Joyful Study: Review of Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification by Patrick Jagoda

Joyful Study: Review of Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification by Patrick Jagoda

Eric Stein

Under Review:

Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification. Patrick Jagoda. University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Patrick Jagoda’s Experimental Games is a thorough, insightful elaboration of an art-critical practice that he describes as a “joyful study” of digital games in the twenty-first century. Central to this project is Jagoda’s broad understanding of games (digital and otherwise) as an “experimental form” with “the potential to alter the conditions of the historical present.” Put more boldly, the premise that undergirds Jagoda’s project is that “games make realities,” and it is this practice of making that guides the book’s theorization and analysis of games.

The first part of the book, “Framework,” consists of an introduction and two theoretical chapters that establish the basis for Jagoda’s inquiry. Citing Eugen Fink, the philosopher and assistant to phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Jagoda contends that “each game is an attempt at existence, a vital experiment.” Games are not un-real, but rather work with reality, experimenting upon it, and in doing so have the potential to produce new realities. This does not mean that games are inherently utopian or resistant as a form, but rather that the experimental quality of games is neutral, identifiable in both neoliberal control systems and radical artistic works. As in Jagoda’s first book, Network Aesthetics (2016), such incommensurable situations require careful attention be paid to their “sensibilities of distribution,” a task that Jagoda handily performs.

In chapter one, “Gamification,” Jagoda first identifies the experimental quality of games in the emergence of game theory in the 1940s, tracing it through the neoliberal policy of the 1970s and 1980s and the surge of behavioral economics in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Jagoda notes that economic “game theory” (which models rational decision making) and “game studies” proper (which examines games as formal and aesthetic objects) are “often treated as separate or largely disconnected” from each other, and this chapter does excellent work remedying that gap in the scholarly discourse. By doing so, Jagoda is then able to move from the historical analysis of gamic experimentation to a formal analysis of how game experimentation works.

In chapter two, Jagoda takes up experimentation as the unique capacity of games (as opposed to literature, music, or fine art) “for testing and producing reality,” a capacity that is “experimental” in both the aesthetic and scientific senses. Though gamic experimentation supports the “influencing and modulating” practices of neoliberal capitalism through the gamification of such varied domains as education (Duolingo), dating (Tinder), and warfare (drone pilots), “affective procedures” of experimentation can also be deployed in games to transform this paradigm from the inside. Such games (including Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008), Anna Anthrophy’s Dys4ia (2012), Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013), and Toby Fox’s Undertale (2015), to name just a selection of the games Jagoda considers) operate as “alternative form[s] of experimental art-science,” working upon reality to make problems, rather than simply attempting to solve them. In this way, games are not fated to reproduce the dominant system of the historical present, but can, in an “untimely” way, “manifest…unrealized historical potentials.”

At this point, Jagoda transitions to part two of the book, “Concepts,” a section consisting of four chapters each concerned with a different concept that makes possible the alternative paradigm of games as experimental art-science. In each chapter, Jagoda analyzes both the dominant paradigm’s mobilization of the concept and the “untimely rabbit holes and exploits” that experimental games can and do use to circumvent neoliberal control. In chapter three, Jagoda examines games that subvert rational choice theory through affective priming (the unconscious production of tastes, interests, desires, or emotions in a person through external media), while chapter four examines games that transform control through non-sovereign and nonrepresentational play experiences (through resistance to intuitive or ‘good-feeling’ interaction). In chapter five, he pushes the concept of difficulty from the mechanical to the interpretive to the affective level, discussing games that take difficulty from a neoliberal signifier of value to a counter-hegemonic “allegorithm” (citing Alexander Galloway). The final “Concepts” chapter disassembles failure (or “fragility”) as a necessary characteristic of a “resilient” economy, looking at games that deploy non-productive and non-recuperable failures that are in fact “more generative and more forgiving” than the failure demanded by the neoliberal free market. Through each of these four chapters, Jagoda convincingly makes the case for games as inside agents in our historical present, offering alternative pathways to the stifling control and abject precarity of contemporary life.

In part three, “Design,” Jagoda turns to his own work as a game designer, presenting an improvisational practice of “critical making” that uses his Alternate Reality Game the parasite as an example for how a “ludic laboratory” might continue the work of experimental art-science that he has been exploring throughout Experimental Games. If criticism attends to the “sensibilities of distribution” of a given context, experimental and improvisational making participates in “the demonstration” of “gap[s] in the sensible itself,” the work of dissensus (as articulated by the philosopher Jacques Rancière) in which the above-mentioned games (including Jagoda’s own) participate. Where neoliberal gamification seeks to “help the subject make better choices,” games as experimental art-science instead “seek…freedoms,” new modalities of being and perceiving altogether.

Jagoda concludes the book with a brief coda, “Joy,” in which he embraces Spinoza’s sense of joy as the “immediate thinking-feeling of existence,” as “passionate intensification and tendential increase.” Where the gamification paradigm seeks the reduction and recuperation of uncertainty to the ends of efficiency and control, the experimental art-science paradigm welcomes uncertainty for the joy that it brings, the “new sensitivities to affect and be affected” that it potentiates. Games, in this paradigm, are no longer limited to the “superficial pleasures and instant gratifications” that dominate the games industry, but become properly reality-making, participating in a “more intense and joyful realization of virtualities.” To be sure, this possibility is not a guarantee, and Jagoda explicitly says as much. The joyful study he presents must be “vigilantly purposeful” in its execution, aware of the over-determining forces that would have it be brought under rational control. As Jagoda himself writes, his book is a “modest contribution” to this work, the greatest achievement of which is, perhaps, its invitation to others to conduct their own experiments, to explore their own uncertainties, to step into their own laboratories of joyful study.

Eric Stein (he/him) is a game development instructor at Trinity Western University. His research bridges literature and gaming, applying phenomenological, hermeneutic, and deconstructive methods to the interpretation of interactive texts. He is also a practicing game designer, primarily working in the independent tabletop roleplaying space. His design work implements philosophical, political, and theological concepts in gamic form, bringing together theory and play for social, story-driven tabletop role-playing experiences. He tweets at @steinea.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah on September 15, 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the University of Chicago Press.

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