Should games be fun?
This thought popped into my head the other morning as I walked my crazy dog, Maggie. I'd just spoken at the Texas Independent Games Conference, and it seemed like everyone at the show kept coming back to the question of how to make games fun; or were games as fun now as they used to be; or was the mainstream game not fun anymore; or was Raph Koster right in his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design?
"Fun" was everywhere, as a topic of discussion, if not as a characteristic most of the attendees used to describe most recent games.
So, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that questions about games and fun would occur to me. What did surprise me was my response:
Maybe all this focus on fun - this requirement that games be fun or that all evaluations of games be run through the fun-filter - maybe all this is a bad thing.
For one thing, the word "fun" is kind of meaningless. It's a flabby, ill-defined word, one that describes a state or a feeling that's different for each and every one of us. As Marc LeBlanc pointed out in his GDC talk, "Formal Design Tools: Emergent Complexity, Emergent Narrative" back in 2000 (wow, a millennium ago!), the word "fun" isn't much help to us as designers and developers.
But, the word "fun" has other problems. It kind of locks us into a "games are for kids" mentality. It implies that games are good for just one thing: passing time in an enjoyable manner, for want of a better definition.
And perhaps most damning to me is that all this focus on passing time puts a ceiling, of sorts, above us that separates us from other media, media that are allowed to strive for something other than simple "fun-ness."
Movies, books, musical compositions and so on are - or can be - fun to watch/read/listen to, but there's nothing in the definition or judgment of those other media that requires fun. We're the only medium that says to itself, "This is what you must be and all you will ever be."
That kind of thinking makes me mad. What about other words, other values? What about "challenge"? What about "compelling"? What about "discomfort"? What about "enlightening" and "thought-provoking"? We do "aspirational" some of the time, which is a start, I guess. And one of my friends and colleagues, Doug Church (unsung hero of gaming and smart man that he is), commented to me recently that "There are things like Reel Fishing or Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing which allow more space/contemplation during play, but still have a 'fun' core in that they need to appeal to a visceral/competitive vibe." I have to agree with him (though I admit that I may be twisting his thought around a bit as I obsess about fun). Even when we try to do something different, we end up going for the fun.
And that drags me back to my question: Does "interactive" inevitably equal "playful," or can we strive for different (and more)?
Actually, I guess this line of thinking was driven not only by the conference emphasis (not a pre-planned focus on the part of organizers or attendees, by the way) but also by the fact that my wife, Caroline, and I recently watched David Cronenberg's film, A History of Violence. And, man, would I say we didn't have fun watching it - not in the way we had fun watching The Incredibles or Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one) or a Woody Allen movie (when he was funny). No. A History of Violence can not be described as "fun," not by Caroline and me, anyway. But, man, was that movie thought-provoking (and pleasurable in that way).
After the credits rolled, Caroline and I talked for hours about the questions raised (and left largely unanswered!) by the movie. And even when we weren't talking, we were thinking about it until one of us would break the silence with another comment that set the dialogue rolling again. Heck, Caroline dreamed about the movie, for crying out loud!