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Darrin Thompson

One counterexample that comes to mind is the slot machine. It doesn't seem to fit your fun constant. Winning is random. Mastery is an illusion. The whole system is perverse and exploitative. Yet the players play and "enjoy" themselves.


Hi Darrin,

I had slot machines in mind with this bit:

"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."

The slot machine is the perfect example of that kind of compulsion. The player is sucked in by the prospect that a gigantic win will one day be theirs.

Tony Coles

I'd say the 'pragmatic' definition of fun is way too specific, but then Tagdh, your defintion of 'winning' is way to generalised.

Fun is this:

"enjoyment gained from an activity".

This is as true as it gets - even in games. Players can despise the formal structure of the 'win opportunities' and 'mastery opportunities' and completely subvert the formal game design, yet still be having tons of fun. EG: messing about with guards in DX:HR, or working out ways to kill innocent NPCs in Fallout/NV without triggering faction status changes.

Does subverting and avoiding the formal rules of a game count as a 'win' too?


Hi Tony,

It can, but at risk. An example I gave in an earlier post about wins talked about exploits. Once you perceive a flaw in the rules, or use a cheat code, it is very hard for a player to go back and play as though it didn't exist.

In so doing this robs later wins of any significance because the player knows he's only pretending to find it difficult. It leads to what I called 'hollow wins'.

Thanks for the comment.

Tony Coles

Mmmm, well the examples I give aren't really exploits as such - they're moments of fun within the game's formal constraints and don't have any real significance to the formal, end-state win conditions for the game, yet are still fun. It's not cheating either - it's a more the player creating their own metagames and setting their own objectives, for which the game offers little or no tangible reward. It's hard to consider these as 'wins' by any definition!

My point being that I think the framework you outline may work academically, but in the context of actual play across a population of individuals, such rules have no real meaning. I really don't think you can boil down to some over-arching principle of fun in games with generalised rules, as their systems are too complex, and allow too much player freedom, to allow a generalised principle to apply in all cases.

In fact, I think the more interesting aspects of modern games come from that freedom and the ability that lends players to find fun activities outside the formal win/lose=fun/not-fun rules of the game.


Oh, sorry Tony, I misunderstood you.

Yes, they are wins. The same post talking about hollow wins, also talked about victories versus achievements. A victory is a win over a formal challenge, but an achievement is a personal goal (such as your NPC example in Fallout).

(here's the link to that post: http://whatgamesare.com/2011/02/all-games-are-played-to-win-design.html)

In response to your broader point, actually that's exactly the opposite of my intent. In academia the discussions of fun are complex, and they need to be, because they are covering such a generalised subject with psychological study and specificity. However in the industry the question is usually much more pragmatic.

However, there's a huge degree of resistance all across gaming, particularly console and indie gaming, to *any* line of thinking that talks about limitations, common ground or general principles. In part because there's a fear that such talk will somehow reduce the specialness of games, which I don't think it does. And the other part has to do with defensiveness over job security and the threat of outsiders. Either way, the result is a kind of treasured vagueness that gets nobody anywhere.

The reasons why a game is not fun usually boil down to oft-repeated problems. They're not that hard to see, but I have often encountered rationalisation on a massive scale justified by every-game-is-unique thinking and it derails projects large and small alike, sometimes to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Thanks again.


What are you thought on horror games (Like Amnesia: The Dark Decent not action/horror like Resident evil 4 and 5)

In those games there is no mechanic you can master and no way to win in the general sense of the word. You could say reaching the end of a level could be seen as winning, but reaching it creates relieve (and joy) in the player not fun.

What about Flower which also doesn't have a mechanic the player can master or has anything to win. Or do you see Flower as something elss than a game?

Moses Wolfenstein

Thanks for another enjoyable article Tadhg. I continue to disagree with you on this "win" thing, but it might be semantic. I think of games as requiring end states, and I consider a win/loss binary to be one type of end state (one that is a key component of almost all competitive games, and many non-competitive ones as well).

To provide an example of a non win/loss end state, big narrative games like RPGs and Action/Adventure titles can characterized by end states of completion, and in some instances by varied outcomes. In the latter instance outcomes can be different without any of them constituting a loss for the player.

The crucial piece in this is of course the player's perspective on the gaming experience. I don't believe that most players who don't finish a game consider that to be a loss (although this could be empirically tested through some large scale survey work). Again this might be a semantic distinction on my part, but I personally find it to be one worth making.

Chris Birke

With regard to constraints, you are right - although there's much resistance they are essential to actually engaging the topic. You can wander anywhere otherwise...

For example, there's the entirety of mathematical game theory which is quite "fun" agnostic. (Unless you happen to be the sort of person who loves studying things like the prisoners dilemma...)

What we're talking about here are videogames, I think - and maybe that would end dispute on the definition. I'm not sure what to call that collection though, and having established something like that limit makes using the word game ok.

To engage your text more directly, I have issues with "The (1) joy of winning (2) while mastering (3) fair (4) game dynamics." It does not account for imaginative play, which is incredibly important, and it does not address reward.

Someone playing minecraft isn't playing to win, and I don't think Minecraft is billing itself as an "anti-game" or representing a bizarre outlier on the games spectrum. You describe that as "achievement" but it's not, really, it's exploration.

As example of another lens, when I played Quake it was absolutely as much about the community of clans, modding, and socializing as it was about shooting rockets (and shooting rockets was critical.)

Emergent gameplay (such as rocket jumping) was abundant and even though rocket jumping was a hard to master achievement, the reward of discovery preceded that and came for most from outside.

Games can be designed to encourage that, even without wins.

World of warcraft is breaking up marriages because players are seeking victory, and chinese gold farmers aren't doing it to level up (or even for fun) and yet they too exist in the constraint of the game. Is this definition too unconstrained? I'm not sure, because even a small game can have mechanics built to drive such things (*is okCupid a game? I think so, though most disagree. It would hugely benefit from game mechanics.)

Food for thought. Thanks for this, and anyone looking to define fun is a winner in my book =)

Chris Birke

Oh, one more thing, as I'm a hopeless romantic, light speed travel to other worlds is not prohibited so long as we can exist in the form of light (and we can, theoretically.)

As I understand general relativity, approaching light speed causes time dilation so that the traveler experiences time "slower" than those influenced by relative mass. Traveling as a pattern of light would freeze time for the pattern, and the passage of time would only resume once they arrived on the far side to engage with whatever sort of matter based computer system is there to re-pattern them.

(This is all neglecting the possibility of exploring numbers as a universe, too...)

In any case, exploration is cool. =) You see how easy it is to wander off topic without constraints? I am procrastinating...


Given that I used the example of c not two days ago, I find this ironic on a universal level.

Faster-Than-Light particles detected:

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