Listen to Episode #51 here
Making Things Fun with David Thomas
Our guest is David Thomas. He is an Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. He studies the aesthetics of fun and the value of play. Several years prior, he was a professional game journalist with his work appearing in the Denver Post, Edge Magazine and Wired. With John Sharp, he published the book, Fun, Taste, & Games: An Aesthetics of the Idle, Unproductive, and Otherwise Playful. Welcome, David.
Thanks for having me on.
David, if you weren’t working as a professor or a journalist, what would you be doing?
I would probably be doing that for free, just for fun. I have a side gig, which is my day job. I’m a Director of Technology. I have the most unfun job imaginable. In fact, if you’d like for the next hour, we could talk about CRM and data analytics. It will be a blast. If you ask me what I would do if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I would be doing this because this is what I’m doing.
You conveniently left that off of your bio.
That’s boring. You don’t put the boring parts on your bio. Why would you do that?
I do want to talk CRM with you. For the audience, CRM means Customer Relation Management.
Constituent relationship management so you can bring it into higher ed.
I like that or stakeholder relationship management.
I told you, I know too much about this stuff. It’s not fun.
This will come up. I’m working on a new project called Shtick to Business: Serious Business Lessons from the Masters of Comedy and you were at a talk that I gave.
[bctt tweet=”When you make things, you need to find a way to get them to people.” username=””]
It was a great talk by the way. I think you’re onto something with this. I really want to encourage you to keep doing that work.
I appreciate it. I’m excited about it. It’s meant for the more professional audience rather than an academic audience. It’s the first professional talk that I’ve gotten so much positive feedback.
People could translate it. It wasn’t just intellectually interesting, they felt like they could use it.
As an example of this, someone sent the coordinator, this 70-plus years old emeritus retired law professor. He sent this incredibly kind note to the person who coordinated about how good he thought it was. Then the same week, some twenty-year-old approached me and told me how excited he was about it. I was like, “That’s exciting.” Back to the CRM thing, in terms of developing this, I love creating products. I like making things. The talk is a thing and then any other things that go along with it. Maybe writing a popular press article or something like that. The problem is when you make things, you need to find a way to get them to people. That’s what customer relation management does well, ideally when it’s done well. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do a newsletter and I don’t want to do a subscription list because I’d rather spend that time and effort on making the thing rather than working on the communication.
I have a good friend, he appeared on this podcast before and his name is Darwyn Metzger. He works in marketing. He does influencer marketing but he’s the classic creative counter-intuitive thinker and I had food poisoning at the time. In between throwing up, I was talking to him about this and I said, “Darwyn, I want you to make a case for why I don’t need a CRM, why I don’t need a funnel, why I don’t need to do all these things.” He goes, “No, you need it.” If there was one person in the world who was going to tell me I didn’t need it, it was him. Do I need it?
No, you don’t. You do and you don’t. Here’s the reality. What a CRM is underlying is it’s a way for you to organize your contacts. For you, most people are probably a contact in one sense. I’m a subscriber or I’m an audience member. In business, you get screwed up because sometimes the person is a tastemaker. Sometimes in business, a customer is going to buy stuff. Sometimes the person may be a friend. There are all these relationships you have to manage and you don’t want your different lines of business cross communicating. For you, everybody’s just one person. They’re like, “I’m interested in Peter McGraw’s products and probably if I’m interested in your humor talk, I’m interested in your humor book.” You don’t have to differentiate that. That’s the first reason why you don’t need one. You do need one in the sense of you need to keep track of all these people. Why businesses usually need them is because they have all these processes. They’re very complex. Let me talk about higher ed because it’s what I know.
To the outside higher ed is simple. You send in your application. You pay the application fee, someone looks at it, you get admitted and you go to class. Behind the scenes, it’s crazy town. Many people are doing so many different things. A CRM helps coordinate that. I can say, “While you’re checking this person’s transcripts, this person’s working on their financial aid, that person is looking at departmental requirements.” They can coordinate all those business processes. I don’t think your life is that complicated. You’re a very sophisticated guy but I don’t think you’re that complicated. If you want to do Peter McGraw Inc., then you need to hire people and then those people will come to you and say, “Peter, your life’s so complicated. We need CRM. You write the check.” You just need a Google doc with all these names in it. When you want to talk to people, you should send stuff to them. That’s what I think. I’m not a marketing professor. I don’t know.
I appreciate that. That is in the vein of a CRM, it’s simply the simplest old school version. I get a way to be able to email lots of people at once without it becoming spam.
That’s the heart of what it is. People think CRM is going to solve some problem for them, but it all is just paving the dirt trails you’re on.
I like that saying. I’m trying to keep my life simpler.
That’s why you have a website where you do podcasts, although by the way, no one’s reading this blog post right now. It’s like, “CRM, what the hell.”
I got them hooked with whatever I’m going to title this thing. They’re waiting for the excitement. I’ve talked about this before. I’m the number one consumer of this podcast. I’m accomplishing my goal.
I like your alignment of your personal values, your output. You don’t get disappointed.
