Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation

Photo by Natalie Seery


A few weeks back, I announced my PhD defense. Now, after several months of delays, I finally got around to making the last edits. I’ve published the full dissertation (as a pdf file) on my personal website. You can read it here.

The dissertation explores a variety of theoretical issues in game design and design research more broadly. Discussing my notions of dialogic game design, broken games, and low process intensity games, I reflect on a number of games I’ve worked on over the past several years, including B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust.

If you’re going to read any excerpts, I’d recommend the Intro chapter, as well as Chapter 3 – a journal article about B.U.T.T.O.N. which I’ve previously published in Game Studies, here. If you do read any of the dissertation, any feedback and/or critiques are welcome!

Somewhat cheekily, the full title of the dissertation is “Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation -or- How to make friends by trying to kick them!” You can read the abstract in my earlier post. The phrase “designing for the pleasure of disputation” is lifted from Dave Hickey, one of my favorite art critics. In his book Air Guitar (highly recommended!), Hickey writes a number of essays on the relationship between art and democracy.

In one of the most oft-cited essays from the book (here), Hickey ventures out beyond the art world to discuss sports and games. Writing about Julius “Doctor J” Erving’s famous behind-the-backboard layup from the 1980 NBA Finals, Hickey calls attention to the sometimes “liberating” power of game rules. His argument is that the right kinds of constraints and competition can actually facilitate creativity and memorable performance.

The insight here (resonant with the “agonist” school of thought in political philosophy) is that competition isn’t necessarily so antithetical to the ideal of “cooperation.” Somewhat counter-intuitively, a sense of “togetherness” is often best cemented through struggle and conflict, and by earning one another’s respect. Throughout the book, Hickey makes the argument that agonism, provocation, and disagreement are all essential to the healthy functioning of culture and of democracy.

The games I discuss in the dissertation all try to accentuate the inherently adversarial nature of gameplay. Dark Room Sex Game, as discussed in Chapter 2, deliberately aims to embarrass its players. B.U.T.T.O.N., as discussed in Chapter 3, pushes its players to roughhouse and cheat one another. It also coaxes them into playing the fool. Johann Sebastian Joust, as discussed in Chapter 4, is a highly physical dueling game more outwardly aggressive than the project I had originally set out to make. Its game system is intentionally open-ended in an attempt to encourage players to negotiate the rules and improvise new ones. Fuck You, It’s Art!, as discussed in Chapter 5, was designed as a glorified excuse for players to yell profanities at one another. In short, the design ethos I articulate in my dissertation embraces an aesthetic of conflict. These games all hope to playfully remind their players that togetherness is always provisional, never a given.

Well, if any of that sounds interesting to you, I have a lot more to say about these issues in the dissertation! Check out the Intro chapter in particular.

Oh, and in case your curious, the second half of my dissertation’s title – “How to make friends by trying to kick them!” – comes from this very flattering Chris Charla blog post about J.S. Joust. Chris writes:

“It’s pitch black. I’m on a derelict barge in a backwater of Copenhagen harbor, and I’m trying to kick a girl. Welcome to Johan[n] Sebastian Joust.”

Ah, the pleasures of disputation indeed!

3 Responses to Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation

  1. Pingback: The Ludologist » Douglas Wilson’s PhD dissertation: Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation

  2. Steven says:

    Found this an interesting read. Wonder what your thoughts on Little Big Planet might be, as it’s a game that both provides a series of objects and instrumental rules yet, in my observation of its group play (which is multiplayer-in-the-same-room rather than necessarily online), solicits precisely the kind of festive, unstructured group engagement and collaboration you describe as unexplored in your narrative…..??

    • Doug says:

      Hmm don’t think I used the word “unexplored” did I? I think it was “under-explored”? I do think *any* game can encourage that kind of play, but I do think some games “wear it on their sleeve” more than others. Little Big Planet would be a pretty good example, yeah!