playing the believing game

doubt and belief, not "game-ified"—something better

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When I teach young engineers how to think about design in practice, I teach them Peter Elbow's idea of games—the doubting game and the believing game—for evaluating possible designs in their early state. In the lab or studio, the hardest question to answer is What shall we build? What shall we? The most energizing question for engineers usually comes after this shall bit. They want to rush to: How do we build it? Or even: What can we build with the stuff we’ve got? They want to minimize the talking and get to the build itself, wrangling with code or laser cutters or 3D printing.

I actually admire this eagerness to get to the build, because it celebrates so much agency, so much willingness to try. My students’ how knowledge easily outpaces mine, fast. And I love to watch the build itself: the smell and the mess of the woodshops and waterjet cutters and welding stations. Engineers are the opposite of armchair critics. They want to get to the proposition, to the testing and prototyping where criticism stops. And academia, it hardly needs saying, could use some more builder’s instinct. It’s chock full of criticism—of every form of exacting, absolutely necessary, but also absolutely limited (and sometimes calcified) criticism.

But back to Elbow and the games. In the design studio or engineering lab, there’s an interminable phase when there are several options on the table to pursue, and we have to evaluate each one before the great energy of The Build can begin. If the feasibility questions are mechanical, we can probably test out some low-fi prototypes and get some sense of whether they’ll work. But if the ideas are more wide-ranging in their scale or form—one’s an app, say, and one’s a physical gadget, and one’s an interactive service—we have to employ a whole set of criteria to judge which early direction is even worth our time. So we have to discuss it, have the back-and-forth. And the easiest thing to do in those situations is to find weaknesses in various ideas, and then build the thing with the fewest of those weaknesses. But if you’re always landing at building the least objectionable idea, you’re rarely doing ambitious work. Nobody hates it, but maybe nobody really loves it either. And that’s where both doubting and believing, when taken up as games, do their necessary playful work.

Elbow was writing in defense of the believing necessary to fully encounter someone else’s ideas, while acknowledging that its opposite, the doubting game, would always be the important but unexamined default mode of classroom discussion. He was a writer and a professor of writing, and as such, a great practitioner of the doubting enterprise: what he called the practice of “seeking truth by indirection—by seeking error.” Doubting is crucial for strong, dimensional thinking, he writes: “To doubt well, it helps if you make a special effort to extricate yourself from the assertions in question—especially those which you find self-evident. You must hold off to one side the self, its wishes, preconceptions, experiences, and commitments.” In the practice of doubting (which is indeed a practice), you must “assume [an assertion] is untrue if you want to find its weakness. The truer it seems, the harder you have to doubt it.”

The problem, Elbow writes, is not the strong work of vigorous doubting. It’s the “monopoly” that the doubting game holds in the classroom, and moreover a tacit monopoly that risks training young writers, or young engineers, into assuming one important practice—one game laden with doubt, with all of doubt’s affordances and limitations and advantages and tradeoffs—is the one sole practice for Best Thinking. It’s the assumption of rigor that’s only achieved by seeking error in some piece of text, some line of argument, some (in my case) glancing light of an idea in design:

…to almost anyone in the academic or intellectual world, it seems as though when he plays the doubting game he is being rigorous, disciplined, rational, and tough-minded. And if for any reason he refrains from playing the doubting game, he feels he is being unintellectual, irrational, and sloppy. Even those few people who are actually against the doubting game nevertheless give in to the same view of the intellectual enterprise: they assume they must be against intellectuality and rationality itself if they are against the doubting game.

Again: doubting is crucial, for Elbow teaching writing and for me coming alongside young technical makers. One could argue that engineers need much more robust doubting than they seem to practice in start-up culture. But recognizing doubting as a game—not as a silly or lightweight matter, but as a ritual, with protocols and starts and stops—helps us see its uses and its limitations, both. We’re seeking error in our possible ideas, for sure. But have we fully submitted also, equally, to the possibilities before us, no matter how outlandish or counterintuitive?

The believing game, Elbow writes, actually teaches a harder thing than seeking error. And it’s not just not-criticizing:

The monopoly of the doubting game makes people think the doubting muscle—the sensitivity to dissonance—is the only muscle in their heads, and that belief is nothing but the absence of doubt: the activity of believing something consists of refraining from doubting it, or better yet, trying to doubt it but not succeeding.   

Consider the average discussion you’ve had about some think-piece online, some unifying theory of some social ill, some possible new direction for your group to pursue. This is the fragile state of the design lab when ideas are trying to get born: The doubters tend to score rhetorical (and therefore persuasive) points for knocking down ideas, full stop. But believing, Elbow says, is a separate muscle entirely, a willed and practiced capacity to assume some idea in a text, or some possible technical choice, or some inkling held before a group, is worth considering as if it were full of truth, for a set amount of time. It’s not just the “yes, and” approach that improv-style brainstorming is famous for. Believing is granting some interpretation of what’s at hand a provisional but deep sense of rightness. For a set amount of time. For that time—for the length of the believing game—your whole self is devoted to this idea, to see if the space and breathing room you give it helps you to see it in its full possibility.

Elbow writes that seeing and practicing these two games as games is “inherently social,” which is surely an understatement. They’re one way you can circumvent the shut-down of an argument, by inviting others to consider an idea for longer, or to doubt and believe in turn.* When I teach students in design to play the games, in tandem and with utter devotion to each, to practice hearing one another and building the muscle for belief, I’m hoping it’s not just for engineering.

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[photo credit, Olin College]

*If you’re in a classroom or otherwise convening groups who need to believe and doubt, here’s a smart basic list of behaviors in each.


Thanks for being here. I’ve moved to Substack—you don’t have to do anything to keep getting these emails—and soon I’ll explore more on games, more on doubting and believing beyond the studio, plus human work as human worth, and the logic of the market in both left and right political criticism.


I’m Sara Hendren. I’m an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at Olin College. My first book What Can A Body Do? How We Meet the Built World was published in August 2020 by Riverhead.