I want to ask you about your book. You are already working as a good writer should be. While he’s promoting his book, he is writing his second book. I assume you’re thinking about your third book.
[bctt tweet=”People think CRM is going to solve some problem for them when all of it is just paving the dirt trails you’re on.” username=””]
At least, yeah. Quickly, I think it would help anyone who might have read this thus far. I met you when we both were talking many years ago on the TEDx Boulder stage. You were talking about what makes things funny and I was talking about what makes things fun. In the process, you went on to write The Humor Code and continued to move on. I still was working on the same damn thing the whole time. It was a partnership with an art history and design professor at Parsons, John Sharp. He’s a renaissance art historian now turn game designer. He and I connected on the idea that we needed some aesthetic framework for talking about video games. We had the sense that the current aesthetics weren’t working. I know that sounds boring but it comes to the bearer when you’re trying to talk about, “What makes this video game better than that video game?” People are trying to bring all this art and apparatus to it and it didn’t seem satisfying to us.
We spent about nine years writing this little book just to answer the question, what’s at the heart of games? What makes one game better than another? We came with this framework, this Fun, Taste, & Games framework. Overall that time we discovered something about fun, which was fun is the aesthetic that we were looking for. We didn’t know what it was going to be called. We said, “Have fun.” Why do people play games? Not because they’re beautiful. Not because they’re educational. Not because they’re entertaining. People play games because they’re fun. In fact, the definition of a broken game is the game is not fun. This is not like, “What a great insight.” You do your academic research and you come around to the obvious after a long time. That’s what the book is about. The book is about fun. When we finally finished writing this book, it’s going to be hitting the shelves here. It asks a million other questions, what do you do? “You’ve discovered America. You’ve discovered this aesthetics of fun. Now, you’ve got a whole continent to explore.”
The next book I’m interested in and I’m working on right now, I’ve called it Ludic Form for Architecture because architecture is one of those fields that has a lot of playfulness in it. It has a lot of fun in it but it suppresses it because architects are serious artists. They adhere to beauty standards. The forms of beauty. Architects have a hard time with things like Disneyland or in Denver, Casa Bonita or any idiosyncratic or wacky architecture. They don’t know what to do with it. In fact, they created a whole architectural category called the folly. It’s like, “If it’s not serious enough, we’ll throw it into the folly category.” I thought, “Do you know what architects need? They need a book.” They need a reference book of forms like a slide. You’re not going to sit here and say, “That’s an architectural form designed for fun.” You could use a slide functionally. Mostly if you see a slide, the first thing you think about is, “That would be fun to go down.” It’s very simple.
Versus that it’s faster than a set of stairs or an elevator.
In some cases that might be true. Take a kid into a fire department, the fire pole serves a speed purpose for an emergency but to your mind, it looks like that would be fun to go down. I’m cataloging tons of these forms and creating a vocabulary around it. It will be like a reference book. The same we can look at any architecture book and look at, “This is a coin or this is a pillar or this is a plaster.” It will be like all these architectural forms for play and maybe encourage architects to think about fun as a part of their design language instead of being like, “I’m designing a serious building. There could be no fun, no play, no humor involved in this.” That’s what that book is about. It’s just a catalog. It will probably take me another nine years to write that one.
That’s fine. You’re a young man. The title of this book, the one that’s out now, is Fun, Taste, & Games. To me, the obvious thing would’ve been to call it fun and games. Why taste?
Here’s what I love about aesthetics. It might be lower on the interest totem pole than CRM. Nobody wants to talk about aesthetics because what aesthetics simultaneously sounds like is over intellectualizing of something obvious, which is some things are pretty and some things aren’t, simultaneously with the fact that there could be no science to it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s how people like to think about aesthetics. Both of those contexts are wrong because if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how do we have things to say like, “The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting or Florence is a beautiful city, or that’s a beautiful coat that guy is wearing.” There’s something there. Aesthetics tries to understand what that something is and it can get into some pretty deep philosophy. When you start talking about fun as an aesthetic form, people are like, “I think you might be familiar with this.” When you start talking about the science of humor, people are like, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
When you talk about the aesthetics of fun, it’s worse. Why taste? We’ve got to think about taste has a lot to do with aesthetics. You can’t say beauty is in the eye of the beholder because that doesn’t make sense. That would create philosophical solipsism. If beauty’s in the eye of the beholder then there’s nothing beautiful and there’s nothing ugly or beauty is just some statistical measure of where people happen to agree with their own private view that that thing is beautiful. That doesn’t work. Aesthetics can’t be based on taste, but you can’t take the taste out of it either. Since this is a humor podcast, I could use some of the things you’ve talked about in terms of humor, which is not everything’s funny to everyone.
It’s nearly impossible to find something that everybody agrees is funny.
Here’s the great thing about taste. Taste is different from a critical assessment. I can say, “I get why you would think that’s funny. It’s just not funny to me.” The best easy way to go about taste is food. You can be like, “I don’t like spinach.” I can’t argue with you about that. If you start to say, “You shouldn’t like spinach because it’s terrible,” you’re making a critical assessment. We don’t do that with food so much. We can be like, “You don’t like sushi. You must be crazy,” but it’s playful. I could say, “If you think Sarah Silverman is funny, there must be something wrong with you.” We can’t pull taste out of it. John and I realized as we built this nice philosophical model to describe fun, we had to readmit taste to say, “You don’t take the taste out of the equation.” That’s Fun, Taste, & Games. That’s the framework. The good news is it’s a short book. We boiled this down pretty good.
