Limitations at Play
Part of the magic of childhood is that the world is not yet familiar. With that lack of orientation, of acculturation, there comes a relationship to questions we’re scarcely able to hold onto. A relative lack of time spent in the world means that there’s so much to ask about, to learn, to discover, but equally important is what you don’t question.
The nature of the questions I had as a kid about my hodgepodge of hand-me-down toys wasn’t based in skepticism at the lack of cohesion or a need to reconcile with sense; the questions were based in possibility, in what I might try—and, generally, in process over product. What would happen if Batman fought a Power Ranger? How might dinosaurs and fighter jets coexist? The question isn’t: Why would a lego man in a go kart be able to fly alongside an A-Wing spacecraft from Star Wars? It’s: Why wouldn’t they?
Before we get good at self-censoring and unpracticed in being sparked by wonder, we are driven into experience by imagination and curiosity. We take whatever ingredients we have and cook up something new whenever we can, something wonderful that holds our presence and attention even before we discover the otherwise un-withstandable world, the world from which we’ll inevitably need things to take us away.
Of course, there are limits. The toys you have, perhaps—though especially time, space, health, and so on. Even a game you’ve invented is tied to its premise or rules, even if those rules are always changing. Even the game of Calvinball from the iconic comic strip Calvin & Hobbes—a game whose only real rule is that you make up new rules each time you play as you go—always includes some type of ball and is tied to whatever equipment Calvin happens to have on hand at the time.
But that tension between limitation and possibility, that discovery of the infinite within the constrained, is part of what drives us to play. Take any board game: there’s the win condition, but how you arrive at it is—generally—flexible. You have to strategize, determine a route around the rules of the game and the other players.
You can play—or even just watch—a sport for decades and still be surprised. Athlete’s push the limitations of physics and bodies; the result is endlessly-generated creativity and innovation within rules and structure.
This creativity begets an alchemy, a magic, what Graeme Kilpatrick, scholar of media arts and digital cultures, refers to when he says, “Play is what enables us to conjure something out of nothing.” And what we conjure populates worlds that widen the edges of this one.
In my youngest memories playing video games, it was the limited-tech era of the 8- and 16-bit—Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy—just before the launch of the Nintendo 64. Regardless of generation, video games from any era can still feel infinite, and my experience of playing them then and now aligns with Mario- and Zelda-creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s idea that playing video games is to have “a whole drawer-full of playgrounds,” to have “places you’re attached to and go back to again and again.”
On those real-life playgrounds, when someone told you there was a hidden boss if you could scale a certain hill outside of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64, or that you could unlock Sonic the Hedgehog or Ash Ketchum from the Pokémon anime in Super Smash Bros. (long before Sonic or Pokémon Trainer did in fact become playable characters in the series), or that you could find the legendary Pokémon Mew under a truck near the cruise ship the S.S. Anne, even when you doubted you wanted it to be true, went home and experimented with what possibility still lies behind the walls of a world you’ve already spent dozens of hours in. Sometimes the effort would be rewarded with verifying the truth that you can—for example—talk to Yoshi if you make it to the roof of Peach’s castle, but sometimes the push itself was reward enough.
There’s always more to push toward. As many times as I’ve played 1994’s Donkey Kong Country I still don’t think I’ve discovered all the bonus areas and other secrets. One of the things I love about FromSoft games like Dark Souls, Elden Ring, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is how they provide impossible-seeming challenges to prove the player’s ever-growing ability to improve and overcome: to face a mysterious king riding a wyvern; an undefeated goddess of rot; a legendary swordsman who also wields a spear, a gun, and lightning, and to (after many attempts) stand victorious, achieving what felt certainly unachievable.
Whether you’re taking on the challenge of incredibly difficult games, or practicing speedrunning—which often involves not only completing a game as fast as possible but finding ways to glitch and break the game to do so—or just playing with the hope of as much fun as you can have, there’s always a higher score, a faster time, a way to be better at it than your friends, or simply more enjoyment waiting for you—something to push and discover and remind you of possibility beyond your initial understanding of limits. As possibility pushes those limits, so are we pushed, expanded, adding experiences as if amassing exp. points toward leveling up.
We might call play and the possibility therein a type of “escape” because it is a form of inhabiting a somewhere or something beyond the confines of our immediate environments, but I love that this kind of escape is not a disengagement: it’s a process that forms linkages between worlds, that better equips us for what internal and external worlds we must face otherwise
I think often of a comment from poet Ray McDaniel—author of Special Powers and Abilities, a collection of poems inhabiting a world of superheroes—who said, “There’s something true and valuable about the psychological or emotional impulse to escape [but] I resist really flat characterizations of any kind of genre as escapist … What is being escaped to is almost always an editorial commentary on what is being escaped from.”
Relatedly, the protagonist of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, Paul, posits “The imagination is not our escape . On the contrary, the imagination is the space we are all trying to get to.” He adds that imagination should be “our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world—this world we share” and is “God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”
In her essay “Barbie Taught Me the Power of Play” in Harper’s Bazaar, Airea D. Matthews says about her childhood that to play with Barbie was to be “where time and space curved to create a different existence,” to be “in a place where money was no big deal, where glamour and ecstasy were facts of life, and you could be in Malibu one day and space the next.” Her times of play “afforded [her] an elsewhere.”
But even within this framing of play as escape, she adds that Barbie and the gang “were the kind of friends who let me work out my fears and desires through a story” and that “Barbie … unveiled the underlying impulse of play: to create an extension of the self, to articulate one’s will and to bend the body of limits. … She reminds me of the imaginative intensity that children take on to push past time and space, or, perhaps, refine the ways in which they understand even their own capabilities.”
