Do you want to play a game?

For children, play comes so naturally. They don’t have to be encouraged to play. They don’t need equipment, or the latest graphics processors, or the perfect conditions—they just do it. What’s more, study after study has found that play has a crucial role in childhood growth and development. If you want to witness the absolute rapture of creative expression, just observe the unstructured play of children.

So what happens to us as we grow older? Children begin to compete with each other by age four or five. Play begins to transform from something we do purely for fun into something we use to achieve status and rank ourselves against other people. We play to score points. We play to win. 

And with that, play starts to become something different. Not that it can’t still be fun and joyful! Even watching other people play will bring us joy. We enjoy watching other people play so much and get so much joy by proxy from watching their achievements that we spend massive amounts of money to do so. According to StubHub, the average price of a ticket to the Super Bowl this year was $8,600. The average price for a Super Bowl ad was a cool $7 million this year, according to Ad Age

This kind of interest doesn’t just apply to physical games. Video-game streaming has long been a mainstay on YouTube, and entire industries have risen up around it. Top streamers on Twitch—Amazon’s livestreaming service, which is heavily gaming focused—earn upwards of $100,000 per month. And the global market for video games themselves is projected to bring in some $282 billion in revenue this year

Simply put, play is serious business. 

There are fortunes to be had in making our play more appealing, more accessible, more fun. All of the features in this issue dig in on the enormous amount of research and development that goes into making play “better.”  

On our cover this month is executive editor Niall Firth’s feature on the ways AI is going to upend game development. As you will read, we are about to enter the Wild West—Red Dead or not—of game character development. How will games change when they become less predictable and more fully interactive, thanks to AI-driven nonplayer characters who can not only go off script but even continue to play with each other when we’re not there? Will these even be games anymore, or will we simply be playing around in experiences? What kinds of parasocial relationships will we develop in these new worlds? It’s a fascinating read. 

There is no sport more intimately connected to the ocean, and to water, than surfing. It’s pure play on top of the waves. And when you hear surfers talk about entering the flow state, this is very much the same kind of state children experience at play—intensely focused, losing all sense of time and the world around them. Finding that flow no longer means living by the water’s edge, Eileen Guo reports. At surf pools all over the world, we’re piping water into (or out of) deserts to create perfect waves hundreds of miles from the ocean. How will that change the sport, and at what environmental cost? 

Just as we can make games more interesting, or bring the ocean to the desert, we have long pushed the limits of how we can make our bodies better, faster, stronger. Among the most recent ways we have done this is with the advent of so-called supershoes—running shoes with rigid carbon-fiber plates and bouncy proprietary foams. The late Kelvin Kiptum utterly destroyed the men’s world record for the marathon last year wearing a pair of supershoes made by Nike, clocking in at a blisteringly hot 2:00:35. Jonathan W. Rosen explores the science and technology behind these shoes and how they are changing the sport, especially in Kenya. 

There’s plenty more, too. So I hope you enjoy the Play issue. We certainly put a lot of work into it. But of course, what fun is play if you don’t put in the work?

Thanks for reading,

Mat Honan

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