I’m trying an experiment.
In Fall 2019, I was an artist in residence at NYU’s ITP. As part of my residency, I taught a course called Games + Joy, which used joy as an aesthetic lens for game and play design, tracing the use of joy through art history and political activism. In December, swimming in notes, I cheerfully expected I’d hole up, furiously research and write and interview even more, and turn it into a massive book. Then the world exploded, and hiding up in my office tapping away at a word processor to send a massive .docx out a year or more later seemed like the most miserable thing I could choose to do in my spare time.
But I didn’t want the work to die on the vine. So I thought: why not turn the course as it is into a written series? Something between lecture and book that I could release in increments. Joy is just as important now as it was before, anyway.
So, here it is: Games, Play, and Joy, very much a work-in-progress, lightly edited to make sense as essays instead of classes, for your perusal. It will probably be about s̵i̵x̵ eight parts total. Here’s the table of contents so far:
Joy is important.
It’s one of those concepts that we can easily take for granted. We have all, hopefully, felt joy overtake us at some point or another in our lives, and so we tend to assume that we all know what joy is — even if we can’t quite put it into words. Instead, we tend to make it synonymous with “happiness” or “fun,” or other concepts that dance with joy, but ultimately don’t fully encapsulate it.
Joy is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. It is also delicate. Much like with fun, we can’t always predict how or why it happens. To try and distill it to a pure science, in an attempt to create the One Joyful Experience Template to stamp onto everything else, is the quickest way to get it to evaporate.
But, in the same way that we can use game design principles to help coax fun out of a set of rules, there are tactics we can use to try and design for joy that are useful, productive, meaningful. The foundation I have always found to provide the most stable is to begin from the other end: to design the experience that people like you need now. That is a vantage point that is fruitful, and that only you can bring to the table.
Speaking of vantage points, of course I can only provide my own. This series is, emphatically, not at all meant to define some comprehensive set of All Joyful Mechanics Possible, or to define “joy” or “games” or “play” or “fun” once and for all (a few games studies scholars might have a word).
Instead, this series meant to:
- Get you thinking about why we play, and what it means for a playful experience to create joy.
- Help you develop a toolbox of playful techniques that can be used across all sorts of contexts, and used to evoke different flavors of joy (or sniff out new ones).
- Tie these tactics to larger art practices, both historical and contemporary, and apply them to you own.
All of this is subjective. My only concrete hope is that every single person who engages with this course material goes off and makes the kind of joyous games I could never dream of.
So, how do we approach joyful play? After all, we’re using two words here that emphatically resist definition, and we’re using them together.
Since we’ve admitted the subject’s subjectivity, let’s lean into it. Let’s begin on ground we all know intuitively: what has good play felt like? And what has bad play felt like?
Think back to some concrete examples in your own life, whether digital or analog, from yesterday or ten years ago. Consider: what made the bad experiences feel so bad? What made the good ones feel so good? How did you feel before and after each? What could you have changed about the bad to maybe make them good? Let’s bias ourselves towards multiplayer games, too — perhaps that can help us tease out some answers.
If you try this exercise with a group, the surface level differences crop up immediately. One person’s most glorious memories may be of the genius plays made silently, almost psychically, by a team of high-level athletes during a high-pressure game.
Another person may shiver at the very sight of a jersey, plagued by memories of being picked last in gym class or mercilessly walloped in the face with dodgeballs.
Even on an individual level, it all depends. You may have a blast playing Quiplash with your closest friends, but pass when the audience is your coworkers or inlaws. Or what felt like good play to young-you may sound absolutely appalling now: there’s a reason most adults don’t bust out Candyland for their board game nights, and why most kids don’t tend to wait with baited breath for the results of the Spiel des Jahres awards.
That is: good and bad play are different for every person, even within a person’s lifetime. The things that evoke good and bad play aren’t limited to one genre, media, context, or difficulty level — or even “good”-ness or “fun”-ness of the game at its core.
So what are the through-lines? If the surfaces are all different, can we find any meaningful similarities on a more embodied level?
What tends to come up — and tends being the operative word, since again this is more like using a divining rod than it is like aerial mapping —are the emotional qualities of playing, both during and afterwards.
The experiences that people tend to categorize under “good” involve a level of safety and support; of feeling pulled to participate; of wanting to play more; of feeling energized or new or part of something larger afterwards. Think of the rush of being part of a team that has somehow, silently, on instinct and training, just maneuvered to score an excellent goal; or the improv team that anticipates each other’s moves just so, making brilliant callback jokes and setting each other up for success; or even the solo player up against a nearly-impossible level designed by a devious game designer, failing constantly but chipping away and feeling themselves learning and getting better every single time. (The experiences that people tend to categorize under “bad” tend to feel quite the opposite: embarrassing, alienating, and shameful, making them want to quit; feeling worse after than when they started.)
That is: after good play, whatever that means to us, we tend to feel different: more alive, more energized, happier, more creative, more capable, closer to each other, and larger than ourselves — a process described by the wonderful game designer and author Bernie DeKoven as “co-liberation.”