I don’t know a lot about aesthetics. The work that I’m familiar with is social and cognitive psychology. This guy, I think the last name is Reber, then there’s a bunch of people on this paper. Norbert Schwarz is also a co-author on it and they make the argument that what underlies things that are aesthetically pleasing or beautiful is the notion of fluency. It’s this ease of processing. They do basically a review of the literature. For example, things that are symmetrical tend to be prettier than things that are asymmetrical and things that are symmetrical also happened to be easier to process. They’re looking at the perceptual and emotional commonalities that we all have as humans. I don’t believe they dive deeply into the individual differences. For instance, the model helps explain differences with regard to experience. As you get more experienced, it becomes easier to perceive and decode complex things. Then more complex things can become more pleasing as you get more experienced, which explains things like art and so on.
That’s what happens when you put a bunch of scientists at art. It’s not wrong, it’s just incomplete is what it amounts to. The nice thing is philosophically speaking, aesthetics as we think of is not that old. It started in probably 1700s or early 1800s. If you talk about aesthetics, you’ve got to talk about Kant in the West. He even separated into these two categories, the beautiful and the sublime.
What is the sublime?
That’s what’s interesting. That’s why I say it’s incomplete, the science definition. Standing at the edge of a cliff and watching these clouds, watching a storm come over to the ocean. You talk about the sublime of the terror of nature. Nature can be completely totally terrifying, but there’s something deeply aesthetically satisfying about it at the same time. It even separated the beautiful from the sublime and said, “It’s all aesthetic experience because it’s not rational.”
[bctt tweet=”If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then there’s nothing beautiful and there’s nothing ugly.” username=””]
The social psychologists and cognitive psychologists of the world even would call this awe. It’s something that is awe-inspiring. There’s some sense of, “I don’t think this is necessary or sufficient,” but the size for instance. The things that are big for instance or things that are like, “Big mountain is more awe-inspiring than small mountains,” and that thing. I don’t recall all the conditions. They’ve split this.
It makes sense. If you’re a social psychologist and you’re trying to turn this into useful tools, it makes sense to me. I take this aesthetic side for more of the art stuff where you’re trying to comprehend the messiness of it. Because in one sense you could say, “It’s all patterns.” Then there’s Jackson Pollock, you’re like, “What happened to my rule?” “No, it’s more complex sets of patterns.” At a certain point, I’m like, “You went down the rabbit hole and goodbye.” There’s something to be said. There is formal beauty. There are these patterns. I’ll give you another example from architecture. You’ll find that there are these classic architectural forms.
Some people believe that all good architecture follows these classic forms. I’ve read these people that have written about, “Look at this thing. It’s lopsided, it doesn’t follow the perfect rule of thirds or whatever but still, we consider it beautiful.” It’s funny that any artist has the set of rules, but sometimes it’s how they break the rules, which is the most interesting. It’s so much closer to the fun and funny stuff, which is it’s not the form. You need the form. I don’t think there’s any reason you shouldn’t study the form but it’s how people break the form. That’s probably what’s so exciting about life and humans. It’s what connects humor and fun.
I think Picasso gets credit for the quote but I don’t know if he actually said it, which is “Study the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.” There’s something about that in the world of comedy relating to this idea. I got a call from a journalist who was writing an article about Family Guy. This Family Guy funny thing, sort of the question. It’s the twenty-year anniversary of Family Guy and we talked at length about this idea. What I was saying is you can’t say that Family Guy is not funny because it’s been on the air for several years. Every week, thousands of people laugh at Family Guy. What you can ask though is, “Is Family Guy a good comedy?” To me, that’s the idea that there’s a world of people who are offended by Family Guy. There’s a world of people who are bored by Family Guy. There’s a world of people who are delighted by Family Guy.
Some of that is back to taste too.
Both of those judgments are funny through the lens you see the world; your values and culture and somewhat. Then your beliefs about what makes good art, in this case, good comedy also depends on some belief about what art is supposed to do and where it fits.
What’s fascinating about when you approach aesthetics from both the formal side and the taste side. In my case, the fun and the taste side. Tastes give you opportunities to do things like educated tastes. We’re educators. We like this idea that says when you’re a kid it’s all macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. Your job as a parent is to try to get your kids to try new things. When you bring students into a class and you’re trying to get them to try on new things, you can’t make somebody care about something, but you can at least expose them to it. When John and I talked about games, we would say sophisticated game players like your nerdy board game players just despise a game like Monopoly. It’s not balanced. It goes on for too long. You get to the point in the game where you know someone’s going to win but you have to sit there and wait. From a taste standpoint, you can get all high and mighty and be like, “This is a terrible game.” Except it goes back to your Family Guy thing.
