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.

Thank you all for reading. Feel free to leave any comments below. If you’d like to keep an eye on my future blog posts, feel free to follow me on Twitter @farlander1991 🙂

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Posted on February 6, 2017, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. A+ article. That’s all that needs to be said. Thanks for sharing.

  2. It’s a good article, Stanislav! Video games are growing, becoming more and more self-aware as a medium – and it’s very important to analyse them from different perspective.

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  3. Great article, though as a player of non-AAA titles, I’d say games are already pretty much there.
    Is Darkest Dungeon “fun” (maybe, if you are sadist)? Pillars of Eternity (tree in very first village comes to mind)? Shenzhen I/O? Tyranny? Sunless Sea? Oxenfree? etc.

    Could be my bias towards games with darker tones, but then again, haven’t there also been a pushback against “no fun, grim-dark” stuff in triple-A canons lately?

    • Hi, thanks for the comment 🙂 I don’t think games are pretty much there, more like they’re trying to be there and some are more successful than others.

      Games that are darker in tone start to get more accepted, but there’s still so many untapped emotions, feelings and tones – the variety is still not up to the level of other mediums.

  4. Late getting back at this but it was a workday so that can barely be helped. I read & took the Gamasutra article at face value and gave my honest observations on it. Those observations being you are too concerned about use of a word that you’re missing the point that such a focus is not going to alter or change the overall journey.

    Case in point, Number Munchers. It’s an old piece of software work for an old generation. It was made to keep kids up on their multiplication tables and division. It’s a learning game – the type of game that has probably THE biggest stigma in all the various styles of gaming. But if you state that name, or even just show the games to new players (like I did with my nephew last summer), they get hooked or they will go on and on about how fun or good the game was. And that’s the rub: If you have a solid concept backed by solid gameplay, you won’t need to worry about what words best describe the product.

    It’s a trap to begin thinking that “fun” shouldn’t describe or define games. Because “fun” can easily be swapped out for the word you chose: engaging. Whatever your or another developer’s intent, forging something to be engaging won’t exactly guarantee that result unless some serious hypnosis was involved. Instead, by placing labels on the side and thinking instead what’s immediately on your table as a developer should be your task.

    Customers want something that’s fun. And “fun” can be interesting. It can be engaging or immersive. It can be simple or complex enjoyments born from excitement, fear, sympathy and empathy for the avatars on the screen or the NPCs they interact with, or the circumstances at hand. Fun can be had in even hating something/someone on screen, or struggling to solve a puzzle or repeating tedious tasks. To anecdote briefly, you mentioned the circumstance of War of the Mine and it struck me both as powerful and familiar. There is a similar such scene for people who have played Demon’s Souls.

    In that game, the dialogue is sparse and the atmosphere and environment is expressed largely through gameplay and through flavor text that filled in lore all about Boletaria, the kingdom that became sieged by demons and its many people and heroes. In particular, and this is spoiler city for the game, a certain stage called the Valley of Defilement is home to demons and damned persons who are just trying to live. Stealing souls is a way to do that, but they’re the vestige outcasts by all the neighboring kingdoms for various horrible stigmas or crimes. WHAT crimes are largely left to the imagination, but certain ones are filled in to help paint the mental picture: prostitution, pagan worships, thievery and murder, and as a very hard heavy hitter: abortion due to wedlock and other poor circumstances. The entire make of this stage, up to and including its very potent final boss (whom you do not even FIGHT as much as carefully battle her decorated & determined bodyguard) is all set to weigh very hard on the mind of the player. And you’re not eased into it—you feel the weight as you’re treading carefully through skimpy bridges, beating off plague rats, wadding through muck, poison, and corpse flies (& corpses), peddling with an obvious ex-hooker, and fending off mutant humans who are looking to any kind of god for a sense of relief from anguish and pain. All of it to culminate in killing a former saint who set out initially to absolve and bless the people she knew were suffering on the outskirts of society and open them to “god”, just to discover the true nature of that god. All first hand, it is a somber, depressive experience, moreso than a lot of the game (which is saying something, but I’m already going too long here).

