MIT Press Playful Thinking Series    

About Playful Thinking

The Playful Thinking series from MIT Press publishes engaging and visually compelling volumes on game-related topics, authored by both scholars and industry luminaries, that are easily accessible to academics, professionals, and laymen from a broad range of backgrounds and levels of experience.

Each volume ranges between 25,000-30,000 words (approximately 100 pages) in length, is small enough to be easily thrown in a backpack or a coat pocket, and is written in a way that is accessible and compelling to academics, professionals, and educated readers in general.

The series' focus can be summed up as follows:

  • Each volume focuses on an innovative and clearly demarcated issue concerning video games.
  • Each volume has a hook and theme that is relevant to readers outside video game studies.
  • The prototypical volume discusses video games and x, applying insights from other fields to video games, and reflecting upon what this combination yields in terms of more general insights.
  • Short form, roughly 25,000-30,000 words.

Sample topics may include video games and art, video games and architecture, video games and music, the history of video games, video games and fairy tales, etc.


The Playful Thinking Series was sparked by discussions and research being conducted at the MIT Game Lab (then the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab), a research group at the MIT Comparative Media Studies program.


Current Books


How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design

by Katherine Isbister

This is a renaissance moment for video games – in the variety of genres they represent, and the range of emotional territory they cover. But how do games create emotion? In How Games Move Us, Katherine Isbister takes the reader on a timely and novel exploration of the design techniques that evoke strong emotions for players. She counters arguments that games are creating a generation of isolated, emotionally numb, antisocial loners. Games, Isbister shows us, can actually play a powerful role in creating empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences; they reveal these qualities over time, through the act of playing. She offers a nuanced, systematic examination of exactly how games can influence emotion and social connection, with examples – drawn from popular, indie, and art games – that unpack the gamer's experience.

Isbister describes choice and flow, two qualities that distinguish games from other media, and explains how game developers build upon these qualities using avatars, non-player characters, and character customization, in both solo and social play. She shows how designers use physical movement to enhance players' emotional experience, and examines long-distance networked play. She illustrates the use of these design methods with examples that range from Sony's Little Big Planet to the much-praised indie game Journey to art games like Brenda Romero's Train.

Isbister's analysis shows us a new way to think about games, helping us appreciate them as an innovative and powerful medium for doing what film, literature, and other creative media do: helping us to understand ourselves and what it means to be human.

About the Author
Katherine Isbister is Professor of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the author of Better Game Characters by Design. She was the founding Director of the Game Innovation Lab at New York University.

More at MIT Press


How Games Move Us by Katherine Isbister

Hardcover: $24.95
Trade: 17.95

ISBN: 9780262034265
160 pp.
5.375 x 8 in
47 b&w illus.
February 2016

Ebook: $17.95

ISBN: 9780262333221
160 pp.
47 b&w illus.
March 2016


Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art

by John Sharp

Games and art have intersected at least since the early twentieth century, as can be seen in the Surrealists' use of Exquisite Corpse and other games, Duchamp's obsession with Chess, and Fluxus event scores and boxes–to name just a few examples. Over the past fifteen years, the synthesis of art and games has clouded for both artists and gamemakers. Contemporary art has drawn on the tool set of videogames, but has not considered them a cultural form with its own conceptual, formal, and experiential affordances. For their part, game developers and players focus on the innate properties of games and the experiences they provide, giving little attention to what it means to create and evaluate fine art. In Works of Game, John Sharp bridges this gap, offering a formal aesthetics of games that encompasses the commonalities and the differences between games and art.

Sharp describes three communities of practice and offers case studies for each. "Game Art," which includes such artists as Julian Oliver, Cory Arcangel, and JODI (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) treats videogames as a form of popular culture from which can be borrowed subject matter, tools, and processes. "Artgames," created by gamemakers including Jason Rohrer, Brenda Romero, and Jonathan Blow, explore territory usually occupied by poetry, painting, literature, or film. Finally, "Artists' Games"–with artists including Blast Theory, Mary Flanagan, and the collaboration of Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman–represents a more synthetic conception of games as an artistic medium. The work of these gamemakers, Sharp suggests, shows that it is possible to create game-based artworks that satisfy the aesthetic and critical values of both the contemporary art and game communities.

