The Labor of Play

Games like Wordle and CALL OF DUTY equally stem from capital's attempt to conquer leisure time. Is there a better way to play?

An Upper East Sider with advanced degrees playing Wordle over espresso; a suburban teenager pairing Call of Duty: Warzone with bong rips before work: both play, arguably, for the same reasons. Each delights in low-stakes release. Each enjoys the sense of completing a task (spelling words, killing enemies) that feels vaguely moral, and which the player might take pride in, even if virtually and for an audience composed only of themselves. What is different is only that the New York Times and other enlightened organs have now found ways to market trivial, dependence-inducing digital game products (already wildly lucrative in other settings) to the gentry. And the Times is hardly alone.

Is this boom in bourgeois gaming bad? The “inanity of many leisure activities” famously troubled the philosopher Theodor Adorno.1

An ardent anti-capitalist—and a half-Jewish German refugee who feared that frivolous entertainment was a handmaiden to fascism (living in Los Angeles must have been interesting!)—Adorno had no problem with leisure, but he suspected that so-called free time had, in late capitalism, become little more than a recharging period between episodes of labor extraction, i.e., work days. In his estimation, the problem was that leisure had come to serve capital, since now it replenished workers for the sake of work, rather than bettering them as human beings. As a result, he wrote that “‘free time’ is tending toward its own opposite, and is becoming a parody of itself.”2 The solution for Adorno was for leisure activities to be taken very, very seriously: the study of classical music, for example, for its own sake alone.

In this sense, Adorno surely would have despised Wordle and Call of Duty equally. Both are light distractions, after all, and both are deeply integrated into capitalism, perhaps even more deeply than Adorno tended to envision. If there’s one thing worse than free time being organized by the needs of capital, it might be free time becoming a pillar of capital. In that regard, the bonanza that has come from tethering bourgeois word games and logic games (and recipes and so forth) to the consumption of Serious News might seem to bear him out. Leisure in the 21st century is increasingly not just big business, but a framework needed to sustain a free press, along with other public goods that aren’t otherwise going to sustain themselves. The New York Times these days would not be solvent without revenue from subscriptions to its games suite, among other add-ons.

And yet, Adorno, as with most matters pop cultural, probably should not have the last word here. All of the above is true, but there are layers to gaming that surpass this analysis. One place to witness these layers is in the substantial number of recent books focused on trivial obsessives, including but not limited to: Claire McNear’s Answers in the Forms of Questions, Adrienne Raphel’s Thinking Inside the Box, Oliver Roeder’s Seven Games, and Eric Thurm’s Avidly Reads Board Games. Each of these books explores communities that treat puzzles and games marketed as leisure activities with a gravity bordering on the spiritual. That is to say, these communities take puzzles and games very, very seriously, as Adorno might have preferred.

Most of the games discussed in these books are wedded to capital in some fashion: crosswords are pillars of newspaper financing; Jeopardy!’s success is literally measured in dollars, and it airs on ad-based television; Monopoly dramatizes, well, a scramble for monopolies. Even so, these games’ most ardent obsessives engage them in ways that absolutely exceed the logic of profit. The authors of these books convincingly reveal the potential of leisure—even that which has been partly captured by capital—to offer the promise of dissidence, or at least other spaces of being.

It seems significant that these books about word, board, or trivia game obsessives were published just before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course they all must have been researched and written before early 2020, but the pandemic has made them a deeper read. Each book speaks to a quality of game playing that graduated from Adornian pastime to something more like mental-health manna during the depressive depths of 2020.

In those depths, the feeling of devoting oneself to something unproductive became humanizing, not as a way to refuel before work but precisely as a fuck-you to work. One’s boss might ask them to give their whole brilliance—honed to a glistening edge by years of training and hard-won wisdom—to QuiznosPitchDeck.xls. But suddenly many people had the courage to reserve the very best of themselves for something else, like Learned League, SpellTower, or Animal Crossing. It is worth asking what comes of playing seriously as a core part of people’s identities in a moment when, for many, their work life no longer fills that role.

In the world of puzzles and games, a shift began about a decade ago. Perhaps it started with the calls from BuzzFeed. Or was it the now-defunct startup news website Capital New York? Slate? The Atlantic?

All these outlets began sniffing out puzzles. They contacted editors and creators to find out what it would take to establish a serious daily crossword or variety game, usually with some dazzling new digital component. Some even moved forward, with varied success, adding habit-forming, intellect-confirming side hustles to their reporting and commentary, or their listicles. The shift occurred during a moment of nose-diving ad revenues in publishing, when something had to replace the classifieds, or else.

In the years since, the New York Times perhaps above all has demonstrated the value of a well-executed newspaper games section, expanding theirs to multiple features and a popular $40 annual subscription. Puzzles and games have become integral to readers’ daily rituals, and in the process also a profitable lifeline for a sinking industry. And the windfall continues: digital puzzle and word game platforms are now (because of course they are) being launched by NFT speculators, VC-backed designers, and venues even larger than the Times.

Such financial concerns are far from the minds of the players profiled in Roeder’s Seven Games, which fixes its attention on those who probe the outer limits of games as solvable problems. True obsessives, including Roeder’s subjects, tend to conflate the object of their enthusiasm with life itself. In games both venerable (chess, bridge) and somewhat silly (checkers), serious players pursue transcendence.

God comes up a lot. As Roeder memorably puts it, for a game like checkers—which an early computer program helped to effectively solve—a human player making all known correct moves can tie the creator of the universe. The solving of checkers, by some measure, staged how the Romantics viewed nature: as a set of riddles to be joyfully solved through the application of intellect. For some, that moment was a triumph.

