‘That Someone Could Claim Rules Are the Source of Pleasure in Play Has Always Seemed Absurd to Me’
Play is a safely contained form of rebellion, a structure that can oppose the values of the culture it springs from as long as its players agree to leave that opposition behind when play ceases. We can have conflict resolution through guns and blades in games as long as we accept that our real conflicts be resolved through indirect representation, passivity, and waiting. To play at being the hero is to acknowledge we will never be one, a submission to the structure of the world outside the magic circle.
In The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, game researcher Jesper Juul describes the condition of being pleasurably trapped between obedience and punishment as a paradox of failure: We want game experiences to punish us in hopes that we will be improved by it. “This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy — an inadequacy that they produce in the first place.” Only bad losers, Juul argues, treat failure in games as “straightforwardly painful, without anything to compensate for it.”
For Juul, the point of playing games is to confront and accept our inadequacies, a comforting boilerplate that makes it easier to rationalize the cruelty of the way we are slotted us into value-based roles in the world. You’re not as good as this person so you get less than them. You’re better so you get more. When playing against other people, this makes direct sense, but when play is computerized, this emotional mandate becomes masochism, a perverse mewling for the rack to be tightened to the point where it becomes intolerable, and once released, one lubricates one’s emotions with the shame of not having been able to tolerate more.