If it’s such a terrible game, why does every home in America have a least one copy of Monopoly? You start to say, “Maybe there’s something in the approach to that game. Maybe there’s something about that game that’s appealing to certain kinds of tastes.” Then I would flip over and use the example of music. Unless you’re a crazy person, I bet you like different kinds of music. Sometimes you feel you like the upbeat stuff, sometimes you like the downbeat stuff. Even internally, your taste has a lot to do with what you’re looking for. That being said, I could argue with you, “Do you like that band?” I can’t argue with you if you like it but I could say, “Have you heard this band?” I can start to teach you like, “Listen to the drum line. Listen to the way John Bonham plays the bass drum” on Led Zep. You’re going, “I didn’t know that was a thing.” Then you start to develop the flavor. Alcohol culture is all about learning these horrible flavors. Then you’re like, “Now I can identify the flavors. I like this toxic thing.”
That’s interesting because as you were talking, I was thinking of the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It has come up a number of times on this podcast. It’s a documentary about sushi. It’s actually a story about achievement and skill acquisition. What is interesting to your point is someone may or may not like sushi. That’s whether something’s funny or not but whether a particular chef is good at sushi or not is more the question of art. Watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi can educate you about sushi in a way that can enhance your experience with good sushi and hurt your experience with bad sushi. The same with music. I like this idea of teaching taste.
You can get an educated taste. We all do that. We do it to each other. We go to schools sometimes.
Before I went on the job market, I took a wine tasting class just so I would not be an incompetent fool at these fancy dinners.
You’ve probably developed your taste along the way so now you can tell the difference to some degree.
What makes a game fun then?
I’m glad you asked because that’s what I spend all of my time thinking about. We broke fun down into three components. This is the structural side, not the taste side. The three components are the ludic form, set-outsideness and ambiguity. We borrowed the framework from Kant and then updated it to our needs because Kant didn’t write about fun. In case you’re curious, Immanuel Kant never wrote about fun.
[bctt tweet=”It’s funny that any artist has the set of rules; but sometimes, it’s how they break the rules which is the most interesting.” username=””]
He did talk about humor a little bit.
He wrote about it too. He wrote a bunch about aesthetics and so we think we’ll just borrow out this aesthetic framework because it’s a pretty useful aesthetic framework that talked about fun. That’s where the three parts came from. The ludic form is easy. Ludic is the Latin term for play. It gets used a lot in game studies. One of the classic books about play, Johan Huizinga wrote the book, Homo Ludens. It’s a great book. If you haven’t read that book, you should read the book. Huizinga was a scholar of the Middle Ages. While he was basically incarcerated during World War II by the Nazis, he wrote a book. I think that play is the thing that drives all civilization because judges wear costumes and robes. Legal systems all have this playfulness in there. All civilizations and rituals, everything, all come out of this desire to play. It’s a very fascinating thesis and it’s a pretty allegeable book considering it was written in the ‘40s.
Ludic form basically means there are certain sets of structures that allow play to happen in games. That’s what we were starting with. People have written lots and lots about it. This is partly why you can recognize a game. You could pull out a game like Senet, which is 2,000 years old or Mancala, which who knows how old that is. You don’t have to know the rules or anything. You just look at it and you say, “It’s a game.” There’s a set of design principles. We didn’t want to get mired in that. We didn’t say it was sufficient aesthetically to say, “I have the parts of the game,” but you can recognize the parts of the game.
Is it the idea that you can recognize that there are some constraints and there are some rules that are present?
Different people inventory it differently. You should probably understand that John and I came from the game studies, where people study video games largely. We didn’t get deep into things like what is a ludic form? What are all the ludic forms? Because we’re like you could read the rest of your life on people that have tried to create ontologies of ludic form. The dice and spinning around dizziness and rules of competition and rules or role-playing. That would be the classic four categories from this guy, Roger Caillois, who was a sociologist. You’d get all kinds of people that say endlessly these game patterns. We just wanted to recognize that a part of the aesthetic framework, there’s a ludic form.
I’ve had a number of improvisers come on here. The game in improv, the long-form game is called the Harold. The Harold has come up a number of times. I don’t know all the beats of the Harold because I’ve only done two levels of improv. You get to the full Harold at four in UCB. I want to try to think about the Harold through these three conditions. Clearly, the idea is that the Harold is not a board game but it has rules. It has a structure and you’re supposed to follow to the best of your ability that structure. By that element, it’s a game.
The rules are the ludic form. What I don’t want to say is ludic form are rules because there are a whole bunch of things that don’t have distinctly prescribed rules like child’s play and dress up. There are rules but the rules are fluid. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. You could for the sake of argument say ludic form is the rule.
The structure of it, I get it, the patterns and so on.
Even in professional sports, the rules define how big the ball and how big the court is. The rules themselves aren’t sufficient to play a game of professional football. You’ve got to have helmets and balls and rafts, even though it’s all prescribed in the rules. It’s fascinating stuff. You can go and people have gone to great lengths to try to characterize that. For John and I, just ludic form. Harold has rules, ludic form. The next thing, you’re going to love this because this is the part that starts to make more sense, set-outsideness. When Kant wrote about art, he talked about art having this property of you approaching it with disinterestedness. It was how he separated a painting from a beautiful hammer because a hammer’s purpose is to hammer nails. You wouldn’t necessarily approach a hammer with disinterest. You’d approach a hammer with, “I’m going to use this to pound something,” but a painting doesn’t do anything. You look at it, “This is beautiful.” You miss the short version of that.
