Batman: Arkham Asylum Screenshot

A couple of months back, Your Critic and another blogger started an e-mail exchange on the subject of "fun" as a measure of success in gaming.  He began:

"Some people are uncomfortable with "fun" being reason for a hobby and maybe it doesn't need to be a primary driver (I don't think knitters or woodworkers talk about "fun" as much as they talk about fulfillment, creating stuff with their hands, camaraderie, etc but i could be wrong). Ignoring "fun" though, in my opinion that's how we end up with shit like Heavy Rain or The Passage or whatever – games that place "meaning" above "giving people an actual reason to play this" (aka fun). It seems like the people who defend "fun" either end up as trolls or as pure designers talking about practical problems or both, like danc's essay on criticism."

He then moved on to Child of Eden, which a number of folks had been ardently discussing on Twitter.  [I won't be able to play it until the PS3 version is available, so although I appreciate the suggestion, folks, it won't be up on deck here any time soon.]

[I]t's also a legitimately great narrative. Not through the text which is sparse and heavy handed … but through the actual game mechanics. And I think at some point we get so trapped up in fun / not fun and story / not story that we forget that text is not the only way of telling a story — level design, enemy design, the basic mechanics are all ways of telling a story and as a bonus they are "game-y" aka not incompatible with "fun". They can set a mood that is both weirdly serious … without being overly tedious … unlike other "arthouse" games where the tedium and repetition are "the point" (i am guilty of this!!!) . You can't just go on youtube and watch the cutscenes to get the narrative part of it (like I should have done with Enslaved), you actually have to participate in it to understand it.

Zach's argument resonated with me for a few reasons.  For one thing, at the time, I was in the middle of Enslaved and he's right about its total failure to use game mechanics in any meaningful way.

He raised a really valid point: those of us who spend a lot of time discussing the various artistic and narrative merits and failures of games often try to avoid "fun" as a measure of success.  For one thing, it's so subjective as to be meaningless: plenty of people seem to think that Mortal Kombat or Gran Turismo or flight sims are fun, and I personally would rather watch paint dry.  And then there's that other, more dangerous angle: the new and growing mainstream understanding of gaming as something not just for boys under 17 is really hard won, and none of us want to encourage a backslide.

Heavy Rain Screenshot

So I thought about his e-mail for a little bit, and came to this conclusion:

"I think you're right that "fun" is the wrong metric for discussion — although it's probably a really good metric for, "Is this worth sixty of my dollars?"  I'd actually remove "fun" and replace it with "pleasurability."  Pleasure comes in many different forms, and sometimes mixed with pain, as it were.  Thus, pleasure to be found in sad or tragic stories, or even in terror (horror films, roller coasters, whatever).  Pleasure comes in conquering a system (something knitters do just as much as gamers) or in solving a problem (gardening, knitting, gaming, woodworking, pretty much everything).  …  Where do we derive the pleasure from gaming?  Is it from seeing a pre-defined narrative unfold?  Is it from participating in the unfolding of that narrative?  Is it from conflict?  I think the answer to all is "yes" and also "no" and also that there are a hundred more reasons."

Our discussion continued, and meanwhile the wheels in my head kept turning.  I am only one gamer, only one set of preferences.  There are loads of genres and games out there that don't appeal to me in the slightest and yet developers who produce those titles make millions upon millions of dollars annually.  So why do people play them?

So I decided I'd ask people who play games.  All told, across the blog comments, tweets, comments elsewhere, and e-mails, I got about 45 responses.  For the record, I love every single response and I had a phenomenal time reading them, so thank you a hundred times over to everyone who gave me an answer.

First — there is a sad note running through the comments I saw: an enormous amount of self-doubt and insecurity.  A half-dozen responses explicitly fell along the lines of, "Well, I don't think I count because…," or, "I'm not good enough so…"  To each and every one of you, I lovingly say: bullshit.  Don't let the hardcore loudmouths drive you away from a thing you enjoy.