DeKoven defines coliberation as:
what happens when we work or play extraordinarily well together. Like on a basketball team or in an orchestra, when we actually experience ourselves sharing in something bigger than any one who is present.
Coliberation isn’t boxed in by the game: it continues on after the game ends. As DeKoven describes in The Well Played Game (an essential for any game designer’s library) means:
[Co-liberation is] when we actually experience ourselves sharing in something bigger than any one who is present… We return changed, not the same person we were — our understanding of who and what we can become, our very selves, our relationships — redefined.
DeKoven believed that you could experience co-liberation through what he called a “well-played” game. “Well-played” doesn’t necessarily have to do with winning, or skill levels, or the beauty of the game design on paper. To him, a well-played game was a time when we had fun, and that fun was created together, collaboratively. To paraphrase DeKoven, his notion of a “well-played” game includes game we modified, or cheated at,¹ or otherwise changed the rules for, until it felt fun for us, together.
As game designers, this may feel like a backwards way of thinking about games. The whole point of our craft is that we make carefully-considered, continually-tested rules that other people follow! This is why we have game design courses, and playtesting, and spreadsheets to do math for us!
And yet, there is a wonderful alchemy happening in these experiences anyway: an attunement and an aliveness — which is only happening because people are playing the game — that, I would argue, is just as worthy a goal as designing a perfect system in the first place.
So how does joy tie into this? Well, in the same way that co-liberation can expand out of play, we can think of joy as a similar process of attunement and increased capacity, to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. This process not only affects us: it helps counter the stultifying forces in the world around us, providing new ways to think and do and be, on a level that can be revolutionary. This link between joy and revolution/resistance is one of the core theses of carla bergman and Nick Montgomery’s incredible book Joyful Militancy² (which will come up plenty through the rest of this series).
Their definition of joy is comes from the work of Baruch Spinoza, which harmonizes beautifully with the sentiment behind DeKoven’s co-liberation:
From Spinoza, joy means an increase in a body’s capacity to affect and be affected. It means becoming capable of feeling or doing something new; it is not just a subjective feeling, but a real event that takes place. This increase in capacity is a process of transformation, and it might feel scary, painful, and exhilarating… It is the growth of shared power to do, feel, and think more.
This allows us to carefully peel “joy” away from “fun” or “happiness.” The things that feel familiar to us, or that make us feel temporarily happy, may not actually make us feel joy — they may ultimately be stultifying and disempowering. On the flip side, a process of joyful transformation might be difficult, or scary, or upsetting, and yet still invigorating, giving us new insight into ourselves and the world.
Furthermore, joy is not just aesthetically or emotionally important — it is politically important. We live our lives in the context of Empire: a shorthand they use to describe “the organized destruction under which we live”:
Empire administers a war with other forms of life. The rhythms it imposes are at once absorptive and isolating. Even when this war takes the apparently subtle forms of assimilation and control, it is backed by brutal violence. […] Empire works to monopolize the whole field of life, crushing autonomy and inducing dependence.
What can possibly counteract the totalizing crush of Empire? The transformational process of joy. bergman and Montgomery posit “the process of becoming more capable” as “fundamental to undoing Empire,” seeping in at its cracks and edges. “This feeling of the power to change one’s life and circumstances,” they say, “is at the core of collective resistance, insurrections, and the construction of alternatives to life under Empire.”
How do we create situations where we feel more alive and capable than before? What makes the intransigence of oppression feel a little less stable? What might create more room to move and breathe?
As game and play designers, we are professional situations-creators. The rules and contexts we design give our players excuses to do unusual things, to behave with new relations to themselves and others, to imagine other possibilities and become something new together, to create such room to breath, to create cracks in Empire. We have the ability, as anna anthropy says in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (another critical book for any game designer), to offer more than “such a narrow view of what it is to be human.”
So: what possibilities do we want to offer?
What feelings do our players want to experience? What kind of joy do they need in their lives, and how can we design rulesets and contexts to help them get there?
We’ll get into more in Part 2.
Hope you enjoyed! If folks seem to like this series, I’ll keep going. If you want to buy me a socially-distanced coffee, you can do so here. If you want to donate somewhere, I think these folks are pretty cool.
 In fact, DeKoven sees cheating as a way to “design a game as it is being played.” The best kind of cheating is, he says, “when the cheater actually makes the game more fun, for all the players:
“In The Well-Played Game I call this “the well-timed cheat,” because it is usually put into practice at the moment it is most needed — just when the game isn’t as much fun as it should be, when people are getting too serious about winning or losing, when they are at risk of getting hurt, physically, emotionally. So somebody does something that is not only a flagrant violation of the rules, but also makes everyone laugh. Like knocks the pieces off the board, or runs out of the game and comes back with two more balls, or starts a song that leads to a whole new game.
 This book came to my attention via Avery Alder; I mention this out of great thanks, since it sparked… well, All This, and also to point you towards her work, which I think is some of the most important and critical work in all these intersections of games, play, politics, transformation, etc. today.