He had this idea of disinterest and we translate that over into games and start talking about set-outsideness because games have to be set outside of real life or they don’t work quite right. Let me give you an example. Russian roulette has all the properties of a game. It’s got rules. Some people would say it’s got an end state. It’s got a goal. A lot of ambiguity but it’s not set outside. That’s why beer hunter, the great Bob and Doug McKenzie game is fun because it’s set outside. The beer hunter is you take a six-pack of beer, you shake up one of the beers then you take turns opening the can by your head. The consequence is unpleasant. It’s still set outside. I don’t know the game of the Harold, but the Harold is by necessity set outside. It’s not something that you have to do.
That certainly fits. It’s made up. It’s not part of the audience’s day-to-day. The consequences are minimal.
Maybe if you’re a professional improv and you’re practicing this, maybe it doesn’t feel set outside. That’s another can of worms. Another thing about set-outsideness, which is super easy is it’s the court or the pitch or the field where you play. It’s like you enter into that place where you’re set outside.
The connection between fun and funny is close. My belief about the roots of comedy is in play fighting, in particular, as a form of practice for life. The idea is that play fighting, rough and tumble play, is not only present in humans but also in other mammals. It has that set-outsideness like you’re not fighting for real. There are limits and rules associated. When you play fight, you’re not allowed to gouge someone’s eyes out. Now you’re fighting. It’s real. It’s war. You’re sitting in that space.
Some of this is all symmetrical. You see a lot of set-outsideness that’s packed into the rules like what you can and can’t do. There’s still that sense of aesthetically speaking that you have to recognize that the set-outsideness is operating all the time in a functioning successful game.
The early work that we did on humor looked at what we call psychological distance. The way we always viewed psychological distance is like a lever that you could either turn up or turn down the violation. The argument is humor rises from benign violations. Distance, whether it be physical, relational, temporal, spatial or in reality. You’re either closer or farther away from this emotional object. The distance allows you to be able to experience bigger violations. This idea of set-outsideness is especially related to this notion of what’s called hypotheticality. You and I are in what we think is the real world at least. This seems like the real world. However, if we started doing a sketch where we’re playing different people, now we’re in a hypothetical world where I’m Elvis Costello and you’re someone else. That kind of thing which happens in improv all the time.
I think that’s right. Ludic form and set-outsideness work together and that makes sense, but that is not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is ambiguity. Every time I talk about this, I always go through the quick source of this idea of ambiguity and it’s Gregory Bateson, the great polymath. He did a lot of things. He was married to Margaret Mead among other things. Like all good academics, one day he decided he wanted to know if animals had meta-communication, communication about communication. He went to the zoo and he was sitting there and watching the monkeys play or just goofing around and either play fighting. He was like, “They’re biting each other.” There’s a bite that meant to signify a bite but they’re not really biting each other.
[bctt tweet=”As soon as the ambiguity collapses, the play goes away and the fun goes with it.” username=””]
He answered this question, but then he got completely distracted and said, “This meta-communication is bite that’s not a bite. It’s the source of play and fantasy.” It’s in animals and it’s in us. What John and I did is we took that concept and abstracted it a little more broadly from a bite that’s not a bite to this is not. Bateson didn’t talk about fun. He didn’t nail fun. He talked about play. We said this ambiguity, this bite that’s not a bite, this is not, it’s at the heart of the matter of what makes a successful play. You can think it’s super symmetrical with set-outsideness because in your example if we’re play fighting and it tumbles into real fighting, the ambiguity is gone.
The meaning of, “I shot you. No, you missed. I cut your arm off.” We’re negotiating that ambiguity in play but as soon as I actually cut your arm off, then the ambiguity is gone. It’s a slippery concept, but I usually use a lot of examples of try to cement it in doing a lot of architecture stuff. I was just talking about Disneyland because it was a great example of ambiguity. It’s is filled with these examples. People that don’t like Disneyland always say, “I hate Disneyland. It’s so fake.” People that like Disneyland go, “No kidding, that’s why I like it.” Its castles are not castles, rivers that are going circles, hippopotamuses that aren’t hippopotamuses. The textbook case, there’s a mouse that’s not a mouse. He’s got a house that’s not a house.
Disney over and over again is playing with this idea that it’s real but it’s not real. What’s super important about ambiguity is that as soon as the ambiguity collapses, the play goes away and the fun goes with it. You’ve got to maintain ambiguity. This is disruptive to our British and purist background. Black, white, male, female, good, bad. All of a sudden, you’re saying it’s in this weird moment where both things are true. It’s liberating. It can be very confusing. It can be very exciting but it’s that state that we exist in. Let me give you one more thing because I could tie this back to fun because of our old friend Arthur Koestler. Another guy who studied things and just wrote stuff.