"Why do you game?" is a more complicated question than it appears at first, and many respondents ran into that wall of complications where they weren't expecting to find it.  Even so, though, the answers very clearly fell into a few distinct categories. The answers broke down into two philosophical areas of thought: "Here's what I like," and, "Here's why I think I do it."  I went all quasi-scientific on this information (my day job has "analyst" in the title, I'm that kind of person), sorting the answers into some rough buckets and tallying the responses.  Nearly everyone had more than one major reason for playing games, but only a small handful of folks gave more than three or four.

Left 4 Dead 2 Screenshot

A full 50% of answers fell into the category I rounded up and called "Goals / Accomplishment / Success."  I decided that the urges to solve problems, accomplish goals, complete quests or missions, or to understand systems were all similar enough to group together.  My own professed desire to feel "clever" while gaming would fall into this bucket, as well as answers like:

  • "The nice thing about puzzle games is that there is an answer, and if you work hard enough, you will find it.  Wish the same could be said of the real world…"  (roleplayinggirl)
  • "This is possibly why I mostly focus on rpgs & mmo type games.  Generally, unless the game is terrible, I get up from a session feeling like I "accomplished" something, even if that something is as mundane as gaining a level or just moving through a story arc."  (Andy)
  • "For some games, it's the feeling that I pulled off something complex, like combos or special moves in fighting games. When I was a wee lad, the shoryuken was a really tricky maneuver, and I still feel a bit smug when I can hit a jumping opponent with it."  (Matt Smyczynski)

A common thread across these answers was the desire to complete actions or solve problems that aren't available in the real world.  Day jobs and kids are far messier than any quest journal, and real problems tend not to be easily solved or to come with a guaranteed reward at the end.  One of the best summaries of the real-world impossibility problem came from this commenter:

I game because life is too short.

I want to be a surgeon, I want to be a plucky lawyer, I want to be a goddamn Space Marine. I want to fly a spaceship and manage an empire and escape from the ruins of an insane corporation and fight the forces of evil. I contain multitudes, as the saying goes, and not all of them are always satisfied with being a sysadmin (which is just a game anyway).

I can't do all those things because, besides the fact that some of them are impossible, there isn't enough time. To be good at something, to really accomplish things in the real world, you have to commit yourself, focus, and iterate. That's its own joy but it takes exclusivity. You can't commit to everything, so I do a few things for real and I want to do more for pretend.  (timothyalvin)

Portal 2 Screenshot

Following from real-world impossibilities and the desire for problems with actual solutions, a full third (34%) of the answers also specifically called out gaming for escapism, for relaxation, or as a coping technique.  A set of tangible goals, placed in a world (narrative or otherwise) with specific parameters and unbreakable rules does indeed have appeal as a method of dealing with the chaos of life.  Another solid third (32%) mentioned that gaming help them stay in touch with friends and family, and form the basis of a true social connection:

  • "It allows me to cope. I have depression and some unfortunate living situations and gaming has helped me stay afloat. Though it's also a bit of an outlet, since I get really, really into the games and let off some steam."  (ashpanic)
  • "I also like the social aspect of games (even though I'm an introvert!).   I like doing stuff in a team, and enhancing the team."  (Doctor Jay)
  • "I enjoy the social interaction of playing a game you love with other people who also love it, whether it's online or right there in your living room. I do prefer the teamwork aspect (us versus the game) than direct competition (us versus each other), but both are enjoyable. My stepdaughter has lately been chopping me into tiny pieces when we duel with our lightsabers in The Force Unleashed. Rather than being upset by the shame of being pwned by a 13 year-old girl, I couldn't be more proud."  (Doug)
  • "Escapeism during a workday which I play lots of mobile games, plus most of them are fun. Another reason; games are using your brain to think a lot which I like the challenge i.e. Portal, Uncharted. And games are great socializing with people off or online i.e. build friendships. without games my lifestyle would have been different not for the better."  (Joe)

Narrative gaming, though, is clearly where it's at.  Over 40% of the answers cited stories and storytelling, and of those a high number specifically referenced what makes games different from other media.

