J. Tuomas Harviainen

J. Tuomas Harviainen (PhD, MBA) is Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media at Tampere University, Finland. His main areas of research include coopetitive information sharing between game companies and drug traders’ practices on the Dark Web. Harviainen is a former Editor of the journals International Journal of Role-Playing and Simulation & Gaming

Contact information:
tuomas.harviainen at tuni.fi

Review: Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification

by J. Tuomas Harviainen

Patrick Jagoda’s tome Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (2020) critically approaches games as primarily neoliberal phenomena, or works taking a stance on that. It is a volume that uses deep readings of various games to present cultural critique and to discuss games and gamification with their implications. Using the lenses of choice, control, difficulty and failure, and sub-themes such as coercion, consent and compliance, Jagoda outlines a view of looking at experimental and mainstream games both as representational abstractions and as things that influence through their play. The books opening delineations of topic and the way the volume deals with the hype of gamification are elegant, outlining the author’s perspective and permitting what follows to be a clearly political, yet nevertheless obviously scientific, exploration of the main themes.

The selection of examples throughout the book is fascinating and loaded with enough details, making it easy to follow even for people who may not be familiar with the particular games being analyzed. The author makes it very clear why the games were selected, what they in his -- or the designers’ - opinion represent, and what we can learn from playing and studying them. The thematic division functions well and provides sufficient backbone to the analysis. The number of games included for either deep readings or just short mentions spans both decades of time and numerous genres, both digital and analog (including an alternate reality game in the making of which Jagoda had a key role), showing that the author’s approach has numerous uses, only some of which are taken in the book. I could easily envision theses and articles stemming from these seeds, if this volume finds its way into the hands of students with sufficient training already behind them. For beginners, or for people just interested in games in general, it is likely too heavy a read.

Two central challenges that the book faces are its game selection, and the attempted full scope of the contribution. In the first area, a great majority of Jagoda’s examples come, as the title points out, from experimental or art games. The author nevertheless often takes the implications further than those examples, which can in many ways be seen as limit cases or as works that were meant for analysis and the love of critics, rather than primarily for their play. This might in other contexts be a problem -- and here, too, one gets at times the feel of “I have seen this game already deeply analyzed by others” -- but by two means, Jagoda avoids that pitfall. The first of these is that by also analyzing some very popular games such as Candy Crush Saga and mentioning many more for context in each case -- even if the core, atypical examples come from the margins -- the author aptly demonstrates how his selected examples nevertheless connect to the gaming mainstream. The second is that the author very cleverly deploys deep readings in a manner that uses the example games as tools for discussing wider phenomena, without relying too much on the examples involved. This leads to a situation where it is not so important whether Jagoda’s deep reading of an experimental game is right per se, but rather that the games function as objects which very clearly can be interpreted in the way Jagoda does, and can lead to much wider discussions.

The second challenge is that the author in several places mixes his discussions on games, serious games, and gamification. This seems to be an intentional decision, because in the early parts of the book, Jagoda makes it quite plain that he is aware of the different design and analysis traditions and what potentially differentiates between the concepts, at least to some extent. Yet there are times when implications from one category are used without clear explanation to discuss another. His argumentation could therefore have been significantly strengthened by using existing research that discusses the extent to which such boundary-crossing is possible, such as the research done by Richard Landers and colleagues (e.g., Landers et al., 2018). In its current form, the book leaves readers familiar with those shaking their head at times, while nevertheless still appreciating the core findings and the very evocative deep readings. Interestingly absent is also existing research into simulation veracity in games, particularly serious ones. On the other hand, the author engages very well with numerous other sources, especially when analyzing queer games.

The clearly and unapologetically political tone of Jagoda’s work may not appeal to all readers, but that in no way detracts from the central arguments and valuable contributions of the book. The analysis is well grounded and the case examples, even where one would not extend their status quite as far as Jagoda does, offer many fascinating looks at the ways in which experimental game design has been conducted. In a way, it is refreshing to see an analysis that is open about its agenda, yet proceeds to offer sufficiently many viewpoints for the readers to also make up their own minds. It is very difficult to judge Jagoda’s intended target audience, however. This is a book that in my opinion should be hosted alongside other critical readings of games in many game studies units’ libraries, and will make a clear contribution to such libraries. It is nevertheless not exactly an easy read, so handing it out to students will not be very straightforward. Yet, as noted above, in the right hands it will likely inspire some very good further research.



Jagoda, P. (2020). Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification. University of Chicago Press.

Landers, R. N., Auer, E. M., Collmus, A. B., & Armstrong, M. B. (2018). Gamification science, its history and future: Definitions and a research agenda. Simulation & Gaming, 49(3) 315-337.

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