About the Author
John Sharp is Associate Professor of Games and Learning at Parsons the New School for Design and a member of the game design collective Local No. 12.

"John Sharp's Works of Game is a foundational book for those studying or practicing game design within the domain of fine arts. Historically informative and theoretically insightful, the book provides a strong foundation for understanding the diverse ways in which fine artists have embraced games as their expressive medium of choice, as well as the cultural movements within which they have done so." - Celia Pearce, Cofounder of IndieCade; Associate Professor of Game Design, Northeastern University

"With Works of Game, John Sharp has written the fundamental reference for understanding the relation between game design and artistic practice. This book challenges our notions of the arts and games, and proposes new ways of thinking about and understanding game design as an artistic practice. For game designers, game scholars, and artists, Works of Game is a must-read." – Miguel Sicart, Associate Professor, Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen; author of Play Matters

"This book will be of great value to all contemporary creative practitioners, whether they consider themselves artists, game designers, or some combination of the two. Not only does the book provide a strong overview of contemporary projects that walk the line between art-works and game-works, it also constructs a highly useful set of diagnostic terms that will aid us in understanding hybrid projects in the years to come." – Ted Purves, Associate Professor of Social Practice, California College of the Arts; coeditor of What We Want Is Free: Critical Exchanges in Recent Art, second edition

"Rather than asking the naive, popular question–can games be art?–John Sharp answers a more interesting one: where do games and the art world meet, and what do they talk about when they do?" – Ian Bogost, Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology

More at MIT Press

Author's Book Website


Works of Game by John Sharp

Hardcover: $19.95
Trade: 13.95

ISBN: 9780262029070
152 pp.
5.375 x 8 in
43 b&w illus.
March 2015


Play Matters

by Miguel Sicart

What do we think about when we think about play? A pastime? Games? Childish activities? The opposite of work? Think again: If we are happy and well rested, we may approach even our daily tasks in a playful way, taking the attitude of play without the activity of play. So what, then, is play? In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart argues that to play is to be in the world; playing is a form of understanding what surrounds us and a way of engaging with others. Play goes beyond games; it is a mode of being human.

We play games, but we also play with toys, on playgrounds, with technologies and design. Sicart proposes a theory of play that doesn't derive from a particular object or activity but is a portable tool for being--not tied to objects but brought by people to the complex interactions that form their daily lives. It is not separated from reality; it is part of it. It is pleasurable, but not necessarily fun. Play can be dangerous, addictive, and destructive.

Along the way, Sicart considers playfulness, the capacity to use play outside the context of play; toys, the materialization of play – instruments but also play pals; playgrounds, play spaces that enable all kinds of play; beauty, the aesthetics of play through action; political play – from Maradona's goal against England in the 1986 World Cup to the hactivist activities of Anonymous; the political, aesthetic, and moral activity of game design; and why play and computers get along so well.

About the Author
Miguel Sicart is Associate Professor at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University Copenhagen. He is the author of The Ethics of Computer Games and Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay, both published by the MIT Press.

"Play Matters opens a door into our increasingly playful world. It frames the world of play and playfulness just enough to create a coherent image of these fundamental forces, without spoiling the fun. It opens a way into this world, inviting the reader to engage, creatively and intelligently, in the design of an even more playful future." - Bernard De Koven, author of The Well-Played Game and A Playful Path

"Play is undoubtedly the most important part of any creative process; in fact it is the creative process. Miguel Sicart shows time and time again why play is something that must be taken seriously, why it leads to better, more beautiful, more considered work, and ultimately why play does indeed matter." - Brendan Dawes, designer,

"In Play Matters, Sicart shares with us a fascinating toy chest full of concepts, ideas, and observations on the most elusive subject in game studies." - Gonzalo Frasca, ORT University Uruguay

More at MIT Press


Play Matters by Miguel Sicart

Hardcover: $19.95
Trade: 13.95

ISBN: 9780262027922
176 pp.
5.375 x 8 in
11 b&w illus.
August 2014


Uncertainty in Games

by Greg Costikyan

In life, uncertainty surrounds us. Things that we thought were good for us turn out to be bad for us (and vice versa); people we thought we knew well behave in mysterious ways; the stock market takes a nosedive. Thanks to an inexplicable optimism, most of the time we are fairly cheerful about it all. But we do devote much effort to managing and ameliorating uncertainty. Is it any wonder, then, asks Greg Costikyan, that we have taken this aspect of our lives and transformed it culturally, making a series of elaborate constructs that subject us to uncertainty but in a fictive and nonthreatening way? That is: we create games.

