Video Games need to stop HAVING to be fun
I was playing This War of Mine lately, and what I do when I want to write a blog analysis of a game, is I first check online what posts there are already so to know if there’s a particular topic that wasn’t explored (I first wanted to talk about context of mechanics using This War of Mine as an example, but there already is a great post about it on Gamasutra by the game’s lead designer). But seeing some of the feedback and discussions around This War of Mine have inspired me to talk about a more general subject, one that I touch pretty regularly in conversations with other developers, and consider to be very important. Video games need to stop HAVING to be fun.
Now, let’s put aside the fact that nobody really knows what ‘fun’ in games is, as evidenced by countless arguments between developers on the topics of definition of ‘fun’, how to find the ‘fun’ and what makes a game ‘fun’. I would also like to note that there’s nothing wrong with ‘fun’ and it’s a very good notion to strive to. However, it’s also very limiting, and, sadly, very spread out. I would even say that we’ve conditioned ourselves and players to think that good games are fun and bad aren’t.
In This War of Mine, there was a prolonged moment of time when I couldn’t access most of the scavenging areas because they were blocked by ongoing fights, and new ones weren’t opening up. All the available locations were fully scavenged, except one. There lived an elderly couple with their son who was protecting them. And I tried for as long as possible to not break in… but food was running low and my survivors were starving. So I got to that house and stole all the food. Later when I needed more resources and that was still the only place that had something to scavenge, I broke in again, but didn’t manage to stay unnoticed and had to kill the son before he shot one of my characters with a shotgun. And then as parents were crying over his body, I rummaged everywhere to get what I need and leave. The character felt very depressed after that, and so did I.
‘Fun’ wasn’t the emotion I’ve experienced. It was despair, sorrow, guilt. Other players also experienced these kind of emotions (which, I would like to note, are different from the kind of emotions most other survival games provide). People are conflicted, however. This War of Mine is considered to be a good game. But because it’s not necessarily a ‘fun’ game, people in discussions start twisting words and definitions to argument why This War of Mine is ‘fun’, or as some people put it, ‘a special kind of fun’. Because the game is good, they enjoy it, and as good games are fun – This War of Mine has got to be ‘fun’ somehow, right?
But the thing is, we are compelled to play games like This War of Mine not because it’s some ‘special kind of fun’, but because we’re engaged in the experience that it builds and makes us go through. This is precisely why we play fun games as well. And that is what games HAVE to be. Engaging. And, to be fair, it’s also a pretty loose term, but unlike ‘fun’, it doesn’t try to steer into a specific spectrum of emotions, but more to how involved a player is.
I’ve seen a question targeted towards a developer of This War of Mine, if they weren’t afraid the game would fail because people might not consider it to be fun. And it’s ridiculous that we still live in a time when that’s a legitimately valid question and concern. Because, This War of Mine could absolutely fail due to it being something else than ‘fun’. Luckily, the game was enjoyed by players.
Well, most of them. You can still find discussions where people say This War of Mine is a bad game because it’s not fun… and then people who liked it start talking about how and why it is fun… And then there are other games – some try to do interesting and innovative things that aren’t traditional ‘fun’, so people might not consider it to be good. There are games with a lot of mechanics that are considered to be ‘fun’, but also some elements that are not traditional ‘fun’, even if they strengthen the experience, and players start arguing about those elements as they might not be considered ‘good’. There are some game series that lose their uniqueness and innovation because in sequels developers are pretty much forced to steer more into the way of ‘fun’ to be more accepted.
And we want the medium to be on the same level of acceptance as movies, books, music… but neither of those has ‘fun’ as being one of the requirements. There’s all sorts of emotions that they can provide and that are readily accepted by people. So if they all don’t have to be fun to be engaging, then why games have to be?
It’s up to us as developers to try and shift the paradigm from ‘Games have to be fun’ to ‘Games have to be engaging’. Reeducate not only the players, but ourselves as well. While there are a lot of developers I talked with who agree with the point I’m making here… I’ve seen and heard developers who are baffled by the thought and think that it’s quite frankly bullshit.
So it’s not going to be easy, and we need more games like This War of Mine that aren’t traditional ‘fun’, but capture players’ attention (and it doesn’t mean they have to be dark and depressing, but different). And when the paradigm shifts, a full spectrum of new emotions will open up to freely examine and experiment with in games without fear that it’s not going to be accepted because it isn’t ‘fun’. Wistfulness, hope, nostalgia, contemplation, longing, sexuality, and many, many more. There are people who try to explore what other things games can be, but they’re limited in scope and audience by the established perception of what games have to be.
So let’s work towards removing the shackles, broadening the horizons, making sure that the medium we all love isn’t confined by any notions. Let’s stop making games fun, and start making them engaging.
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