Conversations with John Sharp: Habit and Life

We’re back with another set of letters for you all to read! If you need to catch up on all the conversations I’ve had, look through this list. And onward!


I’m in the middle of reading Ian Bogost’s review of Michael Clune’s Gamelife (a memoir of playing videogames in the 1980s), and I bumped into this sentence:

“Why does it feel like games, even the greatest games, never get through to us as powerfully as great works of literature do?”

and this one, too:

“A book about the power of games is almost a practical joke. It shows how inept games are at doing the cultural work its advocates — myself included — ascribe to them.”

That, right there, captures a lot about us academic game folk: we want games to be on equal footing with other mediums, but we can’t quite accept that they really are as powerful. This is where a lot of the pastime worship (Desert Golfing, Drop7, Sage Solitaire) and formalist inquiry comes from, I think. With the pastime angle, we believe we may have found the place where games actually operate well, and in ways memoirs, novels, films, paintings, and so on don’t. Reading further into Ian’s piece, I noticed he is saying more or less the same thing: “Habit and affect are opposites.”

The formalist inquiry piece is perhaps more complicated, but I see it emerging from a number of places. Some of it is the exploration and attempt to master the craft of a medium, which comes from the design and computer science side of the fence. The whole “innovation within the tradition” thing, I suppose. I also see the formalism thing as akin to a kid opening up the back of a radio, or a 15th century doctor opening up a deceased body—attempts to understand the dark continent of a machine, a body, a medium. Also related, I suspect, is the drive in the humanities to codify, label and organize. This is where a lot of the work happens, both in game design texts and in game studies. Many of us in games academia were trained in other disciplines, so we end up wanting to apply some of the tools we used (or others before us used) in our training in our new work with games.

Anyway, a bit of an aside, but Ian’s review got me thinking, and reminded me I owed you an email.

I’m on the same page about the over-importance placed on videogames. I’m personally not that interested in them as a media format. I am interested in play as a medium, though, and by extension, games as a framework for that. So though I write about (and sometimes make) videogames, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. So it sounds like we have similar interests around the object of study. That’s certainly where Ludica places emphasis, and Miguel Sicart, too, in his most recent book, if you are looking for fellow travelers.

The art world is far more comfortable engaging with play than with game. So yes, game exhibitions have been going on in museums and galleries for decades now, but artists are generally more comfortable with ideas around play. I talk about this some in Works of Game, and in a paper I gave at Foundations of Digital Games a few years ago, but play spans mediums and media, while games, for most people at least, are videogames, which means a commercial media type.

It is true a lot of people in the varying circles around games think of them as designed objects. But not everyone, and that is certainly the case if you look back at the connections between games and art in the 20th century. Fluxus event scores and Happenings are designed, but the interesting stuff is what happens when they are performed. This is the sort of thought Ludica emphasizes in their writing about games.

The art/design divide is old, and based in legitimacy politics finding their origin at least as far back as the 12th century. Much of what we think of as art now used to be considered design. When museums started taking shape in the 19th century, a division was enforced. And so places like MoMA have lines drawn between design and art. Yet artists have been crossing back and forth across these divides, usually turning design into art, and only turning art into design when productizing and merchandizing.

I agree, indie is primarily oriented toward its relationship to commerce, while notgames is more closely aligned with art (though art is also mostly oriented toward commerce through different infrastructures and channels). If you ask some of the folks who have been around indie since the early-to-mid 2000s, they sound like punk rock scenesters thinking their little community represented the whole. So TIG Source folks think they are the real indie, and I’m sure some NYC folks think they are, and so on and so forth. Of course there never was one indie, except on Steam.

Flow is a form of numbness, I agree. I think part of what attracts some to it is the ways it seems connected to meditation. I suppose that is what helps make it a legitimate pursuit for those really into Flow. I love your line about Desert Golfing just giving you more golfing. 3,000+ holes of golfing at that (the highest number I’ve heard is someone on a hole in the 8,000s). I’m not sure I find this any more or less troublesome than spending hours watching TV, or reading comics, or hanging out on Twitter. They are all byproducts of late capitalism, right? What else are we supposed to do with our time? Eventually, we get down to the questions of why we do anything, what it means to be productive, or why we think we have to do anything at all beyond subsistence.

