And now to business. Michel Foucault was one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Foucault's main subject was a historical development of social and cultural phenomena he came to call “discursive regimes,” and the theory of pleasure that grows out of his inquiries into these regimes illuminates many different cultural practices, including play.
The easiest to way to think about a discursive regime is to think of it as a set of rules that govern practices in sphere of life-- civic government, economics, medicine or even hygiene. These rules specify which sort of behaviors count as “normal” in that sphere and which actions count as “abnormal.” So in the case of medicine you have all sorts of practices that are used in order to determine who is (psychologically and physically) healthy and who is unhealthy, in the case of law you have a bunch of rules and procedures that determine who is a criminal and who is a functional member of society, and so on. Foucault thought that analyzing the history of distinctively modern practices like clinical psychology cast a good deal of light on the nature of modern society. (For example, he was interested in how the idea of mental diseases like hysteria and schizophrenia supplanted the old, theologically-based idea that mental illness was the result of a damaged or possessed soul.)
One of the main theses of Foucault's later work was that many other interpreters of these phenomena had failed to understand these aspects of human cultural life because they had a mistaken understanding of power. There is a temptation to think that the way these regimes operate is purely punitive: those in power, who make the rules, coerce the populace into compliance with them, purely through violence and sanction. On this line of thought, removing these artificial systems of control would allow our natural desires to find their full expression. Marxists, for example, often though that once the populace was free of the ills visited upon them by the political and economic regimes of capitalism, a type of social cooperation inherent in our species-nature would reassert itself and come to govern our social lives.
Foucault thought that there was a good deal wrong with this picture, but one of his main points is that discursive regimes to not just function negatively, through punishment, but also positively, through pleasure. This is why these regimes are so powerful: not because they terrorize us into conformity, but because they create new forms of pleasure through the imposition of discipline on our lives and bodies. As he once said in an interview: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.”
Thinking about regular and well-understood cultural practices, like ballet dancing, illustrates his point. Learning ballet requires the imposition of all kinds of arbitrary and physically unnatural rules on one's actions and body. You have to learn to tailor your bodily movements and to manipulate your feet in a way that is painful and difficult. However, by doing so you develop the capacity to use your body in a way that is elegant and pleasurable.
To take another example, think of Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is a regime of power: it induces me to play the correct notes with the correct rhythm, and it punishes me when I fail to do so. The game poses problems I would not have otherwise in my life. But it also creates a certain type of pleasure that would not exist otherwise: the pleasure of playing all the correct notes in the correct rhythm.
Towards the end of his career, Foucault came more and more to regard the ancient Greek and Roman practices of self-discipline-- their forms of care over their own conduct and bodies-- as a model for liberation. Unlike self-sacrifice undertaken for the sake of God or for the State, the Greeks were disciplinarians who assumed these regimes for the sake of pleasure. The Olympics, in a way, are a paradigmatic product of this Greek enthusiasm for creating pleasure by submitting one's body and conduct to rules.
Many game designers think that that long-term goal of design is to bequeath real freedom on the player by removing all of the arbitrary limitations on the worlds they create which are necessitated by the limitations our technology, giving her the same liberty of action she enjoys in real life. And to be sure, the pursuit of verisimilitude, especially when it comes to expanding our modes of interaction, is a worthy one. But it seems to me that over the long term you cannot remove the rules without removing pleasure. Games are systems of rules, and you cannot make more fun by taking rules away. It is the limitations on our action imposed by systems of government that lends significance to our behavior. And they also make for all of the pleasure we get from flipping out and killing ninjas.