Game-playing, from Submission to Creation

I keep returning to this question: When we play a game, are we free –  or are we prisoners of the game rules?

Here is Playing, my contribution to Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins’ wonderful Debugging Game History collection.

In the piece I argue that there are four main conceptions of the act of game-playing, going from playing as submission to playing as creation.

1. Playing as submission, where the player is bound by the limits set forth by the game rules.

2. Playing as constrained freedom, where the game creates a space in which players acquire a certain amount of freedom and the opportunity to perform particular acts.

3. Playing as subversion, where the player works around both the designer’s intentions and the game object’s apparent limitations.

4. Playing as creation, where the game is ultimately irrelevant for (or at least secondary to) the actual playing.

Read the full text here:


New Paper on the Pay Once & Play Problem of Video Game History

Bacpayonceandplayk from the 2016 DiGRA/FDG conference in Dundee, here is the paper I gave on using design patterns to understand video game history: Sailing the Endless River of Games: The case for Historical Design Patterns.

The Pay Once & Play category was introduced in the Apple App Store in early 2015. Though video games were for a long time, at least from 1985 to 2015, mostly sold in boxes for upfront payment, this business model was not actually named as “Pay once & Play” until after the emergence of the free-to-play or freemium business model. Why not? Because it was obvious that all video games were sold in boxes, so why would you mention it when talking about video games, or video game history?

This is the topic of the paper: The problem isn’t just that games change, but that games change in ways we haven’t predicted. The major events in video game history concern things that had previously been taken for granted: MMOs like World of Warcraft moved the role of the player community to the forefront; casual games reconfigured the audience; mobile games reconfigured distribution and business models; independent games set up a new relation between developer and audience. Video game history continually forces us to reconsider what it is we are studying, when we study video games.

In the paper I then propose that we can redefine game design patterns to help us to talk about video game change. I return to matching tile games as an example of how to write history using design patterns.


New paper: High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival.

I have posted a new paper, High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival.

In which I study the history of visual style in Independent Games. I look particularly at the Grand Prize winners of the Independent Games Festival (IGF) from 2000-2014. I argue that what I call Independent Style is a “representation of a representation”, using contemporary technology to emulate earlier, simpler types of representation. Examples include pixel style graphics, games made with crayons, paper, paint etc…

Interestingly, the 2000-2004 winners do not look like the style we would associate with Independent Games today. Consider Tread Marks, winner at the first IGF.

Year Name Screenshot Visual style Theme / gameplay
2000 Tread Marks 8 3d Tank battle

It is then from 2005 (with Gish) and on that the Independent Style we have come to know begins to dominate the IGF. In the paper I argue that this coincides with an increased focus on non-physical distribution as well as self-publishing.

I also claim that this Independent Style (which is the style by which we recognize independent games) is meant to signal that a small-budget production is small-budget by choice and that small-budget development has a particular authenticity and honesty.

And I also discuss the Arts and Crafts movement, texture settings in Unity, locavore food, Jeff Koons and fake wood.

All comments are welcome!

The paper was presented at the recent Foundations of Digital Games conference.

My new book: The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games

artoffailure_cover_180x264[1]My name is Jesper, and I am a sore loser.

And my new book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games is fresh out on MIT Press!
(On UK.)

To wit: I hate to fail in games. I think I enjoy playing video games, but why does this enjoyment contain at its core something that I most certainly do not enjoy?

We tend to talk of video games as being fun, but in The Art of Failure, I claim that this is almost entirely mistaken. When we play video games, we frown, grimace, and shout in frustration. So why do we play video games even though they often make us unhappy?

In the book I compare game failure to tragic literature, theater, and cinema. Where stories concern the inadequacies of others, game failure is special in that it concerns our personal inadequacies

The book covers the philosophy and psychology of failure, as well as the problem of interactive tragedy, and it shows how different types of game design makes failure personal.

Finally, I argue for our right to be just a little angry, and more than a little frustrated, when we fail.

Where to get it

Get The Art of Failure from your neighborhood bookstore, your favorite online retailer, or from the book’s companion website:

The book is available in both paper and ebook formats.

Official MIT Press page:

Thanks to everybody who made this book possible!



  • “Frankly, I hadn’t expected to enjoy a book about failure nearly as much as I did. Jesper Juul brings many different fields of study to the table and provides an engaging learning experience.”
    Brenda Brathwaite Romero, game designer, COO and Co-Founder of Loot Drop
  • “I can think of no other medium that so constantly forces its participant to contemplate their own demise. The act of playing games is one dotted with near-endless failure. Yet we plow on. Jesper Juul’s new book is exactly the sharp examination of failure I need to keep myself from stabbing my eyes out when I get frustrated.”
    Jamin Warren, Founder, Kill Screen
  • “In The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul explores an interesting idea and asks provocative questions. This book will be of interest to developers, players, scholars, journalists, and readers with related interests, such as chess players or athletes.”
    Henry Lowood, Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections, Stanford University

On Zero-Player Games

Zero-Player Games. Or: What We Talk about When We Talk about Players is a paper I co-wrote with Staffan Björk for the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference in Madrid earlier this year (Staffan’s idea).

Zero-Player Games is one of my more philosophical papers, and deals with the topic of games without players. This is obviously something of a contradiction in terms, but the paper works by looking at interesting edge cases of what we consider to be a game.

It turns out that each of the edge cases we examine (such as Conway’s Game of Life or StatBuilder) tells us something fundamental about both games and players. In other words: by removing players from the equation, we show what was removed.

The paper thereby also questions seemingly “player-centric” theories of games: it is not uncommon to hear theorists claim that games are  nothing by themselves, but only come into being when played. We show that such arguments overlook the fact that players have preferences about which games they prefer to play.

Here is the abstract:

Do games need people? If so, what is it that makes people important to games? It can seem self-evident that games are artifacts designed to be used by players, but in this paper we will discuss the paradoxical idea of zero-player games. We do not wish to argue against the study of players, but we believe that many common conceptions of players are too vague to be useful. Based on the examination of zero-player games, we provide five subcomponents to help in the understanding of the player concept. Expressed as questions, these are: Is this a human player? Does the player have agency? Does the player play over time? Does the player appear to have intentionality? Does the player exhibit aesthetic preferences?

Read the paper here:


PS. For more reading, here are all the papers from the Philosophy of Computer Games conference 2012 (scroll down).

游戏抽象度 (A Certain Level of Abstraction in Chinese)

游戏抽象度: This is the Chinese translation of my 2007 paper A Certain Level of Abstraction.

Thanks to Ji Chen for the translation!



A Casual Revolution published in Korean

And here it is: A Casual Revolution came out in South Korea last month.

Thanks to my translator, Jung Yeop Lee, for making it happen!

The book, now titled  “캐주얼 게임- 비디오게임과 플레이어의 재창조”  is available at this link.