A lot of the defensiveness around games goes back to a sentiment expressed by Huizinga: games are not productive. Huizinga of course didn’t see this as a negative, but in the western world, where the Protestant work ethic reigns, it is hard not to get defensive about spending your time playing, or studying, or making, something that your culture views as child’s play.

I’m not sure people into pastime games are adverse to messy. One of the holy grails of many formalist-slanted game folk is emergent complexity. Seeing things emerge from a game that weren’t part of the designer’s intention brings broad, congratulatory smiles to many people’s faces. Seeing games fold back into the messiness of life is what many designers want, and what many scholars scour the internet to find.

I do think, though, that most creative work is a way to hide from or make sense of the messiness of life. Life is hard for everyone to differing degrees and ways, and watching Law & Order re-runs or playing Desert Golfing or reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or listening to Chiptunes is one way people self-soothe through consumption. I’m not sure your experience with Etrian Odyssey is that different than what I might get out of playing Jonathan Blow’s The Witness or making dinner for some friends—they are ways to engage in something that occupies us, and lets us be involved but outside our day-to-day.

Something I find myself having to admit is my snobbery toward videogame and animé fan culture—I find these really hard to deal with, in part because of the consumerist slavishness. But then I remind myself I too have my consumerist vices, and why are my interests less embarrassing or pointless than theirs? In late capitalism, we’re all caught up in the same cycle of consumption as culture, as belonging, as relaxing.



I do agree that, with what seems to be less effort, other mediums move me in ways video games rarely do. At least, when I do speak fondly of games, it’s usually through the veil of nostalgia, and as Ian’s piece points out, through detachment from life more than integrating it. I feel crappy saying that, even though I’ve kind of always been a bit standoffish with games. It makes me feel like a jerk, mostly because I see something, some sort of potential, and I’m beginning to devote my life to exploring play. One time, before I was really involved with games to any extent, I told my best friend, who I guess we might have called ourselves gamers at the time, that I wanted to pursue working on a game. I remember her looking at me, slightly disappointed, and saying rather bluntly “That’s trite.” And while she would probably take that back now, I can’t say I can really point something out about conventional game creation as a profession that can totally defeat that. Sure, the things I’ve done around games aren’t trite, and my involvement with a non-commercial group of creators also might not be, but what video game developer really feels like they can address that? Typically they embrace that, being trite to a certain degree is the point. And when it comes to writing, one of the first thing an editor says to you is “Why should anyone care about this?” Thinking “Who cares?” is both a humbling process and forces you to be some level above triteness. Of course, a lot of people don’t think about this about their art, so there’s definitely stuff out there that feels like it matters less than some games. What I find different about games is that “Who cares?” is only asked in a literal sense, like, what’s the demographic of the people who are going to care about this and let’s pander towards those sensibilities rather than seeing any sort of holistic contribution to craft. I think about this a lot, which has me hesitant about what I’m doing with games in my life. Can I really answer “Who cares?” to people outside of nerd cultures with what I plan on doing?

