Useful, Joyful, Willful

Thinking About Types of Play

Jörgen Skågeby is an assistant professor at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden. His research bridges areas such as online sharing, media archaeology and critical design studies. Currently, he studies the domestication of the home computer, imagined interaction and postsocial media.



In this paper I outline three perspectives that emphasize different characters of play: useful; joyful; and willful play. I further argue that designing for willfulness (e.g. rule-bending) will allow players to become game-changers rather than being played.

Generally speaking, computer games have created new arenas for play in several senses. Massive multiplayer online games have spurred, amongst other things, particular forms of social interaction and behavior; mobile and casual gaming has generated new breeds of gamers; the fundamentally code-based underpinnings of computer games make hacks and modifications possible; and grand ambitions of gamification, supported by digitization, even aims to turn ‘anything and everything’ into a race for points and badges. Instead of clearly situating itself within one particular practice, this paper will take an overarching perspective on play. It will go on to propose three perspectives that, in the light of processes such as the increasing specialization, quantification and rationalization of play(Pargman & Svensson), emphasize different characters of play.

Useful play has connotations relating to instrumental, worthwhile and advantageous activities. Joyful play is perhaps most connected to the prototypical notion of play, as something different from work, done for the fun of it. Willful play conceptualizes play as a deliberate creation/visualization of problems and problematizations through games.

These perspectives may, of course, overlap in actual practice, but as analytical tools they illuminate what we may call different characters of play. Out of these three characters of play, this paper will devote the most attention to willful play, as it is in that character where subversion, reconfiguration and opposition is most visibly performed.


A recent movement in play is the effort to make it ‘useful’. Useful, in the sense that play has been resignified as something that is not just for fun; rather, play also serves a progressive purpose. The increased ‘sportification’ of computer gaming, or e-sport, has seen the emergence of grand championships, competitive leagues, player federations, commercial sponsorships, substantial prize money and significant media coverage. The underpinning mechanisms of standardization, rationalization and commercialization create a practice where professional training is required and ‘real’ values are at stake. Success expands from being an in-game, or small community-based measure, to becoming a structurally reified value – useful to the market. Similarly, competitive programming, supported by for example Google, Facebook or IBM, is based on solving given problems by creating ‘successful’ algorithms. Again, the market defines the problems and reaps the benefits of successful solutions. Finally, gamification is perhaps the prototypical representative of the idea of ‘making use of’ game mechanisms. Awarding points, badges, virtual currency or other tokens of engagement seems to be mainly used in efforts to improve marketing and customer retention. A further analysis of useful play would need to take seriously the relation between transgressive play (Aarseth) and the (possibly) differing definitions of success (and failure).


The common perspective is that joyful play rests comfortably in the idea that play is just for fun. In a way, this idea removes any political consequences of play. It makes play forgetful of its potential to change or challenge current norms (i.e. ‘to play around’). As a reminder of the current normative state of games, the “Tropes vs. Women” project led by Anita Sarkeesian draws attention to the consistent return of shallow stereotypes (e.g. ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘Ms. Male’) in video games (Sarkeesian). The many hateful reactions towards this project show how the idea that games should be left ‘for fun’ is very persistent. Nevertheless, both Sarkeesian and Bogost (Unit Operations) question that play is just for fun. Rather, the fact that many games incorporate social commentary or even critique questions the notion that games are just pure entertainment. In Bogost’s words, “the player gains new knowledge about social structures through their representation as key unit operations in the game” (127).

As Bogost more recently (Garrett) has argued, playing for fun is perhaps more about engaging with, and discovering something, in a thing. Bogost argues that what we discover in games is a form of ‘wretchedness’. This wretchedness is born from a situation which is a profoundly familiar situation, but subsequently impoverished or estranged in some way. This impoverishment, in turn, transforms the engagement with the thing (in this case a computer game built from code) into new questions, a search for innovative possibilities, and, arguably, a desire to play willfully.