Koestler wrote about bisociation, which I know is in your book and I know it’s symmetrical with the benign violation. He thought that this bisociation of bringing two planes of meaning together at the same time was a source of humor, science, and art. He didn’t talk about fun either because he was very instrumental. He even described humor is once you bisociate those planes or once the benign violation happens, he talks about that drop of adrenaline and the laugh. Because there’s a moment of ambiguity that resolves. The play is like the cord that’s still open. It’s not resolved and once it resolved, it’s over with. It’s why you finally end the play. It’s like you leave Disneyland.
It’s why set-outsideness is so important because sooner or later you come back into a more stable state. That unstable ambiguity is so fascinating and I think that’s what ties humor and fun together as they both work with ambiguity. They both work with a very similar set of tools, but one strives to drive to that moment where it all fits together and fun demands, play demands, it doesn’t quite get there. It’s always the anticipation. It’s wandering around in Disneyland and your brain’s going ape shit because there’s all this stuff that’s not real that’s right there. People pay a lot of money for that feeling.
The critique of Monopoly is at some point in the game it’s obvious who’s going to win and then the ambiguity evaporates and now you’re just working on an assembly line.
If the fun for you is trying to win the game. If the fun for you is just hanging out with your friends, having drinks, eating snacks, shooting the breeze then the game can be facilitating that. That’s why Monopoly still exists but that’s a taste thing. It’s like if you play chess or if you play tennis, you don’t want to play with someone way better or way worse than you because the outcome is set. You might play with someone not as good as you to help them learn. You might play with someone better than you to practice but that wouldn’t be fun. That’s where the ambiguity is so important. A Monopoly game that you want to win and you’re not going to win, flip the board.
A long time ago I thought I was going to be a sports psychologist and so I picked up a second major. I was a psychology major as an undergrad and then I picked up an exercise science major, second major. I remember taking a class about sport. The definition of sport is somewhat similar like there are certain rules and so on. One of the things that differentiate the sport from non-sports is that the outcome is not predetermined. For instance, professional wrestling is not a sport because it’s theater. The difference between sport and a movie or entertainment is there. Professional wrestling is still fun because to the audience, they don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
They also know it’s fake. We get absorbed in that drama. It is fun.
It sits at that. It meets these criteria.
By the way, you’ve stepped into something that’s bedeviled game studies for the longest time people study games. What do we do with professional sports? Because it looks like labor from the outside. What differentiates playing football from playing in the Super Bowl. Most people are like, “That’s labor. That’s instrumental,” or whatever. The fun tasting games framework unlocks that a little bit for you. It’s not what you’re doing. It’s not just the ludic form or the set-outsideness, it’s the ambiguity. Like the Patriots are going to work now. They’re not having fun. Winning is fun. That moment of “I’ve accomplished something meaningless, that’s joyful.” Monday morning those guys can all go home and play football with their kids and it can be fun. That’s why it’s important to have those three parts because ludic form and set-outsideness gives you a nice kit of parts but in operation, it doesn’t work together to provide that ambiguity.
You were talking about ancient board games. One of them is called Go. It’s incredibly popular in Asia and an incredibly difficult game. Yet the world’s best Go players lose to computers. Basically, artificial intelligence has learned to play Go so well that it beats world masters. As someone who’s studying games now, you have computers that are able to learn how to win but it’s not clear at least, yet that the computer enjoys winning.
You’re asking a super hard question because it asks a lot about why we play. There’s an essay that John wrote in the book about Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s famous for the urinal that probably he didn’t know. Probably, somebody else did that but he’s famous for all this early modern art. He stopped doing art to play chess. From the game studies we go, “Marcel Duchamp, the Patron Saint of Games.” He shows the connection between art and games. When you get down to it, there’s a nebbishy quality to chess where this fascination of patterns and stuff, which does look a little bit more like art than pure play.
I wonder if the entrance of the computer probably changes the nature of how we think about those patterns. It probably doesn’t damage the play for most of us who aren’t that good in the first place but it could, anything that exterminates ambiguity. Gambling is a great example. People enjoy gambling. They set limits. They know what they’re in for. They win, they lose. If you meet someone who’s addicted to gambling, I don’t mean like their house but they compulsively buy tickets and they think they’re going to win. From the outside, you can see that there’s an ambiguity that’s missing there.
It becomes a sense of psychological crutch or something. I’m not trying to comment in particular some psychological process of play, but just to say that’s how ambiguity comes in and it can be different from the outside and the inside. Maybe even a better example is the violent video games. I think that there’s been this war, “Violent video games make kids violent.” “No, they don’t.” Reintroducing ambiguity, you start to say, “Violent video games would be no fun if there wasn’t a good feeling of killing somebody.” That is a horrible thing to say.
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They’re good at making the bad guys bad.
