Marie Kondo’s tidying credo is helping me understand my neurodivergence

The guru's new game Spark Joy is... sparking joy.


“Spark joy.” Two innocuous words with the inexplicable power to change lives.

Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy entered my life in the winter of 2017 when my partner arm-twis–, I mean, lovingly convinced me to KonMari our home. Some half-hearted mocking, Olympic-level eye-rolling, and back-breaking work later, over 200 books, half a cupboard of clothes, a gigantic pile of woollens, and dozens of assorted kitchen items had found new homes.

Domestic harmony remained intact, and I inwardly celebrated the end of my KonMari-ing days. Oh how premature that was. Almost four years later, KonMari tumbled back into my life in the most unexpected way — through a puzzle game and an autism diagnosis.

“Spark joy.

In early September, KonMari Media, Inc., Kondo’s company, made its first foray into the gaming market. Spark Joy, described as a storybook puzzle game, follows an unnamed young girl who journeys through the world, trying to rekindle her life’s joy.

“I wanted to create a fun, new way for people to experience the joy of tidying and associate tidying with having fun — what better way than through a game?” said Kondo in an email interview with Input. She has fond memories of playing computer games with her brother when they were children. “We played games like Street Fighter, Mario Kart, Puyo Puyo and Super Robot Wars together.”

Spark Joy has no dialogue, no text; instead, it uses animations and visual instructions to tell its story and guide players, as the dejected protagonist embarks on a journey to help others and herself by clearing clutter. Early in the game, she comes into possession of a magical object that summons her fairy godmother, that is, Kondo herself. Aided by the supreme tidy-up fairy, the girl is able to defeat the wicked mononoke that create a mess wherever they go. Gameplay has of two kinds of puzzles — yin puzzles when you build a zen-like ornamental garden, and yang ones that comprise arranging blocks in specific configurations to zap away the mess-making spirits.

The artwork is a visual delight — delicate pastels and muted vibrancy blend with a childlike simplicity. The people and animals are delightfully charming, and the animated Kondo figure is terribly endearing, especially that little musical wriggle whenever she is about to to cast her spell. An upbeat musical score rounds off the atmosphere. Now and then, little cards with tidying tips pop up during the game’s cutscenes.

What isn’t clear is who the game’s intended audience are. Visually, it is almost childish, but the puzzles are quite challenging at times. There are no instructions or guides, which makes it difficult to grasp what is going on, and what one is supposed to do. At $3.99, it feels exceedingly short, requiring an additional purchase to add new levels.

It’s less about the game than what it symbolizes.

That said, it’s less about the game than what it symbolizes. Kondo likened gaming to the human imperative for control, and its significance in these times. “It’s very common for people to want to control things,” she said. “Many times, when things feel out of control, they may have the urge to … hold on to material things or … certain aspects of their life.” When handled intentionally, she added, control can be a positive thing. “Tidying helps you focus on what you can control — like your personal surroundings — in a very healthy way… It can be a very empowering and intentional experience.”

When Kondo speaks of tidying, she isn’t just referring to possessions. The essentials of the KonMari philosophy are just as applicable to other aspects of our lives, from sorting out the clutter in our heads that hold us back, to removing people who suck out our joy. One particular wisdom that resonated with me after discovering and accepting my neurodivergence.

“The current work-and-play-from-home atmosphere has given us the opportunity to reflect on how we balance work and our personal life,” Kondo said. “We are spending so much time in our homes and, at the same time, re-evaluating the things that are truly important in all areas of our lives.”

She couldn’t have known how much that rings true for me right now. Finding out I am autistic instantly transformed how I saw myself. What I had assumed were my metaphoric mononoke, to be fought and vanquished, were really the things that made me me. I wasn’t weird or broken — I was a different shape.

As epiphanic as embracing my neurodivergence was, it came with a shattering realization. That for decades, I have been bending myself into all kinds of contortions to make it easier to fit in. So much so, I have no idea who I really am when I am myself. This phenomenon is known as masking, and is common in autistic folk, especially women and girls.

Nothing feels so out-of-control than discovering at age 45 that you don’t know the real you and that you’re about to find out. The unmasking process is something like venturing into uncharted country without a map, directions, compass, or torch, in pitch darkness, barefoot.

Or at least it felt that way until I was reminded of the core principle of Marie Kondo’s philosophy: choosing not what to discard, but what to keep, and keeping only those things that speak to your heart. That way, when you reorganize your life, you are surrounded by the people and things that you love the most.

Choosing not what to discard, but what to keep, and keeping only those things that speak to your heart.

“What makes the KonMari Method so special is that the fundamentals are completely universal and can be applied to not only all aspects of life, but across geographies,” Kondo said in our interview. “I think the method speaks to individuals looking for ways to pursue the future they envision for themselves, regardless of where or how they live.”

Simplistic? Perhaps. But then, we are speaking of a woman who leveraged the unlikely skillset of tidying-up to become a pop culture icon, with over 5 million books sold worldwide, two successful TV shows, including one Emmy nomination, a place on Time’s list of 100 influential people, and a successful business. All of this as a person of color in the United States, without speaking much English.

Maybe keeping it simple is the key.