To be willful is to do something deliberately, being “obstinately bent on having one’s own way” or even being “perversely self-willed.” Willfulness in play then, suggests playing with (or against) the rules. As such, there is certainly a distinct queer quality to being willful (Ahmed “Wilful Parts”). Jack Halberstam thinks of queer gaming and the development of queer algorithms as “a space where you can experiment with the ‘what if’ of imagining new worlds” (Halberstam). In fact, the question of ‘what if’ could arguably be the nodal point of ‘fun’ (the very joy of willfulness). What if I do it my way? What if we bend the rules? The agency to bend rules is a privilege in any situation but rule-bending is often attributed with willfulness, which, in turn, is often an effective killer of joy (Ahmed “Feminist Killjoys”). In Ahmed’s words, “Even talking about injustices, violence, power, and subordination in a world that uses ‘happy diversity’ as a technology of social description can mean becoming the obstacle, as the ones who ‘get in the way’ of the happiness of others” (“Feminist Killjoys”)

However, if fun is taken as an interest to expand from the object of engagement in unexpected directions; to explore new orientations, then maybe willfulness co-constructs fun and misery. Further, in the context of computer games, ‘playing with the rules’ many times infers tampering with the code that regulates (part of) the (aptly named) transcoding between the cultural layer and the computer layer (Manovich), or the relation between code and space (Kitchin & Dodge). The code/space that is games is thus (more or less) open to bending (Hertz & Parikka). Bending brings about connotations of tweaking, but not breaking. The game is still there; the rules are just a little bent.

However, a duality of willful play is also illustrated by two recent, and well-noticed, news stories, which depicts fathers as particularly valiant willful players. Notably, both these stories frame the fathers as “super dads” with expertise in game coding who go out of their way for their daughters. These stories of fulfilling daughters’ desires to play Donkey Kong (Peckham) and Zelda (Benedetti) as female protagonists point both to a willful practice of gender bending, but at the same time to a gendered stereotype of the protective and tech-savvy male. Thus, an analysis of willful play must also consider the gendered structure of expertise (Bassett) and question who gets to be valorized for playing willfully and who does not.[foot]To further the argument, it is likely no coincidence that these two heteronormative stories were picked up by big news corporations NBC and Time, and other, more norm-critical, were not.[/foot]

Being played or becoming a game-changer?

However, to be able to play in these different modes we also need designed support when exploring unchartered code/space. More specifically, according to Sara Ahmed the notion of “queer surfaces” may be able to help us imagine how:

It is not only that queer surfaces support action, but also that the action they support involves shifting grounds, or even clearing a new ground, which allow us to tread a different path. When we tread on paths less trodden, which we are not sure are paths at all (is it a path or is the grass just a little bent?), we might need even more support. (Ahmed Queer Phenomenology)

In practice this means that we need to think more about how this support can be conceptualized and materialized, that is, how it can be designed to support rule-bending and willful play. The growing scene of queer games and game producers is, of course, an excellent pattern of willfulness (and so much more) (Keogh), which also highlights how the design of support is essential. Speaking with Polygon about her game Mainichi, Mattie Brice notes that

I made this game because I am a person who does not have access to the tools and education of a computer science degree. I was very much discouraged from going into development that way. (“Human Angle”)

As a complementary alternative to the limitations of usefulness and joyfulness, this short paper has turned to willfulness as a form of agency where players can play the game, without being played by the game. In order to make room for norm-critical futures, the potential to play willfully needs to be supported. This is, arguably, somewhat different from queer design, where interfaces are designed with queer concepts in mind. Rather, supporting willful play is concerned with designing queer surfaces that can leverage norm-critical agency (Light). While individual coding skills can certainly expand agency in digital-material assemblages, design has an important structural role to play here. Much has been said for the benefits and even necessity of learning how to code, but because the design of interfaces structurally directs our actions, it must also make itself accountable to willful play. Designers could consequently design, not only for usefulness or joyfulness, but for willfulness – a design where ‘playing with the rules’ is a built-in open-ended feature of the game.


