65: "Fun" is a Four-Letter Word

The Escapist Staff

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"So why must games be 'fun'? Who said that was the highest, or even worse, the only value? Is it a function of our status as a medium that is truly for kids? Is it a function of a development community dominated by Peter Pan types who won?t grow up? (I?ll cop to that, if you will.) Is it that games are just different from other media in some way I can?t define? Maybe I?m missing something; maybe the serious games movement is where our not-fun games are being made."
"Fun" is a Four-Letter Word
 

The Escapist Staff

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Someone watching a movie has to actively take an action to stop the film.
The film has to be so disturbing, challenging or boring that the viewer decides to switch the player off and do something else instead.

A game, on the other hand, requires the player to actively interact with it.
It just has to be disturbing or challenging enough to make the player sit back and it's lost them.
That's a lot less leeway than films have.
Still - it's no reason not to try striking that tricky balance. :)

I heartily agree that games should engage people on a more mature level,
but they still have to keep the players interacting or they become nothing more than a movie themselves.
 

Scopique

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The point that "fun" is subjective is the linchpin of the whole debate. While some games will be "fun" for some, they're a chore for others. Because of this, you can say that a single title is BOTH fun and not fun. In this situation, you can't claim victory for either point.

I think that gregking's point of likening moves to games is true at a base level, but in the end, we watch movies and play games for the same reason. HOW we perform each of these actions is inconsequential, since, at the point where we feel that we aren't "getting our money's worth" from either medium, we quit. If a game isn't interesting me for whatever reason, I stop playing. If a movie or TV show isn't interesting me, I'll get up, go to the bathroom, get something to eat, or just stop watching.

To that end, I suggest that rather then focus on the term "fun" we use "engaging". "Engaging" is a term that means different things to different people based on what they expect to take away from an event. You can be engadged by a movie, a game, a lecture, a book, a work of art, a conversation. music, sports, or simply by relaxing on the couch. If we can get people to think about being "engaged" by the games that they play, then we can put the products of the industry on a more equal footing, perception-wise, with movies, music and literature.
 

Nordstrom

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I agree with Warren here. I'm looking for interesting games regardless of whether they are fun or not. I suppose that they need to be engaging, but the word "fun" doesn't describe what I'm looking for.

Can anyone suggest games that they play out of curiousity or for interesting concepts or art, where fun is a secondary factor of the gameplay?
 

Russ Pitts

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Nordstrom said:
Can anyone suggest games that they play out of curiousity or for interesting concepts or art, where fun is a secondary factor of the gameplay?
I think Armadillo Run might fit that description. It is fun in a way, but not in the way other games are. It's like building scale model replicas of houses or boats. Tedious and challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
 

Shannon Drake

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Nordstrom said:
Can anyone suggest games that they play out of curiousity or for interesting concepts or art, where fun is a secondary factor of the gameplay?
Killer 7 sounds like what you want, if you can manage to read the tutorial text. It's still one of the most interesting story concepts and gameplay ideas I've messed with.
 

Ajar

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Electroplankton probably fits that descrption as well. I don't own it (no DS), but apparently you just sort of fiddle about with various little fiddly things and somehow this produces simple melodies.

There are games that have tried to offer more than fun, or things other than fun. Killer7 comes to mind -- it had fairly rote gameplay, but an enormously convoluted plot with some interesting things to say about, of all things, politics. [Added: Looks like Shannon Drake beat me to it. :p ]

Shadow of the Colossus was fun, but also filled me with awe at its beauty. It was also one of the first games to make me question the morality of my actions. Previously, morality was generally clear-cut in games, in my experience. You were either a "good guy," (e.g. Mario, out to save the princess) or a "bad guy" (e.g. the protagonist of any Grand Theft Auto game).

Spoilers for SotC below:

In SotC, I saw a protagonist who would do anything -- my theory was that he wished to bring back his lost love -- but for the first time I really questioned whether he should. I didn't trust Dormin at all, and some of the death sequences of the colossi were so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that they made my guts physically ache. Was the life of this one girl truly worth the lives of sixteen glorious colossi? Was she worth the effect on the protagonist? What if he died saving her?

The ending was remarkable, particularly since I'd played their previous game, ICO. She lives, but at what price?

End spoilers.

