Game developers ask ‘what is fun?’ and academics often answer that fun is seemingly simple but actually fiendishly hard to explain. Everything is potentially fun and trying to encompass it all in one statement is impossible.
When any debate becomes so wide, the intent of the original question is lost. Developers are not really asking ‘what is fun?'’ in the universal sense. They’re asking why does their game suck. Pragmatically then, fun is:
The joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.
However the idea that fun can be reduced to 9 little words is just the sort of thinking that makes some people angry, because it sounds like (and is) a hard limit on what games can be.
By realising that c (the speed of light) is a physical constant, we are able to describe spacetime in terms of relativity. This realisation unlocks many other problems in the physical sciences, from astronomy to nuclear physics, and has been vital to the progress of technology. But it is intuitively hard to accept.
c describes a limited universe. It tells us that there is a hard limit to velocity, which is necessary and inescapable. It’s philosophically negative, and as a species we just don’t like that, We like to aspire, to dream of future generations, starships in hyperspace and warp gates through the universe. c implies that we won’t see those dreams realised, which can be depressing.
In the arts, a creative constant is the equivalent of c. Its presence unlocks the art and makes it work, and yet at the same time sets a hard limit on what it can be. A creative constant binds creative work together, like an egg in a batter, and gives it a shape that the audience can recognise. It puts the form in art form and is both crutch and cognitive aid.
So story without plot is not story. Music without tempo is not music. Poetry without meter is not poetry. And games without fun are not games. However not all plots need to be genre plots any more than all poems need to be based on a strict verse structure. There is a difference between the conventions of genre (horror novels, sonnets, first person shooters) and constants (pattern recognition, cognition, empathic hooks). Conventions can and should be challenged, but constants remain.
Depending on the audience there is also the opportunity for subversion through constants, such as anti-plot novels, free jazz or the extremes of modern art. Subversive works are important because they test the limits of an art and sometimes uncover that what was thought to be a constant was actually just a convention. However subversive works tend to only hold appeal for a self-conscious niche, usually comprised of fellow artists who understand both the work and the motivations of the people who created it.
Components of Fun
Fun is not the only constant for games, but it is probably the hardest one to accept. Let’s break it down:
The (1) joy of winning (2) while mastering (3) fair (4) game dynamics.
Joy of Winning: All games are played to win, though a win does not imply that other players have to lose. Winning covers both victory of the formal kind and achievement of the personal kind. A win looks like a reward, unlocking the next part of the game, an increase in level, completing the game or various other outward expressions. It is empowering, where the player can see the effect of their agency in the game world by the change that it causes.
The joy of winning is also compulsive. Repetitive wins of the same type and scale become boring over time, which can lead to the play brain losing interest or searching obsessively for the bigger win. At that point the game is no longer fun, but instead tolerated in the quest to get back to fun.
Mastery: Mastery means learning, improving and developing strategy as opposed to just tactics. An important point to note about winning and mastery is that wins only delivered at the point of achieving mastery are usually too few. It is important that the player is experiencing little wins while mastering as well as the big payoffs.
It is also critical that the levers of the game be clear to the player, as well as the goals, so that he or she knows what they have to do in order to achieve mastery. If the game is vague or opaque then this actively discourages the play brain from proceeding. This is why games must be enclosed and simpler than real life.
Fairness: The game must be seen to be fair. However it does not have to actually be fair from a neutral standpoint. At its simplest, fairness is the sense that the player is creating active change (or not) because of his actions. So that means that his actions need to be seen to cause wins or failures that are the player’s own fault.
Randomness, systemic corrections that cheat the player or arbitrary design are all examples of unfairness. Unfairness cannot really be mastered so there is little joy in winning against it. It should not be confused with ‘difficulty’ however. A game of Blackjack is stacked against the player, but the player knows it. A game that randomly kills players, on the other hand, is just unfair.
Game Dynamic: Games adhere to a loose structure that starts with the actions of the player. Those actions demands a response (from the game, from another player) to determine a win or loss, which forms a loop. As loops build into a structure that starts to show formal or informal progress, they become a game dynamic.
The game dynamic brings it all together. The fun of a game is not simply becoming a master of an action or the winner of prizes. It’s the dynamic of how those things interweave that makes the overall game fun. How the game extends its actions through the dynamic, how the player develops strategy over the course of the dynamic and so forth are fun. Everything smaller is just cheap thrills.
Hard to Accept
To a certain class of creative or academic, the limits of the fun constant are an emotional hurdle. They seem to say that because fun is a limit, games are also limited and so they will only ever be amusements. It feels negative, unambitious or conservative.
Are novels limited by the plot constant? No. Nor is music by the need for tempo. Every time that someone thinks an art has reached the limit of its expression, along comes someone new who shows them that they have confused convention with constant once again. That there are no limits to theme, expression or artistic intent.
So the idea that a constant limits creativity is not true.
What is true is that there are many kinds of interactivity that may be playful fun but are not gameful fun. Recognising that should not be a cause for anger however. It just means that there are more interactive art forms than ‘game’ can really cover.
The constants of the novel don’t apply to poetry. Literature is not one art form, it’s a grouping of several. So too with interactivity. Games are but one art form among many. There are others, some of which don’t even have names yet and are waiting to be discovered.
(Today’s image comes from legendarymonkey.)