The Games People Play

Game-playing for writers isn’t a statement about personal development. It’s a secret ingredient for craft. Games activate story, story-people, POV, circumstances, setting and meaning. And so much more.

It’s how humans get what we want. We play to win. We play for keeps (at least at that moment). We play.

Games are the gifts that keep on giving. One of the most effective and efficient, not to mention resonant, ways of allowing readers to have their own experiences amongst our words, is to allow our characters to play the games they know so well. We all do it.

If a camera were watching us, we’d know it’s a game to hide, poke, avoid, distract, comfort, loosen up, etc. That intention in the context of a game allows writers to bypass intellect and go straight into the bodies of readers.

For instance, we can tell in a nano-second what people know about each other and how long they’ve known it by how well they play the game. Right? We learn what their values are, how familiar they are with others and their circumstances; we learn about their skills and expertise; about their blindspots and wishful thinking. It’s exciting just to imagine it.

Sure, a story-person can go to their closet to grab what they’re going to wear for the day and leave. But imagine if they go to that closet, have a particular effect they want to make with what they wear and choose just the write shirt, jacket, cuff-links, socks, etc. to get what they want. Now we’ve got the beginnings of a game. Then, they enter a setting, they’re fiddling with the cuff-link to see if it’s noticed. It’s not noticed. They play harder. The person they’re playing with catches on that they’re in a game and they resist. Our person leans over the desk. Takes off the cuff-link, etc. What matters is not what the game is, but rather that the reader learns so much about who the story-people are, what they want, their POV on the world and that moment; and, most importantly, the meanings that are emerging as they play to win.

All people play games. It’s in our nature. We do it at the grocery store, in our minds, with our spouses, with people we don’t like and those we love—it’s a fundamental part of how we make it through. Making their work harder, writers often leave the game-playing out.



The good news is that games are often already embedded in a text, if only the writer would peel off some of the words and let the characters have at it.

Try this:

What was your favourite game as a kid? Or now? Integrate the game into a scene. For instance, I’m a hide and seek guy. In a scene where a cop is at the door of a mother protecting her son, she might crack the door and mislead the officer. He might catch on that she’s hiding something. He might press farther. She might say too much or too little. Either way, for the purposes of craft and activation, we’ve got two people playing to win. And so, story. Go for it.

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