The full title to this book is Fun, Taste, & Games: An Aesthetics of the Idle, Unproductive, and Otherwise Playful.
This Book and The Eureka Room
I’ve split my thoughts on this book into two posts. One for the book itself and another on some particular passages and ideas spoke directly to what I’m trying to do with The Eureka Room. This post is the former.
This book is a series of 14 essays. John Sharp is Associate Professor at the New School. David Thomas is Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Denver. The book is part of the 11-volume “Playful Thinking” series.
To look at the cover, you might think this would be a whimsical, lighthearted examination of the subject. (In fact, that impression is why it took me so long to buy this book).
But, as the cliche goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Here’s a typical passage:
Related is the smaller aesthetic of rhizomatic empowerment. This is the fantasy of getting beyond stasis and overcoming the challenge to radically or substantively change the system rather than allowing it to return to its natural state. It is the very thing that seduces us into the ludic fallacy, a concept we borrow from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, feeling empowered by being in control of a system, by seeing the world as a systems diagram through which we can exert control of stocks and flows (if only things were so simple).
Not exactly whimsical.
But for me, that’s exactly what I was looking for. A more serious examination with people who believe it a legitimate and important topic.
It’s not all written this eruditically. The authors do often come out of academic waters to get some colloquial air fairly occasionally.
If you’re looking for other fun/games books and resources this book is absolutely packed with references to related books on play and games. The amount of research and effort that went into this book but it startlingly clear: they take this subject seriously.
The “Why” of the Book
The book’s stated goal is, “to reclaim fun as an important philosophical concept for making sense of play and games.” They say, “Fun is an assumed pleasurable experience, enjoyment, or kind of hedonic object but otherwise is left undertheorized.”
The problem, as they see it is that “art and beauty … get a seat at the adult table of culture” but fun does not.
I agree. The idea that “fun” is for kids or that it’s a lesser virtue is something I deal with on a daily basis with the Eureka Room. It’s hard to say you provide “fun” without sounding like you provide something cheap or unnecessary or juvenile.
The authors argue that while games and gameplay (i.e., play within the context of a game) have been examined a lot, play itself – the actual ephemeral thing all humans crave – is given short shrift. One of the main problems is that, historically, the medium for creating play is typically the focus instead of the play itself. Multiple essays go into how this way of thinking came about and why it sticks around.
I thought the book was at its best when it got aspirational, like in this passage:
“What if player choice were more about the moment and less about building toward a conclusion? What if obscurity were paramount, and clarity were unwanted? What if player power were not limited to the confines of the play space? What if more game makers and game players were open to games enabling more than meaningful choice? To us, that would be more fun.” (p91)
As usual for my reviews, this is not a summary. It’s just the parts I feel were the most valuable to me. I hope this short and selective overview inspires you to pick this book up. I thought it was great.
First a few definitions from the authors, along with my paraphrasing.
“Fun describes the experience of a person playfully engaging with a situation or object.”
Set-outsideness + Ludic form + ambiguity = fun. Each of these concepts requires some elaboration, so I’ll suggest you read the book. But if I had to paraphrase, set-outsideness is the idea that you are aware of your reality and the reality of some pretend world. Ludic form are all the things, properties of those things, and the rules of that pretend world. (#designingexperiences) Ambiguity is the challenge the pretend world gives you to “figure it out” and close the gap between what you know and don’t know.
A more digestible definition from Ian Bogost: “Fun is pleasure with surprises.”
They define Play Style as what we want to be doing while playing and how we want to create meaning while playing. Some styles are about imagination, others are about winning, others are about killing time, or building, or learning, etc. There’s many play styles.
Mixing people whose play style is about winning with those that want something casual and more social lessens the potential fun for both groups. I’ve seen this in The Eureka Room more than once. Some people want to goof off and others want to “do it right”. It’s really hard to make groups like that work.
I think there’s a lot that can be said about taste but I’ll leave it at this passage and you can read more in the book.
“Taste should be recognized for what it is at the core – someone’s opinion shaped through a mix of experience, preference, and community standards and practices. To say something “isn’t” – isn’t good, isn’t a game, isn’t worth the time – is to refuse the legitimacy of the game maker, the game, and the game’s players.”
They bring up the idea some have put forward that most videogames – wait for it – are not games at all. Those making the claim believe that this is because games are more interested in “fun” than in “play”. You’ll have to read the book to get the explanation. That’s where it gets into the set-outsidness and ludic forms, from the opening passage.
If I were to paraphrase it (probably badly), videogames inherently have constraints which limit freedom and that limits fun.
A nice quote from the authors: “Games don’t need to be much”
Art vs Play
“Art invites introspection. Play demands interaction and participation.”
There’s an entire chapter dedicated to Meow Wolf and the burgeoning “immersive art” movement. When forced to choose category the authors put Meow Wolf in the “art gallery” category. But they note its playfulness and ultimately declare that the choice is no longer (and never was) either/or – things can be art and play.
Personally, I think art (despite its invitation for reflection) is more “look at me” and play is more “look at you”.