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!

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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