Of course I thought SotC also had great gameplay. It was fun. So it's an example where artistry doesn't conflict with fun and engaging gameplay. I think Scopique's second paragraph is apt -- gaming is an interactive medium. Make the interactivity too rote, too dull, without sufficient reward in terms of story, fun, and/or atmosphere, and you're left with little reason to play the game.
 

Branded

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The word 'game' itself is becoming such a broad term these days that it encompasses something yuppies do to kill their time to the serious and dedicated connoisseurs to the elite 'pro' gamers... or whatever they're called. The feeling of 'fun' manifests differently to each type of people within these categories.

But hey, if you want to convince the senior management board how much 'fun' is in your game, simply apply numbers to this formula:

( Number of Guns + Average Size of Breasts + Maximum Player Ego Boosting Level ) / Tediousness Factor = Level of Fun
 

WanderingTaoist

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I would argue that Joyce and Pynchon actually ARE fun. Try reading some passages in Ulysses aloud, they are full of humor, especially the ones with Leopold Bloom. And Crying of Lot 49 is quite a comedy in itself. But I guess it only goes to show that the idea of fun differs from person to person. Other than that I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Spector.
My hope is that with the increasing ubiquity of game machines in homes it will be more and more viable to make games that are more mature, more thought-provoking, more "artsy" if you like. Also, with the aging of the gamer generation, there will be an increasing demand for them.
I would maybe point to DefCon that has been discussed in some other threads here. As long as you take it as a game, it is funny. Then, after realizing that you are actually killing millions of people for "fun", it stops being funny. And this moment of "not being funny anymore" I actually find the strongest and most memorable.
 

TomBeraha

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A few thoughts on this topic come to mind:

1) Is Brain Age a fun game? or really - are any learning games?
2) If a game is heart wrenching, or makes you angry, or gives a detailed history lesson on a subject can it still be engaging? and in fact - is engaging a far better word for what a game has to be rather than fun?

I enjoyed reading Tom Clancy's "Guided Tour of" books quite a bit, I dare say as much as I do his works regarding the life of one Jack Ryan. The guided tour books for those who aren't familiar are not stories persay so much as detailed information on parts of our military. I found the ideas on command presented in "Into the Storm" some of the most easy to understand information written on the topic. I for one enjoyed learning from them immensely and can apply their theories of military strategy to other points in my life. In this I find them engaging and recieve pleasure. These are not fun books, but they provide me with food for thought, which I personally find pleasurable.

If a game is un-fun, but still has a message in it worth saying, that's being delivered in an intelligent and engaging manner. I don't see any reason why I would stop playing it. I might not agree with everything someone has to say to me but I wouldn't stop listening to them. However, this act puts me in a minority of the populace. We know the average consumer doesn't want to think, and would much rather be mindlessly entertained. He or she proves it with their purchases every day of every year.

It may be that part of the reason that "serious" gaming hasn't really come to the foreground of the scene is that it won't appeal to the masses. There is most certainly a niche market for such games, I am part of it. Whether or not catering to that market would be profitable and allow any return is important for any large company, and makes ventures into it unlikely. I think ultimately it will be created as a side project by developers like Warren or as a contender from the indie field who doesn't really care as much about profit or how far it spreads in either case. Many actors / actresses will take on side films between big blockbusters because they love the roles / stories in them, these films don't make the big money that the box office ones do. Maybe something similar for gaming will emerge.

- Tom
 

heavyfeul

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Maybe Warren stood to close to the Nintendo marketing bullhorns and the corresponding media parrots at E3? I hardly think his characterization of the current state of game design is accurate. The idea of, "we need to make more 'fun' games," attitude in the industry is simply a result of the success of the Nintendo DS and Xbox Live Arcade. What they are really saying is we need to make more cheap games that are addictive and anyone can play, so we can expand the market and generate more revenue. It is just easier to distill that idea into a single concept, namely "fun." I doubt we are in danger of being overrun by Nintendo fanboys and yuppie gamers anytime soon. All of the different types of games we all love to play will still be there in the years to come.