But each of the seven games in Roeder’s book has a different telos. Some, like Go, are so vast in their possible outcomes that they were long considered incalculable. As devoted as some of its players are, Go continues to require intuition, a win for those anxious about how computing power has surpassed humans in so many games, including chess. For years, Go continued to promise a redoubt for whatever unique capacities humans might offer, although, in the past five years, new software driven by neural networks has closed the gap.

Poker, the subject of another of Roeder’s chapters, remains interesting in part precisely because it can never be purely rational: data helps, but even the best-played hand can easily be spoiled by random chance. Still, online poker has become a cesspool of bots and algorithmically informed playing. Poker can never be fully solved, but steering closer to perfection has largely killed the fun.

That does tend to happen. I once spoke to an online poker pro who had become so good at the game that he felt he could not justify doing anything else. He calculated that relaxing with an issue of Harper’s cost him an average of about $30,000. Until he quit poker, leisure had become psychologically impossible for him.

Sometimes gaming obsessives find euphoria; other times perfection delivers the game to capitalism’s hungriest dogs. Roeder explores the triumphs and tragedies that take place around these fringes.

The real concern is that crosswords might become such a pillar of a rising bourgeois gaming industry that profit could gut the game’s charms.

The fuzzy line between gaming and the rest of human lives is also described in Thurm’s Avidly Reads Board Games. Aptly, Thurm opens with an anecdote about playing Catan while waiting for his grandfather to die.

The book centers on a concept called the “magic circle,” a means of describing the all-encompassing interiority of a given board game, which a player must give themselves over to in order to participate. Any game, no matter how straightforward, stages a certain version of reality, with particular possibilities and limits, modes of governance, distributions of power, and so forth. The setup of any game, writes Thurm, “model[s] a conflict.” The degree of immersion that a board game creates has often driven designers to lead with ideology, from Nazism to socialism, from empathy for poor people to disdain for them. There are board games that exist to make people feel the rightness of each of these, a thrilling and also potentially terrifying possibility.

Even many games that now seem unassuming began as screeds: Monopoly, for example, was created explicitly to teach players that rent-seeking makes everyone miserable. It is a truly American irony that such an offering—despite sucking from the first turn to the sour moment when everyone gives up on finishing—became history’s best-selling board game. Thurm, like Roeder, is interested in extremes, ideological extremes as much as obsessions.


Dad’s Dictionary

By Aditi Sriram

McNear examines just one game, Jeopardy!, but it is the grande dame of trivia contests. She is well sourced, and a compelling writer. Answers in the Form of Questions is less of a “Why do people play games?” reflection than the others discussed here. Nonetheless, it engages a world of profound peculiarity, and often one of joy.

Likely it is the ubiquity of Jeopardy! that makes it so gripping to learn about. The show is such terra firma that if the reader does not already know about its inner workings, the details are as potentially compelling as those that might be found in a book about the Supreme Court or volcanos. The details matter because the phenomenon is part of our collective experience.

It is not a disillusioning book, although it does demythologize the great players somewhat, in addition to revealing fault lines of sexism. Still, McNear mostly portrays a high-functioning and supportive community, and one in which there is much more than money at play and at stake. There is a certain tragedy to the narrative because we know how it ends: with the death of Alex Trebek in 2020, just after the book’s publication, which did not nearly tank Jeopardy! ratings-wise, but which likely removed some of its iconic luster. This, along with the quantification of competition, including “smarter” approaches to training, might have chilled some of the show’s most quirky and democratic vibes.

Still, McNear doesn’t tell a story of the show in decline. Rather, she offers an informed backstage tour. If it’s less invested in the question of why such a pursuit matters to competitors, the book is every bit as engaged with the sociology of both fans and players: both are deeply obsessed, and decidedly not in it for the money.

Finally, Raphel’s study of the crossword puzzle and its community, Thinking Inside the Box, is similar to McNear’s book in scope (mostly just one game, but a big one), and in its excellent sourcing. But Raphel writes and thinks with an ambition beyond descriptive history.

Her early historical chapters give way to deep ruminations on the nature of knowledge in the later ones, and Raphel is not afraid to break from direct prose into poetry or other writerly experiments. She thinks like a professional historian, for example tying the earliest craze for crosswords (which began in the 1920s) to the Anglophone obsession with clues and detectives in 19th-century British literature. For Raphel, crosswords speak to greater orders of knowledge. In a rather sizeable canon of crossword history books, this is the first of its kind, and probably the smartest.

Raphel tells us that crosswords have bred their share of obsessives, and it is notable that their obsessions have outlasted the vogue for certain applications of computer-assisted construction that flourished in the 2010s. Crosswords can now be both made and solved by computers in many respects. Still, the game has rather easily survived as a human pastime.

In some sense, what lurks today as a potentially existential challenge to the game is not that it might be solved; after all, this already happened in certain ways, and fans mostly shrugged. The real concern is that crosswords might become such a pillar of a rising bourgeois gaming industry that profit could saturate the market, gut the game’s charms, choke constructors on the promise of work-for-hire.

As go crosswords, so goes the world? Today, there is a sort of race underway in contemporary word, trivia, and board games. It is a struggle between the forces of profit—which are increasingly hungry for more content—and the forces of obsession—the kind described in these four books—which aim for depth of experience, something beyond the game as a product.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. Theodor Adorno, “Free Time” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, J.M Bernstein (London: Routledge 1991), 165.
  2. Adorno, “Free Time,” 163.
Jumbo Christmas Crossword 2023, photograph by Conall / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)