Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Peter McDonald reviews Fun, Taste, and Games

John Sharp and David Thomas. Fun, Taste, & Games: An Aesthetics of the Idle, Unproductive, and Otherwise Playful. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2019. 239 pp.

Review by Peter McDonald

Fun, Taste, & Games is a series of short investigations into fun as it travels between philosophy, art, psychology, game design, and everyday experience. John Sharp and David Thomas understand their project as elaborating a better theory of fun and describe it as a range of small aesthetic categories that accompany play. However, at its core the book is a work of criticism and critique. Its criticism is directed towards common definitions of fun in game studies and human-computer interaction research that are vague, circular, or endlessly postponed. Its critique takes these problems and shows how they are neither mistakes nor accidents but embedded in disciplinary presuppositions that make fun unthinkable. For instance, they show how the history of game design has privileged an “aesthetics of meaningful choice” that overshadows the variety and subtlety of less agential kinds of fun (p. 59). There are overtones of a Kantian sense of the limitations of our understanding and this is echoed by the book’s aesthetics which builds around a Kantian analogy where “games replace art as the object of inquiry . . . [a]nd fun takes the place of beauty as the essential quality sought” (p. xi).

The authors unfold their account of fun over four sections, “Finding the Fun,” “Fun,” “Taste,” and “Games.” “Finding the Fun” presents the theoretical heart of their argument, which defines fun according to three formal requirements: its separateness from ordinary life, ludic form, and ambiguity. The next section, “Fun,” examines discourses of fun—its etymological history (Chapter Three), its use in consumption and entertainment (Chapter Four), its place within game design (Chapter Five), and the art world’s attempts to have fun (Chapter Six). The third section, “Taste,” moves from discourses to case studies. There are chapters devoted to Monopoly, Duchamp’s love of chess, Myst, and gamergate, each as an example of how theories of fun limit our ability to recognize it. The final section, “Games,” turns to the personal. Sharp describes his lifelong engagement with basketball and his experience playing Portal 2 with the son of a romantic partner, while Thomas explores the feelings Minecraft evokes.

When it comes to stating their own positive theory of fun, Sharp and Thomas often fall into the same ambiguities and confusions they criticize elsewhere. For example, their theory of fun vacillates between a feeling grounded in history and linguistic usage and a transhistorical experience untethered from any specific term. Moreover, the three formal elements that designate fun are straightforward redescriptions of what other theorists––from Johan Huizinga to Miguel Sicart––attribute to play and games. As a result, the book relies on a circular piece of logic where fun is the experience we have in play, while play is the activity we pursue in order to have fun. More evocative is a subsequent definition of fun as sitting in the semantic middle of “'amusing’ (as in funny), ‘delightful’ (as in playful), and ‘surprising’ (as in odd, strange or unexpected),” but this triangle is never justified beyond the author’s intuition (p. 36). In a sense, these limitations underscore the urgency of Sharp and Thomas’ critical project. The pair have not solved fun, but they do bring together a wealth of materials and arguments to show that our accounts of it must be better. They present a prolegomena to any future theory of fun.