I've always liked storytelling, and interacting with characters. My dream since I was little is that I can change the world and I matter, and games can fulfill that feeling for me. Because of the immersive nature of games, I think that they can easily rouse feelings, though I especially like it through the narrative. You care about the story and characters more because you are a part of it,  instead of merely observing; the game can't go on without you.  (Galatea)

I like stories, especially grand epics, and I think video games are the perfect medium for telling them because they're interactive rather than passive and fluid rather than static like movies or novels. In some games (Fallout, any BioWare game) I have a role in crafting the characters so I care more about them. In others (Left 4 Dead 2, Arkham Asylum) I have a role in keeping them alive. To my taste, games largely replace the need for adventure/fantasy/action/sci-fi movies and novels.  (RedJenny)

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

I promised I'd give my own set of answers after I got to hear from everyone else, so here it is:

I like to feel clever.  I truly enjoy solving problems, unraveling mysteries, and feeling like I accomplished something.  So finding a way out of a sticky situation gives me a rush, as does wrapping my head around a complex problem, as in Portal.

I like feeling like a badass.  It's not that I think for a second that I could do what Commander Shepard does; I'm a writer and a gamer and Shepard's physical ability puts most marathoners to shame.  But I love being in her skin for a while.  It's role-playing for a reason; I enjoy peeking into other stories and souls for a while to see what makes those characters tick.  Drama's where it's at, and although I try to keep it out of my own life, I like living vicariously through fictional people.

And last but not least, I'm a sucker for exploration.  Give me a map and I will uncover every nook and cranny it has to offer.  I will climb the mountains around the Capital Wasteland to see where the invisible walls kick in; I will go right to the perimeter of every castle and prowl the walls looking for loose stones; I will explore every wall in every corridor of every mine and dungeon just to be sure I didn't miss something interesting in that last square inch.  (Back when I started playing Everquest II, the first thing I did with my level 11 Predator was sneak around the entire perimeter of the Commonlands, and take the griffons over the middle.  I died many times, exploring that way, but when the rez points were in a location I hadn't explored yet I considered it a fortuitous shortcut.)

So where does all this leave us with "fun?"  It turns out (to me, unsurprisingly) that players are smart enough to break that one down for themselves.  A scant three (3) people used that word, and the ones who did qualified it.  Enstarstarstar sums it up just the way I would:

because i can, and because it's fun.

or, put slightly longer: i game sometimes to relax, sometimes to be thrilled, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to escape, sometimes to challenge myself, sometimes to compete, sometimes to socialize, sometimes to immerse myself in a story, sometimes to fit myself into a world, sometimes to kill time, sometimes to kill, sometimes to think, sometimes to fly, and sometimes to be a jedi.

it all depends on when, where, why, and with whom.

So say we all.

Kate Cox
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12 years ago

Great work. I really enjoyed this article.

Chris Johnson [TechnologoDoom]
Chris Johnson [TechnologoDoom]
12 years ago

I’ve put a lot of time into thinking about this myself actually. I’ve decided on a few things which ultimately lead me to think that “fun” is not a useful descriptive term for games, especially game criticism. 1. “fun” is a misnomer, or poor descriptive term for the pleasure of excellence. 2. “fun” is reductive. it reduces the wide varieties of the experience of play (hope, fear, loss, anger, excitement, boredom, anxiety) to a term which is derrivative of pleasure, but reduces pleasure to entertainment. 3. while games clearly do entertain, i don’t think its a more valid way to… Read more »

12 years ago

The word “engaging” works best for me. I guess it works best as an all-encompassing buzzword that can mean many different things at once. Tom Bissell’s book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” explores some of the ideas you’re discussing quite well. It doesn’t entirely explain why they matter to society in general, but it makes it very clear why they matter to him and why they might matter to others.