All in the Cards

All in the Cards
"Fun" is a Four-Letter Word

Warren Spector | 3 Oct 2006 12:02
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That's valuable - a story that wasn't fun to watch, that wasn't pleasurable in and of itself, but was clearly "troubling," "disturbing," "annoying," "over the top," "ambiguous" ... All things that mature media, for mature people, allow and encourage. I mean, it's not as if reading James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon is "fun" (come on, admit it). No one goes to a John Cage concert because it's going to put a big ol' smile on their face. And A History of Violence was a lot like being in a room with someone you just wanted to scream at but couldn't.

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.

I mentioned this whole rigmarole to another friend, Robin Hunicke, who's currently working on a game that promises to be a ton of fun (plus a lot more) and she dragged me back to current market realities, which probably explain a lot here. She said, "I think that the common (and sad) response to 'The Fun Question' is that fun sells, and games are made to sell. A History of Violence or John Cage concerts have limited audiences because they are 'art,' and games are primarily not considered an art or made for art's sake (as it's pretty hard to make a living making them that way so far). So people don't generally decide to make games without considering how much they will sell (to people who want to have fun, specifically). It's not that it's wrong to think about making arty games - it's just not profitable, so hardly anyone does it 'for real.'"

She's right, of course; Robin usually is. And she makes me feel a little like a hypocrite. It's not like I'm exactly working on stuff that isn't trying to push every fun button I can reach. But I have to think that maybe, someday, I'll get that chance - the chance to do something that's enjoyable in some way, but without falling into the typical, competitive, games mode.

You know, the thing that kills me about this is that, even as I write this, I'm left with a knot in my stomach at the thought of making a "not-fun" game - the unexamined assumption that "Games = Fun" is powerful and insidious. But I'm a believer in the idea that the unexamined and, more, the thing we don't think is worth examining may be the very thing we most have to examine.

Right now, I'm thinking we should be thinking about whether a game has to be fun to sell; whether we've trained our audience so well that we've trapped ourselves in funsville; whether we can, or even want to, try to change things.

I don't have any answers about this stuff, but I sure wish more of us would start thinking about it. If we don't - if we just accept uncritically the idea that games have to be fun, we're doomed to a future as a way for people to pass some empty time - and nothing more.

Warren Spector is the founder of Junction Point Studios. He worked previously with Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios, TSR and Steve Jackson Games.

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