Game (not) over

What if play is not an action but a mindset?

Modern Women
4 min readMay 5, 2024


Artwork by the author (Agnes). Find more illustrations on my Instagram!

The prompt

What does play mean for adults? Do you play? How often and how easily? March’s prompt for Modern Women invited readers to think about how we play, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

I could quickly come up with the first answers… Do you play? Yes. How often and how easily? All the time, without thinking. But the prompt also posited that “play is a luxury in this culture.” A statement that had me reviewing my original answers with curiosity, confusion, and a little guilt.

If play is a thing we have to do, another thing to make time for, to check off the list, then I can see how it can feel like “play is a luxury in this culture.” I can understand where the statement comes from, but I also think that anything can be “play”. Maybe my brain is wired weirdly, but the more I think about it, the more I think play is more mindset than action.

When I’m sitting in a cafe waiting for my order, my brain makes up stories about the people around me, unprompted.
When I’m in the shower, I find myself looking for animals and shapes in the mosaic pattern like a child finding dragons and castles in the clouds.
Whenever I babysat, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to play with the kids.

So where does the playful mindset come from?

I think my parents had a lot to do with this playful mindset. My dad would sit down and play Legos without us asking, and whenever we went on holiday to the beach, he’d build sandcastles and sand-cars we’d then pretend to drive in. My mother preferred make-believe games: pretend supermarket, pretend real estate office, pretend restaurateur, pretend fashion show. We’d role-play with whatever was at hand. While we’d sometimes use toys, like a toy cashier register, it was only a prop, and anything can be a prop while you’re playing. We were just as likely to use a toy phone as we were to use a calculator or an altogether imaginary phone.

I think growing up with siblings who are close in age probably helped to keep the playful mindset active too. We played all the time. We played waiting-room games like I Spy and Would You Rather? We played computer games like Age of Empires and good old-fashioned board games too. We still do! Whenever we played make-believe, we’d always start the game by choosing names and ages (it seems random now, but who knows why kids do what they do). So we’d pick a name and age, like we were drafting the characters we’d play and then we’d be astronauts, explorers, cowboys, detectives. “Detectives” was definitely a favorite.

We also played with toys. We would combine Power Rangers, McDonald’s HappyMeal-tiny-Barbies, superheroes, pirates, and dinosaurs, we did not discriminate. Much like in Toy Story, our play-villages were made up of an assortment of heroes and villains. We had a diverse cast of characters brought together by stories with ongoing plots. Come to think of it, our Lego figures also had names and backstories; whenever we played, we weren’t playing with plastic, we were playing with characters.

Playful mindset beyond the typical games

Okay, so the examples of my childhood games are more obvious forms of play, but aren’t we playing make-believe every time we follow an author’s words to a setting, cast, or set of situations they came up with? I think reading is playing too. I get really into the books I read, I laugh out loud, I tell the characters off, I cringe, and I shake my head when I see them going the wrong way.

For some reason, it took me longer than it should have to realize that bullfighters killed the bull, even though in Spanish we call them matadores. I was riding the bus to work at 6:30 AM when Hemingway described the killing moment in The Sun Also Rises, and I actually exclaimed out loud, shocking the other passengers out of their slumbers. If that level of engagement is not imagination at work, I don’t know what is.

My maybe favorite form of play is writing. It’s definitely how I play most often, and most creatively too. When I write essays and make up metaphors, when I write poetry and play with words, when I write fiction and dress up as my characters, walk their steps, talk in their voices, and use their gestures, I am playing. I get to build, color, break, and rebuild with the most malleable of materials. Isn’t that play?

Maybe it’s my upbringing, maybe it’s my reading addiction or my writer-brain, but I feel like there’s at least one type of play that’s more mindset than action. It’s just letting our imagination take the reins. It’s a type of play that can use props but doesn’t require them. It can be done anywhere, anytime for as little or as long as you like.

So to answer the prompt: yes, I play. I play all the time.



Modern Women

Slow runner, fast walker. I have dreamed in different languages. I read a lot. Yes, my curls are real.