    I don’t feel, with that experience, that the game wasn’t “fun”. I’d definitely say that was incredible fun, and that Demon’s Souls is an engaging action rpg from start to finish and that the Valley of Defilement arc remains a crowning piece in its execution & lore setup even above the far-more-lauded Dark Souls games. That experience was fun. I think that the creators set out to make a game that told the story they wanted to tell, allotted the player agency to unravel that story and make all the encounters meaningful, and fought for a sense of balance between the environment, the story, and the technical aspects, resulting in an incredibly satisfying game. Given proper time and resources, I believe most devs can achieve similar results no matter what direction their ideas lie in.

    • Hi. First, thank you for taking your time to write the post, really appreciated 🙂

      I perfectly understand your point, pretty much because that was the way I thought at some point as well. I even remember scoffing at some articles written years ago on the topic of definition of fun and if fun is the right word to use for games (and also if we should keep calling games video games). A fun game is a fun game, right? Why shouldn’t we measure games on how fun they are?

      But eventually I came to a conclusion that:
      a) while fun, as you say, is always interchangable with engaging (and I mention as much in my post), engaging (or some other more broad words) is not always interchangable with fun.
      b) ‘Fun’ is very problematic. The way I see it, if everybody thought like you, it wouldn’t be problematic, but from what I’ve seen over the years that’s not the case.

      If Fun was universally accepted and understood as you said, then:
      1. We wouldn’t have players regularly making remarks towards games like This War of Mine in a manner ‘remember when games used to be fun?’. This War of Mine provides quality experience, like the Dark Souls one, and yet people keep arguing whether this game can be called fun if it’s about war and suffering (this article didn’t spring out of nowhere).
      2. We wouldn’t have genres/styles that would generally considered to be fun and genres/styles that would be considered unfun or not-games (like games that some people started calling ‘walking simulators’ because they aren’t ‘fun’)
      3. Video game journalists wouldn’t write analysis of why video game movie adaptations fail based on the premise of ‘movies based on video games try to be serious while games are fun’
      4. We wouldn’t have people praise games like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Watch_Dogs 2 for the reasons of ‘they stopped taking themselves seriously, learned to be simply fun and switched introvert characters into outgoing fun characters’.
      5. We wouldn’t have developers change really interesting and immersive mechanics that enhance the experience that fit their vision into ‘just something that’s fun’ to be more accepted.
      6. We would freely apply fun to all works of other mediums, for example it would be normal to call Schindler’s List fun, though for some reason nobody does that.
      7. When some games would try but fail to explore difficult subjects, people wouldn’t vocally complain ‘come on, games are just for fun’ (at the same time those people trying to justify why games are a valid art form when some of the failures are not being criticized).

      If fun was a concept that was universally accepted, the discussions would be about the quality of the experience and personal enjoyment of the experience, not whether or not something can be considered fun, and certainly not criticizing serious matters because they’re not fun.

      You can call me pedantic, but the more I look at many conversations happening between players, and between developers, the more I’m getting convinced that the term ‘fun’ in its current state is a problem – it’s tried to be used in too broad of a context, even where it doesn’t properly fit, it doesn’t always work out, and that affects not just the semantics, but culture and thought process of making games.

  5. I just discovered your blog thanks to Gamasutra and I love your game design posts. “Fun” is something I recently researched for my Master’s thesis discussing intersections between technical communication and game design. I think Ralph Koster’s definition of fun, which is based in cognitive learning theory, fits with yours—the brain has “fun” when it’s stimulated, or engaged. When engagement stops, we become bored and stop playing. In technical communication our users don’t necessarily have “fun” but we definitely want them engaged in the product we are documenting or designing.

    • Thank you for the comment! Glad you enjoy the blog 🙂 Wish you luck with your Master’s.

      While it’s not related to fun directly, when discussing this topic a person has recommended me to read a paper by Thomas Grip, called The Self, Presence and Storytelling. I have not read it yet so can’t comment, but quoting the person, “He approaches the topic mostly from a narrative oriented background, but he does propose the interesting idea that the purpose of some games is not necessarily fun, but instead to create a sense of self and presence for the player.”

      Maybe this interests you as well and potentially could be useful for your thesis in some way?

  1. Pingback: Pros and Cons of a regular schedule for a side-project blog | Stanislav Costiuc

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