This dissertation explains the work of hegemonic play in understanding what games are and what they do. This explanation is used to formalize a new theoretical and practical model for games criticism that can also be applied in literary, media, and social criticism. The present moment has been dubbed a “ludic age” as our algorithmically-informed world increasingly resembles game systems, a similarity exacerbated by an ongoing and intentional surge in deploying game concepts across every corner of organizable experience. Despite these signals to the value of reading games within ordinary experience, there persists a deeply held belief that the essential nature of games lies in their radical difference to non-game or “real” life. In Playing Badly, I challenge the game/nongame dichotomy on its logical and philosophical grounds and with regards to its practical utility, arguing that classical game ontology offers neither a compelling description of games nor the means to use that description robustly in critical work. By rethinking game ontology, my argument reveals games’ crucial role in producing and maintaining the fiction of stability on which everyday forms of life depend. Reading texts, whether social, digital, or traditional, from this ludic perspective offers a framework for critiquing the ethical stakes at play within each system. Games, however generous one is with that category, exercise power by formalizing values in their rules. Ultimately, my project creates space for resistance by using the concept of cheating to reveal opportunities for play within the systems of value represented in our texts and by extension the systems in which we live our lives. To contextualize my intervention, I explain the strengths and weaknesses of current views on game ontology within game studies and offer an alternative argument in favor of a game-specific ontology generated through the interaction of a game’s socio-historical context, formal components (rule interactions and representational choices), and the term hegemonic play, which refers to a way of playing a game that reinforces its dominant hierarchy of values. I contend this approach better accounts for the dynamism inherent in games, which change depending on where, when, and by whom they are played. It is the concept of cheating that organizes these forces and offers an infinitely clearer picture of the borders of the protean texts we call games. I present an array of readings of traditional, social, and digital texts that demonstrate how cheating makes the values at play within game structures legible and how this view of games can be brought to bear on other texts where game structures predominate, which is to say any text at all.