Johann Sebastian Joust
The most amazing thing about Johann Sebastian Joust isn’t any component of the gameplay. It’s not the sound design (which is fantastic), the simplicity of the experience (which is fantastic) or the physical folk-game goofiness of shoving your friends (which is fantastic).
It’s that it’s political.
Johann Sebastian Joust (or just “JS Joust”, or even “Joust”) is a game from Doug Wilson and his fellow creators at Die Gute Fabrik, a small Copenhagen-based games studio. The first I heard about the game was through various indie game blogs in 2011, and then for real in the past few months as the game started popping up at events I never seemed to be at, such as PAX and GDC. It spawned hyperbole-laden indie-game love fests like a brilliantly written piece from Griffin McElroy at Polygon titled “Folk Lore: How Johann Sebastian Joust is defining a new gaming genre.”
It’s great writing. And it’s full of the kind of Brave New Worldisms that sometimes make me cringe at the indie game scene. See, in the end, I mostly just love playing games and thinking about games and talking about games. But I don’t much care if there’s a right way or a wrong way. I want fun, interesting new experiences. When I don't personally find something fun or interesting, I’m a goldfish — I get distracted and move along.
Joust seemed interesting. It is, essentially, a digital implementation of two guys holding red plastic Solo cups full of water. Whoever spills the water loses.
That’s the entire game, really. Instead of varying the amount of water in your cup, you hold a Playstation Move controller, which becomes “more full” when a piece of music is played slowly, and “less full” when the music is fast. I was hugely skeptical this would actually be sustainably entertaining.
But it did seem like an interesting addition to my semi-annual gatherings of nerds, and I figured I knew enough idiots like me who’d bought a Move controller that we could pull it off. So I cast around for the contact information of “that guy who made JS Joust,” made contact, and he was nice enough to send me a build.
The name rang a bell, but honestly, not a strong one. Like I said, I’m not deep in the indie game scene.
To say that Joust was a “hit” at my house would be a monstrous understatement. With seven fully charged controllers, a Macbook, and a boombox, a corner of our yard was turned into a thunderdome of technological plastic cups. During the day, the play drew in all generations, from the oldest among us to the 8 year olds and the teens in between. With each round, we’d press the trigger on our controllers, hear the lightsaber-like “shwing!” of readying-up for the game, and then a voice would announce: “Prepare to Joust!”
And that’s where the politics begins. Politics, at its core, is about how communities develop rules for interaction. It’s about people pushing, understanding, and establishing boundaries and patterns of acceptable behavior.
In a game of joust, there is no rule book, no instruction manual. Thus, there was a power vacuum. Anyone with a strong voice could establish the rules for a particular game: no kicking, no tripping, everyone hold (instead of dangle) the controller, no running. But these rules were never codified, or formally voted on and agreed to.
Even more interesting, the rules evolved constantly. During the daylight hours, when there were small children around, a “no kicking” rule was explicitly made (after my son got punted into a bush). But other than that, it was always just a kind of unspoken agreement. After all, we were all friends, right?
When darkness fell, all bets were off. In the pitch black, lit only by a campfire safely 40 feet away, we became a posse of seven vicious-if-graceful fireflies, lit up by our Move controllers. Strategies evolved. Standoffs occurred. Alliances were formed and broken. People were lifted bodily and thrown to the ground, tripped, slapped, pushed. The children long asleep, we played until 3AM, laughing non-stop as we crowned victor after victor, hundreds of rounds in a row.
It was beautiful, simple, joyful, emotional and — above all else — playful. But at the same time, it was intensely political and social. Each person signaled their participation in the ring-of-seven by that one simple act: holding their controller aloft, and pressing a button. From that moment, each was empowered to be a rule maker, a rule breaker, or just a willing citizen for a few moments.
But it turns out that JS Joust isn’t just political for the players. The game’s mere existence is a political act.
“Well Julian, this has been so much fun, but I really need to go,” says Roger. Roger Travis is an associate professor of classics at UConn, and a dear friend. He’s also one of those smart thinkers about games. He regularly writes about what games can teach us about ourselves, and how games can inform his chosen field. He uses words like “mimesis” at times when I’m just thinking “hangover.”
“So, if you can just grab my controllers … .”
I glare at him. Two of the precious Move controllers are his. He’s trying to pry them, almost literally, out of the hands of 7 sweaty, happy, out-of-breath gamers, just as the sun is setting and we know the game is really about to get good.
“Umm …” he says, as I glare at him some more “… or you can mail them to me?”
I hug him hard, and thank him, chuckling a bit.
“I have to go figure out what to say to Doug now,” he says, shaking his head. "I guess I start with an apology."
The comment slips my mind.
Two days later, the house is empty, and I sit down to write a thank-you note to “that guy who made JS Joust.” I remember Roger’s comment, and it hits me. Doug Wilson is that guy — the Doug whom Roger mentioned. He’s the guy who, in a GameSetWatch article in 2008, disavowed the word “gamer” for all time and called for a revolution against mainstream games, of a sort.
Thus, this article is a plea to the gaming community — both developers and gamers — to stop talking about Jack Thompson; to hold itself to higher ethical standards than its critics; to stop falling into the victim complex; to resist exclusivity, and embrace players from all walks of life; to demand that gaming blogs stop the hysterical muckraking and misogyny; and most of all, to get more political, and not just about issues of games and media policy.
The headline coverage of Wilson’s rant was mostly about the “get more political” line. Roger had written a fairly explosive rebuttal in the Escapist in which he pretty much did the academic equivalent of calling Wilson a douchebag (which Roger would never do, because he’s the world’s most consummate professorial gentleman):
The problem with game studies — the thing that gives rise to opinions like Wilson's — is that the effort to create and maintain the discipline is keeping gaming from winning the respect it deserves. Against all appearances, scholars are pursuing game studies to the detriment of gamer culture.
Which then lead to a whole ‘nother set of rants and rebuttals on Ian Bogost’s blog, and probably about then something shiny went by my goldfish bowl and I went to go blow it up with a big imaginary gun, leaving all the smart people to disagree with each other.
But as I started down the Google-fueled memory lane / rabbit hole of thinking about JS Joust, and rereading all these most excellent 4-year-old rants, I realized that Wilson had actually gone and put his money where his mouth was.
While he may not have been imagining JS Joust when he was talking about gamers getting “political,” that is ultimately what the game is about. It may not be about gender issues, or race, or income equality. It may not connect with any classically political agenda. But it is fundamentally doing all of the things he suggests designers and gamers should be doing — being inclusive, skipping silly arguments about content — just playing and learning with other people. JS Joust is fundamentally about the organic creation of a social rule set from the will of the governed. It’s about forming a social structure with nothing more than the twin objectives of staying alive and having fun.
That’s the genius of JS Joust. It takes a game that could be played by two frat boys holding red Solo cups, and turns the scenario into an accidental lesson in group dynamics, all while making the players laugh and sweat in the heat of firefly-lit May evenings.