KonMario: Applying Marie Kondo’s Lessons to Game Design

Organizational consultant and worldwide best-selling author Marie Kondo is all over the internet these last couple of weeks, following the premiere of her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. The show follows Kondo as she applies her trademark “KonMari” method to real people’s homes, helping them de-clutter their lives and hearts.

KonMari method has its roots in Shinto teachings about respecting objects and their spirits, but is largely presented as an organizational philosophy for physical goods based on emotion. If an object does not “spark joy” — an accurate-enough translation of the Japanese verb tokimeku (ときめく), which can mean “to flutter” or “to be prosperous” — one should evaluate the purpose of the object in one’s life.

Since its debut, Kondo’s show has inspired countless Twitter goofs about applying KonMari to everything from married life to government infrastructure. Things that don’t spark joy are the flavor of the week for pessimistic pundits, but I think there’s value to be found in applying her ideas to venues beyond organization. Something as close to our hearts as game design, for instance.

Minimalist game design philosophies are nothing new, but the KonMari method isn’t explicitly about minimalism. It’s about removing things that don’t make you happy, and if you own a lot of things that make you happy, you’ll still own a lot of things at the end of the process.

This same thinking can be applied to game design, in a general sense. Minimalist thinking may ask you to remove all systems that aren’t absolutely necessary for an idea to function, but KonMari thinking would provide space for any system that bring satisfaction to the designer, regardless of its necessity.

A minimalist Pokemon game, for instance, would probably look a lot like the original Red and Blue games — there are monsters, you keep them in your pocket, sometimes they fight. There are no berries, no held items, no two-on-two battles, no Mega Evolutions, no breeding, just the core idea, refined until it is pure.

On the other hand, a KonMari Pokemon game might look a lot more like Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee/Pikachu. Many complex gameplay systems still exist in Let’s Go, but the joyless machinations of random battles and combat-based capture systems have been removed entirely.

Furthermore, many additional systems — playing dress-up with Eevee/Pikachu, riding on other Pokemon, etc — have been added purely for the fun of it. These additions have extremely little relevant impact on how the game functions from a design standpoint, but they are given time and attention because they create happiness. In a minimalist undertaking, these facets of the game would be cut almost immediately, but when KonMari method is applied, they’re allowed to flourish.

Not all games are designed to “spark joy,” of course. Some games are designed to be stressful, terrifying experiences. The end user may enjoy and want to be terrified, but riding around on a Snorlax’s belly isn’t going to get them there. (Unless you’re pathologically afraid of Snorlaxes, I guess.) Maybe you’re designing a game like Cart Life or Papers, Please, where discomfort is the fulcrum by which empathy is pried from the player.

In these cases, just swap tokimeku for whatever Japanese verb best matches your goal. Devote loving space and attention only to those aspects of your design that best create dread — kowagaru (こわがる) — or instill panic — awateru (あわてる).

As a tool for the betterment of people’s lives, KonMari method must focus on the positive in order to achieve its goal: Create a happier person. The true crux of the philosophy, however, is commitment to a goal, and a gracious reverence for whatever enables that goal. These two principles, dedication and respect, working together for one purpose — that is KonMari method.