What is fun?

6 Feb

The definition of fun often gets hung up on the distinction between fun and entertainment. Some insist that fun requires interaction rather than just passive consumption, e.g. games are fun, but movies are entertainment. This however is clearly prescriptivist semantics, for plenty of passive entertainments have been called “fun”. If there is any real distinction between “fun” and “entertainment”, it’s a matter of degree: both are synonyms for ‘pleasurable engagement’1, and fun simply is a more intense, attention-consuming form. While fun has unique connotations with games and child-like play, these follow from the fact that games generally require greater attention than other entertainments and the fact that children tend to more easily invest themselves in their experiences.

Now, ‘pleasurable engagement’ comprises a very broad swath of experiences, so fun is a multi-varied thing: there is no one type of experience that defines “fun”. Off the top of my head, here’s every category of experience that may qualify:

  • excitement: facing danger, going fast, punching, LOUD NOISES!
  • challenge: overcoming obstacles
  • competition: challenges against other people
  • exploration: discovering an environment
  • accomplishment: a sense of progress
  • socialization: idle chat, social climbing
  • narrative: being told a story by any means (visual, auditory, textual, etc.)
  • informative: learning things of interest, like from a documentary or a lecture
  • aesthetic: pretty pictures, music, etc.
  • auditory and visual stimulation: we often enjoy external stimulation for its own sake, even if random and garish, e.g. the flashing lights and noises of a casino
  • olfactory, gustatory, tactile, sexual stimulation: pleasure from smells, tastes, touch
  • humor: anything amusing or that makes you LOL
  • physical manipulation: affecting the physical world gives us a satisfying sense of control; even virtual action in a simulated world can give us this feeling
  • motor skill action: exercising hand-eye coordination
  • physicality: exercising our full body and/or subjecting it to straining conditions
  • creation: playing with our own ideas
  • vicarious experience: living out experiences we normally don’t have
  • logic, reasoning: puzzles, riddles, strategy, etc.

Most games push buttons in several of these categories rather than just one. Also note that some of these types of pleasurable engagement alone rarely rise to the level of fun. A good lecture, for example, may often be entertainingly informative, but hardly ever fun.

Some people would argue that the definition of fun I’ve just given is circular, that the real question is not ‘what experiences are fun’ but rather ‘what essential quality do fun experiences have in common’. Again, though, my argument is that there isn’t any such common essence. While psychology and neurology may identify some common mental state behind all these experiences, we won’t find some deeper common quality in the experiences themselves. The things we find pleasurably engaging are diverse, end of story.

For another definition of fun, we can distinguish fun from non-fun experiences by their lack of unpleasant qualities. The most notable of these ‘anti-fun’ qualities are:

  • tedium
  • pain
  • frustration
  • pressure of consequence2

In this version of the story, the hard-wired human impulse to seek out stimulation is driven mainly by an aversion to these unpleasant states of mind. Basically, we get bored, but most of us won’t drive nails into our hands as relief.

A question that immediately follows, now, is whether games are defined by any particular type or types of fun (or aversion to anti-fun). Are there certain boxes every game must check to be sufficiently ‘gamey’? The classic example of insufficiently gamey games are those that really want to be movies, like the FMV (Full-Motion Video) games of the 90′s. The real sin these games committed, though, was not in delivering the wrong kinds of fun but in failing to deliver much fun of any kind. They failed as “interactive stories” because they were barely interactive and were terrible stories (both in conception and execution). Similarly, the cutscenes in most of today’s games grate, not because they’re the wrong kinds of fun but because they’re generally presenting bad stories, poorly written and sloppily directed.3 So the real problem here is that good passively-consumed entertainment is extremely hard to deliver: a game that attempts to be entertaining in the ways movies and TV try to be entertaining probably fails because good movies and TV are by themselves very hard to make. Moreover, even when a game’s canned narrative content is done well, the game can easily frustrate players by thwarting their expectations: just as I probably wouldn’t be happy with a movie consisting mostly of text on the screen, I won’t be happy sitting controller in hand, waiting for overly-long cutscenes to end. So really, a designer needn’t worry about whether their game delivers the right types of fun to qualify as a “game”. That’s an academic question. The important question is whether the game actually delivers the fun it means to, keeping in mind that this success can hinge upon the player’s expectations.

Another common question that arises is whether games are more than just fun-delivery mechanisms. In recent decades, academics have advanced many theories of games concerning their social function, their role in personal development, and their status as cultural artifacts. While all these ideas may be valid and interesting to think about, I don’t think they’re of much use to any practicing game designer. A proper theory of fun, in contrast, is useful, even though it isn’t a secret formula that auto generates good gameplay. What the theory tells us is, first, what constitutes a game (as far as game designers should be concerned):

Different people favor different kinds of fun. All kinds of fun are valid, though not all necessarily marketable or easy to create. So don’t worry about what a “game” is supposed to be, but do worry about finding an audience with the right expectations.

More significantly, the theory helps us properly analyze games and break down what makes them work (or not work). This exercise yields loads of useful information and allows designers with conflicting values to, at the very least, articulate their differences, e.g. Designer A wants an RPG focused on exploration while Designer B wants an RPG focused on the thrill and action of combat. Moreover, applying this analysis to the best games out there reveals an important pattern: any one type of pleasurable engagement loses its impact if not properly paced, so good games hinge upon the proper mixing and pacing of different modes of fun.

(As for what constitutes “proper pacing”, that’s a whole other post.)

  1. Pleasurable, of course, being an important qualifier. I’m sure torture is quite engaging but neither fun nor entertaining. []
  2. The pressure of consequence is interesting because we sometimes find it pleasurable, e.g. the thrill of gambling. []
  3. Today’s cutscenes certainly look flashy, but the value of flashy imagery has radically diminished in the last decade due to market glut. Neat visuals were a novel, exciting treat up until about the year 2005. Today, not so much. []

2 Responses to “What is fun?”

  1. viri January 3, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    Brian, thanks for posting your thoughts. I’ve spent years thinking up a myriad of complex interactions, only to realize there is no game in complexity alone. Being academic barely helped.. eg. “Killing people doesn’t seem to be fun, because as time progresses, the fun becomes less saturated, and the fun happens in microseconds.” I think I need to unlearn everything I thought. Do you have any recommendations?

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    [...] In his blog, BrianWill.net, he  explains this notion in a very detaied fashion (http://brianwill.net/blog/2012/02/06/what-is-fun/). [...]

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