In this concise and entertaining book, Costikyan, an award-winning game designer, argues that games require uncertainty to hold our interest, and that the struggle to master uncertainty is central to their appeal. Game designers, he suggests, can harness the idea of uncertainty to guide their work.

Costikyan explores the many sources of uncertainty in many sorts of games – from Super Mario Bros. to Rock/Paper/Scissors, from Monopoly to CityVille, from FPS Deathmatch play to Chess. He describes types of uncertainty, including performative uncertainty, analytic complexity, and narrative anticipation. And he suggests ways that game designers who want to craft novel game experiences can use an understanding of game uncertainty in its many forms to improve their designs.

About the Author
Greg Costikyan, an award-winning designer of board, tabletop, roleplaying, computer, online, mobile, and social games, is Senior Designer at Disney Playdom's Dream Castle Studio. He is the author of four science fiction/fantasy novels.

More at MIT Press


Uncertainty in Games by Greg Costikyan

Hardcover: $19.95
Trade: 13.95

ISBN: 9780262018968
136 pp.
5.375 x 8 in
March 2013


The Art of Failure

by Jesper Juul

We may think of video games as being "fun," but in The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul claims that this is almost entirely mistaken. When we play video games, our facial expressions are rarely those of happiness or bliss. Instead, we frown, grimace, and shout in frustration as we lose, or die, or fail to advance to the next level. Humans may have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players choose to engage in an activity in which they are nearly certain to fail and feel incompetent. So why do we play video games even though they make us unhappy? Juul examines this paradox.

In video games, as in tragic works of art, literature, theater, and cinema, it seems that we want to experience unpleasantness even if we also dislike it. Reader or audience reaction to tragedy is often explained as catharsis, as a purging of negative emotions. But, Juul points out, this doesn't seem to be the case for video game players. Games do not purge us of unpleasant emotions; they produce them in the first place. What, then, does failure in video game playing do?

Juul argues that failure in a game is unique in that when you fail in a game, you (not a character) are in some way inadequate. Yet games also motivate us to play more, in order to escape that inadequacy, and the feeling of escaping failure (often by improving skills) is a central enjoyment of games. Games, writes Juul, are the art of failure: the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience it and experiment with it.

The Art of Failure is essential reading for anyone interested in video games, whether as entertainment, art, or education.

About the Author
Jesper Juul is Assistant Professor at the New York University Game Center. He is the author of Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds and A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, both published by the MIT Press.

More at MIT Press


Uncertainty in Games by Greg Costikyan

Hardcover: $19.95
Trade: 13.95

ISBN: 9780262019057
168 pp.
5.375 x 8 in
54 b&w illus.
February 2013



The editors are currently accepting book proposals. The proposal submission process is as follows:

  1. Author discusses idea with editors.
  2. Author prepares book proposal including sample chapters.
  3. Book proposal is submitted to the editors and passed on to anonymous peer review.

To begin the proposal process, please contact the editors at proposals AT playfulthinking DOT net.

Series Editors


Jesper Juul


Jesper Juul

Jesper Juul is Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design and a Visiting Associate Professor at Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT. He is the author of Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, and The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, all published by the MIT Press.


Geoffrey Long


Geoffrey Long

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and storyteller currently exploring transmedia experiences, emerging entertainment platforms and the future of entertainment as the Creative Director and a Research Fellow at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Innovation Lab, as well as a doctoral student in the Media Arts and Practices program at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. In a previous life, he cofounded the Narrative Design Team at Microsoft Studios (where he worked on such projects as Quantum Break, Ryse: Fall of Rome, Adera and HoloLens) and served in a "future of media and entertainment" think tank under Microsoft's then-CTO/CXO J Allard (where he advised the development of the Xbox One, SmartGlass. and the transmedia franchise development for Halo). He is an alum of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program and a FoE Fellow with the Futures of Entertainment community.


William Uricchio


William Uricchio

William Uricchio is Professor and Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where he considers the interplay of media technologies and cultural practices, and their role in (re-) constructing representation, knowledge and publics. He is Principal Investigator of the MIT Game Lab and of the MIT Open Documentary Lab.