I personally would not even play games if they were not fun. It does not matter if the game is cerebral, visceral, or emotional in nature, they are all fun in their own particular way. To suggest that we should try to move away from the concept of "fun" in videogames is ludicris. You may not realize it Warren, but your experience of watching A History of Violence was fun. You just didn't know it. The simple fact is there is plenty of room in this industry for all types of games and gamers. The Shadow of the Collosus and Psychonauts may not appeal to the masses and games like them may never get strong market support, but does that really matter? They will still get made and us gamers who enjoy those types of games will just shake our heads at the masses who do not.
 

Echolocating

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heavyfeul said:
Maybe Warren stood to close to the Nintendo marketing bullhorns and the corresponding media parrots at E3? I hardly think his characterization of the current state of game design is accurate.
I think Warren is describing the videogaming market as it sits today... as it typically always has been. I agree with his take on gaming. I think videogaming could grow up a little... or a lot.

heavyfeul said:
I personally would not even play games if they were not fun.
You're associating fun with enjoyment... and Warren is separating those two things in his article. Basically, what one finds enjoyable as a child, one might not find enjoyable as an adult; and vice versa. Thus the need for games to mature because they are arguably more geared for children (adults are less likely to enjoy them). If you don't feel this way... I'm jealous. ;-)
 
Oct 4, 2006
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Warren is pretty much spot on, and I've been pushing the same point for years in more private circles. One can try to broaden the meaning of 'fun' until it encompasses any meaningful experience whatsoever, but it becomes pretty clear on analysis that this is not how people use the word when they talk about games being fun. They mean something quite a bit more specific, even if what they mean remains frustratingly vague.
 

Ludological Outlaw

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My favorite games of last year were SotC, Killer 7, and Resident Evil 4 in distant third. Despite being probably the best "game" there, Resident Evil 4 is quality of design over actual substance. It doesn't provoke thoughts, except "How in this day and age can a game made for adults be written so badly and get a free pass from critics?" All meanings you can read into it--such as my theory that Leon's quest is just an allegory for the right-wing agenda--are unintentional. Shinji Mikami is a great craftsman, but he doesn't have a thought in his head.

I agree with almost everything I've ever read from Spector. I say "almost" because I don't necessarily think that straight nonlinearity is the way of the future. If so, designers become transparent and games become the old-man-fantasy of Ebert: no legitimate auteurs, no legitimate art, just a lot of toothless Ron Howard-types. It's much harder to purposefully make a meaningful experience in a truly nonlinear game, at least from what I've seen.
 

david_hellman

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Warren's resistance to the "fun factor" produced the question, "what can games make us feel BESIDES 'fun?'"

For me, the even more immediate question is, "can't developers describe their work with a bit more sophistication?" What about suspenseful, exhilerating, hilarious, riveting, giddy, smooth, etc.?

Replacing "fun" with "engaging" or "compelling" is pointless. Those words sound kind of rugged and intelligent right now, but overuse will render them as flaccid as "fun."

I'm just a bit resistant to the high-low art debate. And I think this elusive non-fun gaming is already happening. Silent Hill games are exhausting, tedious ordeals, but could they be any other way? It doesn't seem to threaten their potency, however that should be described.

More sensitive language will, as a side effect, encourage more subtle and varied kinds of expression, including stuff that is distinctly not fun, but good on some other level.
 

heavyfeul

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Technically both sides appear correct:

If we go by the Mirriam-Webster definition for the adjective fun: "providing entertainment, amusement, or enjoyment," then all games you enjoy playing are fun. However, if we are talking about the noun fun, then there is a certain type of enjoyment implied. Mirriam-Webster: "what provides amusement or enjoyment; specifically : playful often boisterous action or speech."

Thus, while you may not be having fun (noun) while playing a particular game, it does not mean that isn't fun (adjective).
 

Archon

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I don't agree that the argument can be resolved semantically, heavyfeul.

When I think of what might be a game that's "not fun" but still worth doing, here are some things that come to mind:
- Running a marathon
- Watching Black Hawk Down
- Reading 1984

There are certainly some people who will say they run marathons "for fun" but I think that for most people, to call it fun would trivialize an experience which is much more about self-actualization, personal challenge, and accomplishment. The body literally isn't designed to run as far as a marathon demands it to be run -- if inflicting that degree of physical and mental anguish on oneself is "fun" then the word is neutered.