Discussant’s Reply

Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor in the Drama and Speech Communications department at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Continuum’s Approaches to Game Studies book series, a member of the Executive Board of the Digital Games Research Association, and a former co-chair of the Game Studies area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Nation Conference. He is also the acting faculty advisor for First Person Scholar.

I enjoyed reading Jörgen Skågeby’s essay. The very premise — that there are different characters of play that we can distinguish analytically, if not experientially — is an important move in a field where a good many researchers treat play as behavior rather than action. And the connections Jörgen makes between rationalization, commercialization, professionalization, gamification, and what he calls ‘useful play’ is a clarion call in a field where a good many researchers are just a bit too eager to enshrine AAA games and the style of play performed by the stereotypical gamer.

Nevertheless, I wonder why it is so hard to talk about joie de jeux that the section ostensibly on the topic actually critiques the rhetoric of fun that players deploy in order to ward off socio-political commentary, and affirms efforts to question “the notion that games are just pure entertainment.” Is not the case that games can be “pure entertainment” so long as we understand that there is a politics of joy. Whether you approach the matter from a psychological, sociological or discursive orientation, (and I prefer the latter,) I believe it generates interesting questions. What is the condition of possibility of fun? What lines of articulation and lines of flight crisscross the grid of intelligibility governing the pleasures of play? What would it look like if we were to trace the formation of the assemblage of institutions, knowledges, bodies and objects that constitute the regime of joy? We cannot look clearly at the politics, aesthetics, or ethics of fun if we constantly foreground the instrumentality of play (even if we do so from a progressive standpoint, for these are two different tasks).

From this (Foucauldian) perspective, “what if” is not the nodal point of fun. Rather, “what if” is the frontier of fun, beyond which pleasure is unintelligible.

It is fitting that this brings us into the domain of willful play, and to the consideration of queer games. Here we have a discourse that actively challenges existing systems of power. But I have to ask: as long as we are centering play (rather than games) what compels us to look at games that explicitly encourage willful play rather the willful enactment of play willfully against the grain of games? As I’ve written elsewhere on the subject of “gameplay,” Celia Pearce’s theorization of “emergence” could help us think through this nexus of power, player and game.

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited 

Aarseth, Espen. “I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player,” in DiGRA(Tokyo: Digital Games Research Association, 2007).

Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects),” S&F Online 8, no. 3 (2010).

—. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character,” New literary history 42, no. 2 (2011).

—. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 170.

Bassett, Caroline. “Feminism, Expertise and the Computational Turn,” in Renewing Feminisms: Radical Narratives, Fantasies and Futures in Media Studies, ed. Helen Thornham and Elke Weissmann(London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

Benedetti, Winda. “Super Dad Hacks Video Game, Transforms Hero for His Daughter,” NBC News, Nov 14 2012.

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

Garrett, Jesse James. Interview with Ian Bogost. 2013.

Halberstam, Jack. “Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Gaga,” in The Queerness and Games Conference (Berkeley: UC Berkeley Center for New Media, 2013).

Hertz, G. and Jussi Parikka. “Zombie Media: Curcuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo 45, no. 5 (2012).

Human Angle: Queer Games: The Secret Avant Garde of Videogames, (YouTube: Polygon, 2013).

Keogh, Brendan. “Just Making Things and Being Alive About It: The Queer Games Scene,”  Polygon(2013),

Kitchin, Rob and Matthew Dodge. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

Light, Ann. “HCI as Heterodoxy: Technologies of Identity and the Queering of Interaction with Computers,” Interacting with Computers 23, no. 5 (2011).

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).

Pargman, Daniel and Daniel Svensson. “21st Century Sports: Movements without Movements,” in On the Move (Norrköping: Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden, 2013).

Peckham, Matt. “Dad Hacks Donkey Kong So Daughter Can Save Mario,” Time, Mar 13 2013.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Feminist Frequency: Conversations with Pop Culture,”