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.

Doug Wilson.

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.

Comments

This is brilliant writing.

Well said, Julian. Thanks for writing this.

Thanks lobster ...

Oh, right, this isn't just a community of people who like to play games — this is also a place to come to read fantastic, thoughtful writing about games and what they mean to us and can bring to our lives. Thanks for the reminder. Wonderful piece.

I would invest in 7 move controllers just to play this. Looks (and from your article sounds) amazing.

rabbit wrote:

Thanks lobster ...

It's a given that you're bringing this to PenCon, right?

lostlobster wrote:

Oh, right, this isn't just a community of people who like to play games — this is also a place to come to read fantastic, thoughtful writing about games and what they mean to us and can bring to our lives. Thanks for the reminder. Wonderful piece.

Should I be making a squinty face at my monitor right now?

This was an absolute blast to play. I had also failed to put the name and story together with the game, and I think that broader context makes the experience more interesting.

I'm still conflicted about the name, though. I really liked the original Joust.

Tanglebones wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Thanks lobster ...

It's a given that you're bringing this to PenCon, right?

Right?

wordsmythe wrote:
lostlobster wrote:

Oh, right, this isn't just a community of people who like to play games — this is also a place to come to read fantastic, thoughtful writing about games and what they mean to us and can bring to our lives. Thanks for the reminder. Wonderful piece.

Should I be making a squinty face at my monitor right now?

....if you want to?

MHR wrote:

I would invest in 7 move controllers just to play this. Looks (and from your article sounds) amazing.

I did buy 7 Move controllers just to play the game. It really is fantastic, the closest thing to a folk game on current gen platforms.

Dyni wrote:
Tanglebones wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Thanks lobster ...

It's a given that you're bringing this to PenCon, right?

Right?

Yep, it will go wherever I go from now on.

Great read rabbit. The last time I was enthralled by hearing or reading about a game being played was probably a few years ago with Neptune's Pride. For some reason J.S. Joust touches that part of my mind.

(The link to Griffin McElroy's piece doesn't work for me. There is some extra text in there causing the issue)

Great article!

Even though you describe the night game as the "all bets off" version, in the end you were all still friends. Because this game is political, then I would think you would want to play with friends, or else this game could become dangerous. Not even just dangerous physically, but also dangerous in your social interactions. Weaker members can become singled out. Prejudices can flare up. Dominant societal norms can be reinforced. Ok, maybe the word I'm searching for is not "dangerous," but instead "revealing".

Aristophan wrote:

Great article!

Even though you describe the night game as the "all bets off" version, in the end you were all still friends. Because this game is political, then I would think you would want to play with friends, or else this game could become dangerous. Not even just dangerous physically, but also dangerous in your social interactions. Weaker members can become singled out. Prejudices can flare up. Dominant societal norms can be reinforced. Ok, maybe the word I'm searching for is not "dangerous," but instead "revealing".

Yeah. At least according to some theories of play, being definitively within the realm of play ("magic circle") would minimize malevolent danger.

I think you're right, just like it's very different being in an emergency situation with strangers or your friends, because there's just an implied trust. One interesting thing though is that while *I* was friends with everyone at Rabbitcon, and thus in Joust, many of them met each other for the first time actually playing the game.

It's a fascinating experience.

I still maintain the announcer is saying "Get ready to Troll!"

That pretty much sums up some of the gameplay I saw in your backyard. *cough*Zacny*cough*

I think I might have to try the low-rent version of the game with the kids. Cups filled with water you said? That even sounds like fun. I just don't have a (and probably never will have) a Mac.

I hear Rob Zacny liked knocking down the nomadic juvenile girls.

Nevin73 wrote:

Though to be fair, Certis in a Gucci Bikini would certainly keep me from rushing him.

Would it?

I'm like a week late, but I wanted to say that this article is awesome, and I wanted to thank Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch for writing it.

(...calls Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch by his full name + handle the way you never call a celebrity by anything but their full name, like "Philip Seymour Hoffman")

Exactly as it should be (grin) -- thanks Ben, appreciate it!

I'm also late, this was an excellent piece to read during breakfast. I've read about Joust before but the sidestory with Doug Wilson was an interesting hook I didn't know. Thanks for sharing!