That helps, whatever that would be your benign violation. I assuage some of that but still they make them more and more realistic. From the outside, you can look at and you’re going, “These were murder simulators.” Instead of saying, “No, they’re not,” you should say, “No, they’re not in certain important ways.” To the extent that someone plays a video game as rehearsals for real life activity, where does the ambiguity go? It’s gone. If a kid plays these games, connects with his friends, has fun, it’s not making him fall into some other despairing behavior, isolation or whatever, then who cares? That’s why ambiguity is so challenging for people because we are taught from day one, black and white, Democrat and Republican. If you look at it and you start to say, “The psychological process is probably muddy and it turns out we’re freaking good at it. We had culturally been taught not to do that. There’s a battle going on. It’s why entertainment got sidelined because entertainment’s been our socially sanctioned place to go feel ambiguity.
I want to ask you about your reaction. There’s an infinite number of choices when it comes to game playing. Obviously, game playing can come at the cost of other endeavors. Do you think of there being some hierarchy of games that some games help develop us more than others?
I’m going to give you two answers to that. The first answer is there’s a great book that Brian Sutton-Smith wrote called The Ambiguity of Play. Sutton-Smith, he’s dead but he wrote voluminously in the education field about play. The Ambiguity of Play is a fascinating book because he went through nine different rhetorics of play. One of the rhetorics of play was we play for education. Small animals play to learn. Remember that was one of nine. Another one was we play to create social bonds. The Catharsis theory, we play to get it out. It’s important to say first of all, you can play for other purposes but you don’t have to. Play is multidimensional. He ultimately settled on the idea that play was an evolutionary adaptation so that we would prepare ourselves for future things that we don’t know what they are aka the world is ambiguous. A tiger was my biggest threat, yesterday it’s this other thing. I don’t know what it is. It’s an interesting theory. That’s part of my answer.
I would certainly say that the big proponents of sport would make this similar argument. Sport helps prepare you for real life dealing with teams, dealing with challenges and so on.
It’s such a comfortable rational way down to box play.
Given the US culture preoccupation with sports, that’s an easy thing to lean on as a reason that you should spend a disproportionate amount of time shipping your kids around soccer tournaments.
It’s a fascinating observation because we don’t apply that same rhetoric to video games. Some people have, like John Seely Brown saying World of Warcraft is preparing the business leaders of tomorrow exercising creativity and organizational management. The thing is some people get to have that, some people don’t. That’s half of the answer. The other half of the answer is the other half of the Fun, Taste, & Games book, which is the taste side of the equation. I’ve got three more things for it. It makes a little atomic diagram. It’s play community, genre and play style.
When you look at games through the lens of taste, there are the games you play, which is the genre. There are the people that you like to play games with, your play community. Then there’s the play style, how you play. You can play poker competitively, you can play it with the guys on the weekend or you can play it online just to kill time. That’s what playstyle means. You can play the same damn game with the same damn people in different ways. It’s really important when you talk about that quality or can you use it as a hierarchy of good and bad games? I’d say it’s probably closer to why you’re playing the games. If your play community is obsessive-compulsive, the prototype nerd in the basement, maybe that’s not good for me. That community is not a healthy community to be a part of.
Certainly, if you look at the manosphere these days, you can make that argument easily.
The same with the playstyle. All you care about is winning, that may not be a great way to play.
This idea that if you’re a young man who’s a bit isolated and you play a game that only brings you into contact with young men who are isolated. If you’re playing a game that brings you into touch with older men and younger men and women and girls, maybe that might help a little bit.
The play community stuff is super important. There is a big piece of the book that talks about, I don’t know if you follow the whole Gamergate thing. Ironically, I was with this group of journalists where Gamergate got started. I unwind that and tell that story. We talk a lot about how play community sounds so delightful, doesn’t it? Play community can be toxic and corrosive and horrible. In fact, the Gamergate community felt under attack, which I sympathize with but their response was aggressive. There was no compromise. You look through the lens of play community, you say play community doesn’t have to mean la, la, la. It can be ugly too.
I want to talk about retail environments. You talked about one already, Disney. I think that the demise of retail is overstated. Certainly, retails like malls and big box stores are struggling and they are for good reason, Amazon for example. The idea of going out and shopping and especially because it’s more than a utilitarian thing, it’s not just a hammer. The idea is that it can be exciting and that it can be fun. It can be entertaining and that good retail will be fun, exciting and entertaining. Imagine I had someone who worked in retail who listened to my podcast, a woman who owns a boutique or someone who has a restaurant. If you were to translate your lessons and you wanted to try to make a retail space experience more fun, how do you do that? How do you think about it?
A couple of quick touch points. The first thing is Gilmore and Pine and The Experience Economy nailed this. Anyone who works in any product line anywhere selling anything should go read The Experience Economy because basically, they said people don’t buy commodities, they don’t buy services. They buy experiences. They are looking for this transformation. They mean it literally like they’re buying experiences in their textbook cases, the price of a cup of coffee.
I went to a coffee shop and I don’t choose coffee shops arbitrarily. I choose them in part because of how they’re lit and how the table, the feel, how loud it is or quiet it is and the experience.