I think it’s because, like you said, of how integral games grips onto play not being essential, or maybe life-like but never real life. Conventional thought casts games and play as without unintended consequences, which is decidedly unlife, or inhuman. I’m reading through Bernie DeKoven’s The Well-Played Game at many people’s requests, since I’m more play-focused and many people see himself that way too. But even with him, like Huizinga, play and life are not in the same lanes. (Funny enough, as even Bernie says in his new preface, the state of a game being well-played seems essentially to be the flow state, which makes me heavily question the pursuit of playing a game well from his perspective). I find that is also where “games are art” legitimization also exists, that art is ‘useless’ and so is play. It’s a kernel in games studies that I hope to challenge, because arguments I’ve been making is that life and play are blurred beyond distinction, a call back to Happenings and Fluxus movements as you’ve alluded to. The idea that art exists in an unlife (probably not a term but I’m sticking with it) plane is so, well, elitist. Coupled with themes of mastery and logics, this makes games obnoxiously masculinist. Playing fields with no consequence where you play to live outside of your mind, perform your best self, and find peace in the pursuit and mastery of goals. It completely ignores multiple interpretations of play like the entire intersection between feminism and cybernetics, also, well, all of postcolonial theory. That play involves a willing participant, or doesn’t have real consequences, that’s a huge dismissal of really intriguing work and perspectives, right there at the core imagining of games and play. From this angle, it’s hard to see the binary of habits and affect, especially when the support of that is numerical/computational logic, seeing that play exists plenty without the buttress of computers. I think the vector for affect is different, and not so much in a Games Are Special rather that affect happens when play and life are integrated. As someone who specifically made a game for someone to understand what words couldn’t, through a rather habitual game, and making a game literally about all the habits that surround affording food to eat, I think there’s need to be more work reimagining play and games as what we champion. Because, yeah, I do feel like the “power of games” shtick does make a lot of people look foolish with the current state of affairs.

And now it’s super overwhelming to think about studies and practices of play and games outside of games studies because it’s like why did that have to happen lol Yes learning is a lifelong process blah blah blah but I feel like I’m riding in on a hunch and seeing little evidence around me, when there’s probably a lot just outside of what’s given attention or access to. Like only now have I somehow picked up on my allegiances to performance art of the 60s/70s and it feels like wow I need to figure out how to become proficient in that. I don’t mind admitting that I haven’t read a lot, I mean a lot, of game texts, and that a lot of what I say is usually some instinct or intuition stirred up with some critical theory background. I feel like I’m at a crossroads where I need to focus my studies and it’s like, should I be trying to catch up on games canon or will all of that eventually be irrelevant to my work since it is intrinsically opposed to it? I easily get mad reading game studies texts very early on, typically because they all start with “well, of course, we need to define games” and I don’t think I’ve read one that I’ve agreed with.

Honestly though, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since you asked about what good games I’ve played lately, I actually really do want to like and love video games. I feel like a little shit when I see something and just really don’t care when everyone else does. For some reason, most stuff looks really derivative to me or doesn’t aim to really say anything or make me feel something powerful, just lull me into a stupor. And I get what you mean, being unable to see past a lot of the plain consumer-pandering in nerd stuff like video games and anime (I find it precious that you put in the effort to type out the accent). And I’m struggling with that myself, because I did like these things, they made me feel super invested when I was younger, but not anymore. So I’m really aching for some sort of lens or attitude that makes me see the value in these on a genuine, unironic level. I feel like many of my peers engage with this stuff through ironic distance and that doesn’t suit me too much. But I started to realize that, at least now but maybe even in the past, what really meant something to me about video games/anime were the ways that fan culture appropriated these experiences to fit their fictions. This usually took other forms, like fanfiction and fanart, though I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of anything enough to go through a lot of fan stuff. But I feel the legit want to! I want to connect to stuff! It’s easy to say it’s all trash, and in a certain light that’s sorta true, but is the answer to just not engage with trash at all or to find some angle that turns trash to treasure? I feel like if I continue to be involved with games, I will be around mostly video games, and I am trying to get back into anime, so I really want to find what that perspective is. A completely unironic one, one that doesn’t sigh at compromises, but that genuinely sees beauty in these consumer products. Going into certain experiences aiming to queer the characters helps somewhat, but I want a totality of the experience that happens while playing instead of after. Fan studies is a whole other field that does seem fascinating but I don’t know if that’s the road I need to go down for this issue? Outside of the general encouraging educator posture, which exists for a reason, how do you attempt to access the beauty in games that just feel so obviously consumerist or derivative of that culture?



