Problematic Pleasures in Digital Games and Play

February 24, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

As we continue to accept applications for the 2022-2023 Program for the Arts (theme: Labour) we're highlighting some of this year's Program for the Arts events.

Problematic Pleasures in Digital Games and Play was a recent symposium organized by Felan Parker, Sara Grimes, and Scott Richmond. The symposium brought together four prominent international game scholars—Christopher B. Patterson, Aaron Trammell, Kishonna L. Gray and Bo Ruberg—to discuss the diverse and not always harmless ways that pleasure moves us in and through play. Problematic Pleasures in Digital Games and Play generated new insights and directions of inquiry for game studies and the wider humanities. If you missed the session, the recording is available on our YouTube channel.


Organizer Felan Parker provided a summary of the event.

JHI: Can you explain the idea behind Pleasure and game studies?

FP: Video games are strongly associated with pleasure, but the concept of pleasure is fairly under-examined in game studies, either taken for granted or deliberately downplayed in order to legitimate games as a serious object of study. But pleasure is a complex and important aspect of games and play! Each of the game scholars on the panel bucks the trend by directly engaging the question of pleasure using different theoretical frameworks and methodologies, and so the event was designed to bring these important voices into dialogue and redress this lack of critical attention.

JHI: What did you hope your participants would take away from your symposium?

FP: I hope that participants gained an appreciation for the diverse ways that pleasure can be thought in games and play, rather than flattening it out into vague, celebratory marketing terms like “fun” or “immersion.” Importantly, the panelists not only critiqued the problematic ways that pleasure reinforces hegemonic structures in the game industry and gaming culture, but also imagined how we might problematize those dominant conceptions by positing pleasure in games as a site of potential resistance and transformation.

JHI: How did the symposium turn out?

FP: The talks and discussions were inspiring, generative, and warmly received. Each presenter brought a different but intersecting perspective and approach to the aesthetics and politics of pleasure in play. Christopher B. Patterson’s analysis of the imperialistic pleasures of “the Asiatic” in games like Paradise Killer opened up and complicated the question of problematic representation in games, linking it to real-world structures of exploitation. Aaron Trammell looked beyond games to Black music and other cultural forms to decentralize pleasure in white European theories of play and better account for experiences of racialized violence, trauma, and solidarity. Extending this idea of the thin line between pleasure and pain, Kishonna L. Gray used her own genealogy as a player to unpack how pleasure in games is a safe haven of connection and resistance for Black players that is repeatedly interrupted and re-claimed. Finally, Bo Ruberg challenged the white, cis, heteronormative pleasures of fun, mastery, and empathy that dominate popular discourse on games, instead embracing non-normative pleasures and queer joy in the erotic, the abject, and playful, unstructured experimentation. Running through each talk is a recognition that pleasure matters, and as Ruberg succinctly put it, this means that game scholars and designers alike must ask “to whom do we want to give pleasure?” and “whose pleasure do we want to destroy?”
JHI: Are you planning any other events in the near future?

FP: There are a number of exciting game studies events coming up this term in different corners of U of T. On March 10, the Critical Digital Humanities Network’s Visiting Speaker series features Dr. Angus Mol on games as “playful time machines” for historical research and outreach. On April 19, UTM’s Collaborative Digital Research Space is doing an event highlighting several gaming and game studies related projects. For my part, I’m organizing a talk about Irish-language game translations of video games with my Celtic Studies colleague Pa Sheehan on April 8 (details TBA). Lots to look forward to!

JHI: How did you hear about the JHI’s Program for the Arts? Can you say a few words about your experience for others thinking of applying?

FP: I’ve been following the JHI’s various initiatives since my post-doctoral days and had seen a variety of fantastic events put on as part of the Program for the Arts in the past. When I learned that the 2021-2022 theme was Pleasure, I knew there had to be a game studies event on the bill! The application process was quite straightforward, and we benefitted greatly from conversations with past recipients and administrators familiar with the process. I think one of the strengths of our proposal—in addition to the all-star panelists!—was the cross-unit collaboration with my intrepid co-organizers Sara Grimes (Faculty of Information/KMDI) and Scott Richmond (Cinema Studies Institute).


Problematic Pleasures in Digital Games and Play was supported by the JHI’s 2021-2022 Program for the Arts on the annual theme of Pleasure, with additional support from St. Michael’s College, the Knowledge Media Design Institute, the Faculty of Information, and the Cinema Studies Institute.

The 2022-2023 Program for the Arts Call for Proposals is now open until Monday, March 21, 2022 at 11:59pm. Check out our announcement that provides detailed information and a link to the application form.