Or take the movie Black Hawk Down. That's not a "fun" movie. When Virgil and I went to see it, we both found it to be one of the most painful, traumatic film experiences we'd ever seen. "If the Army showed that movie to potential recruits, no one would ever sign up," I remember him saying. Neither of us would say we enjoyed that movie. But we both still considered it a great film.

The novel 1984 is similar. It's certainly not a "fun" read. It's actually slow-moving, a bit torturous, sometimes pedantic, and depressing as hell. But it's still a great novel, one that I thought about for days afterwards.

Can a game create an experience like that? That's the question. Can it be hard work throughout and make you feel terrible at the end, and yet still leave you glad you did it?

Or is Black Hawk Down the videogame just another FPS?

p.s. I want to add in response directly to Warren's article and Robin's quote that in books and movies, plenty of works that aren't fun by anyone's measure are still very commercially successful. They're called dramas... Closer was not a fun movie but it did well.
 

Bongo Bill

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I think a distinction must be drawn between fun in presentation and fun in system. Mario is a fun presentation. Defcon is not a fun presentation. But they both have fun systems.

When you're making a game, I think, the system - the mechanism by which the player interacts with it, regardless of what it's showing him - can't be anything but fun. When you're dealing with active (rather than passive) activities, it must either be fun, rewarding, or tedious. Since outside of gambling you can't reward a person for playing your game, and since they'll stop playing tedious games, that means the mechanism has to be fun. (Alternately, the presentation has to be so compelling, whether or not it's fun, that they'll overlook its inadequacies).

Of course, with systems, fun has a much broader definition than in presentation. When you call a system fun, you just mean it's got entertaining challenges and interesting decisions in it. When you call a presentation fun, you mean it's playful and entertaining.

Here's a little metaphor. A game of poker. Poker is a fun game. It is compelling if the people you're playing with are all friends and you're telling dirty jokes and drinking, and it's also compelling if you're playing, even for no money, with a bunch of intense, serious players who don't talk except as needed for playing the game. The underlying mechanism of making patterns with cards and betting on them is an inherently fun mechanism. It is fun to drink and tell dirty jokes with your friends, but it is not fun to play more cerebrally with some serious players.

So it seems that this article is about how games' presentations are focusing too much on providing the drunken-dirty-joke-friends feeling, and not the intense-battle-of-wits feeling. And, as I may or may not have said before, I think the key to interesting game analysis and design is to separate the mechanism from the presentation and consider them separately as well as together.
 

heavyfeul

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Archon said:
I don't agree that the argument can be resolved semantically, heavyfeul.

When I think of what might be a game that's "not fun" but still worth doing, here are some things that come to mind:
- Running a marathon
- Watching Black Hawk Down
- Reading 1984
Yes, but we are talking about games...

Games are not like movies, sports, or other leisure activities. Games have to be fun, otherwise they really cannot be considered a game. To consider calling something not fun a game, would stretch the definition of a game so thin it would stop having any real meaning. If you take fun out of a game altogether, then it really ceases to be a game anymore. It becomes just an interactive activity. At their very essence games are meant to be enjoyable, fun, and amusing activities. If we create games that are not fun, then maybe we need another name for them.

I understand the distinction Warren is making. But if people follow his advice then the videogame industry really will decline, because people will put down the controller and mouse and go do something that is fun.
 

FunkyJ

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I wanted to stop reading after this line:

But, the word "fun" has other problems. It kind of locks us into a "games are for kids" mentality.
Why should "fun" only be related to children? Are Adults meant to be not-fun? Because it's news to me.

I'm sorry Warren doesn't have fun as an adult, but for me and a lot of other people I know adult life is fun.

I find when I get together with my childhood friends we have fun doing more adult activities, but this "fun" hasn't changed dramatically from when we were kids, either.

Then the more I read the more I thought this whole story is a bunch of wank actually.

Who has ever said "Fun is what you must be and all you will ever be." in regards to games?

No one I've ever worked with, that's for sure. Fun is definately a factor, but so is compelling, challenging, interesting, aestheically pleasing, and so on.

In my mind, trying to create a dichotomy between fun and these other factors that simply doesn't exist isn't a good way to conceptualise game creation, and if Warren is the type that does this, maybe he's not the type who should be making them...

Basically I think he's making a mountain out of a very tiny molehill, and this sort of thing doesn't really lead anywhere good.