I too feel a real distance from videogames. I’m definitely conflicted about videogames writ large; I don’t really enjoy playing most commercial videogames, in the same way I don’t enjoy mass-market movies, music, literature and other forms of material culture. But I do believe there is more to videogames than what Gears of Metal Legends IV has to offer, even if we haven’t sorted out what that is quite yet. I’ve never had anyone use the word trite to describe my involvement in games, but I can see why someone might. “Who cares” is an operative question for those of us working in games, no doubt. I guess that’s why I teach, write, curate and organize: to help answer that question both for myself and for everyone else. I think we can say there is a community outside nerdom that can benefit from us asking and answering these questions around games.

I asked you that question about what games you were playing because, when I think about it, I’m most often at a loss to identify a new game I’m excited about playing (though I’m pretty excited about Donut Country). Everytime I’ve gotten excited about a new trend (artgames, altgames, notgames, queer games, twine games), it never seems to get past the initial “early success” phase to really grow and mature into something with a real force behind it. Yes, there are some amazing works from these trends/communities/movements, but as a whole, they haven’t been the saviors I was looking for. That’s pretty unfair of me, though, and I remind myself to take the long view. Thinking back to 2005, there are so many more paths explored, I should be more optimistic. I guess I struggle with the whole seeing the forest through the trees thing.

Bernie’s book is an interesting case, as it is more or less a bible within certain circles of games academia. It does isolate games in some ways, but it also seeks to integrate play into life more fully. The New Games movement that Bernie represents is very much of a time and a place, where play could be a radical act. Now, it comes across as trite. In part that is because much of the New Games movement was watered down and turned into activities for elementary school kids (you played with parachutes in the school yard, right?). But you are right, in those descriptions of ping pong, it does sound a lot like Flow, doesn’t it? A stub of an idea, but I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off stopping our search for the unique qualities of games and think about their similarities to other mediums.

Scholars like TL Taylor and Mia Consalvo have been pushing hard on the Magic Circle conception of games that derives from Huizinga and gets formalized (and shifted) by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. They see play as definitively as part of life, and not so isolated as we often think about it. I agree with them that play and games can be deeply integrated into life, but most games aren’t designed to really do that, and the content and subject of the games fails to really register in a meaningful way. And, as you point out, the styles of play that emerge from most videogames are deeply masculine. Jenova Chen gave a talk at GDC a few years ago that really digs into some of this around the design of Journey. They had to make so many revisions to their design to move past the masculine patterns of play present in many multiplayer games (Jenova didn’t use the word masculine, but it is pretty clear that is the kind of play perspective they had to overcome).

That piece I had of mine I sent you a while back is, in part, my attempt to reconcile my position on games, with the conclusion being I have no more interest or allegiance to most videogames than I do any other mass medium. I went through a phase as a tween (was there such thing as tweens back in the 70s?) and teenager, but they don’t registered on the nostalgia scale for me in the same way punk rock and absurdist theater do. One of the most horrifying aesthetic experiences of my life was going to a Black Flag reunion concert a few years ago. As a teen and college student, I loved their shows, but going to a reunion show in my 40s was awful. The crowd was full of 40 and 50 year old white dudes, like me, who had a nostalgia for the band and their music. It was so artificial, so lifeless. A little piece of me died at that show, I tell you. All to say: I’m kind of conflicted about nostalgia around consumer culture.

The fan creativity phenomenon (cosplay, fanfic, etc.) is complicated for me as well. I have a hard time getting past the consumer slavishness, and almost always end up feeling like an elitist asshat when I think and talk about it. From the lens of late capitalist theory, how else will people express themselves and participate in community if not through their patterns of consumption?


Your question about how I access the beauty in games that are just more of the same is good. I used to try to find the value in it all (like the excitement everyone had about that Super Smash Bros tournament documentary a couple years ago), but now, I don’t bother really. Colleen and I have revised our game design courses at Parsons to avoid talking about shooting, wizards, space marines. Instead, we draw all our examples from indie games and the margins around indie. We emphasize games by women, queer designers and people of color. If our students bring up other stuff, we’ll talk about it, but we try to be true to what we want to help foster. We just started this last fall, so it is very much a work in progress, but we’re encouraged by the results thus far. I guess the bottom line is I’m trying hard not to be a games apologist anymore, meaning I’m not going to cheerlead games just because I feel like I should.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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