By pulling us into the possibility of other worlds, games push us closer to understanding our possible selves; and the pushable structures of games can remind us of our ability to push the “rules” of our world. Laws of physics and the like are one thing, but so much of what we accept as real and true is constructed, is more akin to the physics of games: manmade, bendable; some structures and limits we may never fully transcend, but we can reshape them, redefine them, recontextualize them, rethink them, and maybe break them like a player finding a way to glitch through a wall.
It’s that same magic of bending toward possibility that draws me now, as an adult and a writer, to poetry—one of the primary places I turn for cultivating the practice of play. (“[C]ontemporary poetry is a playground of possibility, an opening to other ways of existing,” says Sarah Nielson in the intro of BOMB Magazine’s “Why We Should Read Poetry.”)
The pursuit of the limitless within the limited is one of poetry’s central endeavors. Language itself is just a series of socially-constructed shortcuts to give shape to the abstract and communicate in lieu of telepathy. In poetry, you can become hyper-aware of how language limits our understanding through how it filters meaning, through how it can shape and obfuscate and redirect, through how it is a tool which can never be wielded with complete mastery.
But just as language comes with limits, so does it unlock possibility. A poem might impart a previously unimagined image, might defamiliarize the familiar or vice versa. Poems reach their blistered fingertips toward the ineffable until the blisters rupture—the blood finding shape in the grooves of fingerprints.
Poetry in the English language tradition has lived openly into the opportunity of free verse for fewer than 200 years. But even in free verse, there are structures: lines, stanzas, repeating sounds, patterns of images, and so on.
And the opportunity to transcend the limit of fixed forms afforded to us by the lineage of Walt Whitman can still by contrast make the idea of writing in pre-determined forms enticing, even enchanting.
How might I fit a poem’s vastness into a sonnet’s 14 lines? How might I use rhyme to create rhythm and pattern without the poem feeling predictable or antiquated? How might I honor or subvert the tradition of the haiku or sestina or villanelle, while also pushing the boundaries and making it my own?
According to T.S. Eliot, “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas.” Amorak Huey and W. Todd Kaneko add, in their book Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology, “We often do our best work when we’re pushing against something, fighting with the difficult or uncomfortable part of a writing challenge.”
We see this, too, in video games, though generally less because of self-imposed constraint and instead because of technological ones: in some cases, creative decisions weren’t just made despite the limitations, but because of them. Mario’s iconic mustache was added so Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t have to animate a mouth in such limited pixels. Little Mac from Punch Out! needed to be small so he didn’t block too much of the screen given that the player’s perspective is fixed just behind him, but this size constraint feeds into both his name and his character context as an underdog.
There’s a version of this essay that adds these parts toward a conclusion of being thankful for barriers, for struggles, for hardship—that praises the hurdle because its presence sweetens the air above it as your soaring knee clears the metal. That is not the version of this essay I’m interested in.
Rather: I want the world in which I retained that sense of self I had before schema, before memory, as a small child when I didn’t question putting barrettes in my hair, just as I didn’t ask questions about what my toys couldn’t do or who would or wouldn’t coexist in a world together.
I want the world in which the students I mentor don’t have to confide in me their queerness because there is no need to emerge, no need to escape the harshness of their fear, no need to be protected as they prepare.
I want the world in which I am not afraid, in which my conflicts are intrapersonal and interpersonal but not pushing against power, in which the coding of our platform is not embedded with statistics and new stories and studies and lore of our deaths, our disadvantage, our worries and sorrows.
I want the world in which I can spend more time than not in the final line of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Encounter”: “I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.”
I will praise the incandescent sun over Anor Londo, how its flames model a hope beyond the dark and downtrodden world of Dark Souls, fallen from glory—will praise the sunlight piercing the window in the ceiling of Princess Peach’s castle knowing that looking through it will grant me wings to fly above.
But I do not want the takeaway to be that limitations are inherently good, though of course they in context can be; I can praise my strength and resilience without praising the struggle through which I built it. Still, having safe, controlled environments in which to play, to lean toward a fullness of imagination and discovery gives us space to practice, gives us structure so we don’t lose ourselves as we do our best to progress. Gives us a sandbox in which to practice building as we learn to move away from internalizing the barriers of the world around us and into Barbie’s desire at the end of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”
During a panel discussion in which poet Franny Choi was asked about their poem “Field Trip to the Museum of American History,” they discuss how the poem arose from advocating for the kind of world the poem describes—a world in which police violence is an unfamiliar, near-forgotten past—but, despite that advocacy, having trouble believing that world was possible because they hadn’t seen it; the poem then became “a brief teleportation” into living something beyond our present.
That’s what I aim to praise here: the teleportation, the inhabiting of worlds that give us what we need to make this one better, the cultivated balance of agency and openness that strengthens our bonds with ourselves and with others.
And so I keep pushing toward where we might go, through games—where, according to Shigeru Miyamoto, “indeterminacy, knowing that something might happen, is the most fun”—through writing—which is, in the words of Alexander Chee, “to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it”—and in my day-to-day even when I’m not engaged in those activities.
Returning always to play in its various forms doesn’t let me forget: the questions we have filled with skepticism and pessimism and doubt are not the only questions, and there’s no limit to the number of better questions we might imagine and ask—and maybe answer.
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit. The author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020) and a graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA program, they currently live and teach in Minnesota.