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In defense of making spreadsheets for fun

By Tyler Robertson · September 23, 2020
Hero image of a game created inside a Google Sheet

In August, I made a spreadsheet that simulates live baseball games. It was a desperate attempt to grab hold of some semblance of control over the disaster roulette that is this year. It was an act of blind curiosity, a one-time thing. But, despite my best efforts, it got its hooks into me.

I keep making weird spreadsheets for fun.

First, the baseball game. Next, an NES-style puzzle game. Then sudoku. Block-pushing puzzles. Most recently, a working poker table. I can't stop.

A screenshot of the baseball spreadsheet that Tyler made
The spreadsheet that started it all

I think everyone should start making spreadsheets for fun (including you!). Here's why.

Reclaim power from your spreadsheet overlords

Look. It's 2020. A lot of you are working remotely. Basically everyone reading this has to deal with spreadsheets on the daily, and it feels terrible. There's enough going on in the world, and the last thing we want to do is parse someone else's bad spreadsheet. But we keep doing it. We have to do it. We've become accustomed to spreadsheets being a necessary evil in our lives. It's just the way things are.

But what if they didn't have to be?

What if you could take the spreadsheet and make it something not boring? Something you enjoyed using? Something you loved?

Making a spreadsheet for fun puts you in control. No longer must you bow to your manager's incomprehensible font choices, eye-watering color choices, dizzying arrays of unsorted data, or that one coworker who is somehow still selecting a row right in the middle of that sheet you use every day. Today is the day you rise up and say "No more!" Today is the day you reject someone else's SUM formulas! Today is the day you go out and make a spreadsheet that's all about you.

Putting aside my aspiration to become Peter Finch in Network, let's try this as an exercise:

  • Make a new Google Sheets spreadsheet.

  • Pick a cell, any cell.

  • Put a word in that cell, any word.

That spreadsheet is yours now. Breathe it in.

It feels good, right?

Unlock new skills

Making something that is intentionally supposed to be Weird and/or Fun gives you an incredible amount of power. First, making something For Fun often means that you have a clearer vision of what the end goal is, and you tend to enjoy that end goal more. Second, making something Wacky or Weird means that you're not upset when things go sideways (yes, I've become the Bob Ross of spreadsheets).

For spreadsheets, odds are that anything you make for fun will be 100000% more enjoyable than the spreadsheets you make for work, by default (unless you really love pivot tables, in which case good on you). When you hit a snag on a new project that you really, really want to see become a reality, you're more likely to keep trying new things until it finally works.

For example, after getting the baseball "game" up and running, I decided that I wanted to make a spreadsheet that was also a real, playable video game.

I wanted buttons you could press, that would move a little character around the screen. I had no idea if it was possible when I started, but I really wanted to find out. Spoiler alert: it was possible.

Sheethack in motion

Working within constraints reveals new options

How many great inventions or works of art started with someone saying, "You couldn't possibly do that with this"? That's what making spreadsheets for fun feels like, and why I'm hooked on it.

When you look at a spreadsheet and think something like, "This couldn't possibly be a working Game Boy," that's your chance to prove yourself wrong.

Sheetkoban in motion

If it helps, have someone else tell you something is impossible, because doing something out of spite is the most fun of all.

You can take it with you

When you've completed your spreadsheet-based hero's journey, and received your ultimate boon of a fun spreadsheet, you still get to return home with your new skills. When you get back to work and realize that "real" spreadsheets are still boring, you can kick down the proverbial door and make that spreadsheet incredible. You're the Ruler of Two Spreadsheet Worlds now. All the cells are belong to you.

Two examples:

I spent a weekend making a working Sudoku game in a spreadsheet.

Solving the sudoku is totally worth it

I then realized I could use the same conditional formatting I learned about while making that, and apply it to the to-do list that my partner and I share.

Here's why Google Sheets should be your to-do list. It's not just for conditional formatting.

I made a single typo in the block-pushing puzzle game without realizing, and then copied that formula 127 times, rendering the entire spreadsheet suddenly and mysteriously unusable. Instead of spending hours painstakingly fixing each cell, I got to learn about Google Sheets' robust find/replace features (which include regular expression support) to fix 128 cells with 8 formulas each, all at once. The very next week, I used that same feature to fix a spreadsheet that I'd given up on nearly a year ago.

Ready for more revelations? Here are 6 Google Sheets functions that do more than math.

When you return to your boring spreadsheets with all this new knowledge, the best part is that no one has to know that you learned it while making a spreadsheet for fun. You get to be the genius that adds a new feature to the year-end budget, or makes the break-evens easier to read, all because you took time out to tackle spreadsheets from a different perspective.

Hit the row, Jack

Want to make a spreadsheet for fun, but you're not sure where to start? I made a spreadsheet that shows a new fun spreadsheet idea every minute, so you can get to making your own.

If you've already got a boring spreadsheet that needs a bit of punching up, here are 6 ways you can automate it right now.

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