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That’s a great lens to put on it. Another book I read, which is a fun book is Steven Johnson’s Wonderland. He’s a guy who writes a lot about innovation and stuff. Wonderland is great. He’s got a whole section about retail. The modern mall was an invention of trying to create a retail experience. We forgot that. Once again, we just turned it into a machine for making it easy. I think we’re starting to see a return to that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Meow Wolf, the art collective out of Santa Fe. You’ve got to go. It’s amazing. It’s funhouse meets art. It’s now the number one tourist attraction in New Mexico. They’re building a giant one in Denver. What’s interesting is they’re building this crazy art freak out in Las Vegas called Area 51. The best I understand it is it’s an art experience with the retail inside of it. We’re back to those big themed restaurants. They floundered in this certain sense. They never lost their appeal. People love that stuff.
Casa Bonita in Denver, what’s the first thing everybody says about Casa Bonita? The food is terrible, to which I respond, “Name one of the restaurants that has been around for 45 years where the food’s terrible,” because Casa Bonita is still an experience. My advice to any retail person or anyone doing any product, you need to look at this and now Fun, Taste, & Games, not to cement my own role in all this. It’s describing the aesthetics of that. It says everything is an experience. Sitting in an empty room is an experience but people are looking for these ambiguous experiences. They want to be transported. They don’t want to buy a cup of coffee. They want to feel they were in Italy or New York City or whatever. There’s just something to be said to treat your product and your spaces with a little bit of play. That’s you can see why I would write a book called Ludic Form for Architecture because then they can figure there’s an apparatus that I can deploy to do this stuff. It makes sense, at least to my head.
I’m going to give you a friendly notice from someone who cares about you. Are you committed to calling this book Ludic Form for Architecture?
No, that’s just a working title. By the way, look at the title of the book we wrote about fun.
I already had a note about that title.
We rewrote the book probably ten times. Somehow, we never thought about updating the working title and there it is. To me, it’s hilarious how bad the title is.
You mentioned Danny Conoman. I did my postdoc with Danny. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from him. One of the things that Danny said is naming things is important. That has always stuck with me. This is before I even was a marketing professor. If you think about calling Humor Research Lab the Humor Research Lab and then figuring out the acronym was HuRL, it’s a huge win. It took me 45 minutes. The payoff of that extra fifteen minutes is enormous. What are you reading or watching or listening to that’s really good, that stands out, that’s outstanding?
Wonderland is the last book that I just finished. One of the lines in that book is “If you want to know where things are heading, look where people are having the most fun.” I’m like, “This guy’s telling this cultural history about this aesthetic stuff.” It’s a delightful book. It’s an easy read. I’m about halfway through Thinking, Fast and Slow. Someone gave it to me years ago. That’s a super interesting book for a bunch of reasons. It’s an intellectual history of his career and it’s fun seeing how that all worked out.
The alternative to that is to read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis wrote a book about Danny and Amos. Amos Tversky is his partner in much of this work. I haven’t read it only because I know it so well already just from more and being part of it. That will give a narrative element to it that is probably not as strong as in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
The only other thing I’ll tell you, magic fits right in the middle of all this fun stuff. It adheres to the FTG model pretty well. Most magic blogs are terrible. There’s a magic blog called The Jerx. There is almost no reason to let people know about it because the guy essentially built an interesting business model where he doesn’t want more customers. He’s going to stop publishing the blog unless you’re one of his subscribers. He’s also got a set subscriber base. I’m just saying I’m giving a bad recommendation but go look at The Jerx and go back and read the stuff that’s there. It’s hilarious and it’s fascinating. It’s absolutely some of the best writing about magic I’ve ever read.
Why is he creating scarcity? Why is he limiting his subscriber base?
I don’t know. I think what it amounts to is that he figured out with X number of subscribers paying X amount a year that he could serve like that and that would be fine. I really don’t know. He also would say he’s the guy that invented this notion of amateur magic. He doesn’t want to do stage performance. He likes doing experiences for individuals.
There’s a book called Small Giants. It’s about businesses that purposely stay small. The author does a bunch of case studies. For instance, he uses Ani DiFranco as an example. She stayed in Buffalo rather than go to New York or Los Angeles. He talks about a beer company. This guy sounds like he would fit very well.
I never thought about it. I’m like, “I made it in the door before he closed it.”
Certainly, it helps with regard to loyalty. David, this was fun. I always have a list of exhibits. This is going to be one of my long lists. This is great for all of these things and I appreciate you doing this.
It’s been a blast. It’s fun. It’s even funny too.
There were some good laughs. Thank you.
- David Thomas
- Fun, Taste, & Games: An Aesthetics For the Idle, Unproductive, and Otherwise Playful
- Darwyn Metzger – Previous episode
- The Humor Code
- Homo Ludens
- The Ambiguity of Play
- The Experience Economy
- Meow Wolf
- Humor Research Lab
- Thinking, Fast and Slow
- The Undoing Project
- The Jerx
- Small Giants
About David Thomas
David Thomas is an assistant professor attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His studies the aesthetics of fun and the value of play. For nearly 20 years prior, he was a professional game journalist writing, with his work appearing in the Denver Post, Edge Magazine, and Wired. With John Sharp, he recently published the book: Fun, Taste and Games: Aesthetics for the Idle, Unproductive and Otherwise Playful.