry and have children or not. To pursue making a living in the city, stay in their country of birth, or seek fortune abroad. To go on to a university degree, which will mean running into debt or opting for a cheaper but less prestigious technical degree — especially stressful if doing so will put an end to generations of doctors in the family. To “come out” or continue hiding an important aspect of who you really are. It’s these choices that rattle people, and many folks would rather go with the flow than break a lance with their community and family.

Facing these decisions—which often feel like scary coin flips as we have little information to go on — can be daunting. Hence, our preference for rules, traditions, lucky rituals, and stuff that may have started as jokes but have become buoys we cling to.

Does our two-step dance of play and then rigidity hurt us?

I’m so glad you asked. The short answer is “yes.” The longer one goes like this:

  • Rigidity and fear-based behavior limit action and creativity and make us risk-averse. This is sad since we know that, in the end, people regret their inactions–chances they didn’t dare take–more than the actions they followed through. (I’ve written about this here.)
  • Neurosis is a vague, catch-all term in psychology, but it certainly includes situations where people become entangled in too many mental rules, too many fearful expectations to meet, and too much perfectionism. Eventually, people break down. It’s the complete opposite of a playful, compassionate attitude towards ourselves.
  • Constant rigidity saps the joy out of living. The need for creativity, rest, and play-based training and simulation is acknowledged even in the military, possibly the world’s stiffest institution.
  • Finally, fear-based living has the unspoken assumption that we’ll eventually be rewarded in some way for toeing the line — for being a good girl or boy. Then we often discover — sometimes after a lifetime — that we’ve been fools and no reward, prize, or payback is coming, at least none that is proportionate to the suffering we’ve endured.

So where does all this leave us?

Rituals and rules are necessary and are good in moderate amounts. But the human inclination to turn everything into an obligation—especially as we grow older—should be countered with everyday mindfulness. Not everything has to become a chore. Nor should we frown upon others’ creative defiance of “established ways” just because we got to defy them first, and now “our way” is the norm.

If the only thing keeping a rule in place is fear or tradition, without individuals’ conscious commitment to what the rule actually stands for, then it has no nutritional value, so to speak. It’s just rote.

We must keep asking ourselves: Are we playing the games of life, or are they playing us? Are we doing things out of love or out of fear? Fear of change, fear of rule-breaking, fear of freedom — ours and everyone else’s.

Fear and love are, ultimately, the only two masters that we serve in every act. Observing yourself attentively throughout the day helps you see this.

The Indian philosopher, writer, and speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote:

To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else… [Let us] examine our own acts, our own thoughts, our own shortcomings. This, then, is the beginning of wisdom.

It’s important that we remain mindful and avoid becoming too calcified in our thinking. We often feel the need to make things rigid because we believe it helps us hold onto them better, but this can actually be counterproductive. Instead, we might strive to keep a sense of playfulness and joy in our lives, even if it means being a little silly sometimes. Otherwise, our daily lives—and their games—will quickly lose their light.

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