makes a game fun? It's a question that seems central to the process
of making good games. But it's an elusive and subjective question.
The dictionary defines 'fun' as a source of amusement or enjoyment,
but that's not very helpful. And yet somehow, for years we have
been creating games without really understanding why we human beings
find some activities to be fun and others boring, pointless or worse.
It's not too surprising, since humans have also been creating art
for at least 30,000 years and we're still arguing about how to define
it. To paraphrase the old saying, we may not be able to describe
fun, but we know it when we have it. But game designers are an inquisitive
lot, and in recent years there has finally been some significant
progress in getting close to the answer of just what fun is all
LucasArts Entertainment Company was still known as Lucasfilm Games,
our boss was Steve Arnold, who had been drawn into the games industry
at Atari after years as a child psychologist. This made him uniquely
qualified not only to understand the audience for our games, but
also to manage and motivate a bunch of young game developers. One
of the first things he would ask us when we presented a new game
concept was: "What is the Funativity Quotient?" It was
a question that encouraged us to think about just what aspects of
the idea would make it fun, and I was always intrigued by the implication
that fun could be categorized, defined, perhaps even measured. But
how do we get at the underlying roots of fun?
it comes to questions about the underlying reasons for human preferences
and behavior, the obvious starting place is our evolutionary history.
We share basic drives for survival and reproduction with our fellow
creatures. In addition, humans, as well as other primates have a
strong dependence on the social interactions that establish and
maintain our place in our families and communities. To understand
human evolution, it's necessary to look back well beyond the last
few hundred years of modern society and technology, beyond the last
few thousand years of civilization, to the preceding hundreds of
thousands of years that really made us who we are. Scientists agree
that the majority of our genes were shaped during the time of our
hunter-gatherer ancestors, and their primate and mammalian predecessors.
So we have to consider the way humans lived tens of thousands of
years ago and more to see the survival significance of many of our
is also necessary to look back in time because modern technology
and the trappings of civilization can mask or distort the evolutionary
sense behind our drives or interests. Take, for example the, sweet
tooth. In modern society the desire for sweets has created huge
problems of obesity, tooth decay, and early diabetes. Why would
so many people have an urgent desire for candy when it is so bad
for us? If you look back in history, the answer is clear. The ability
to refine sugar is a relatively recent thing, and refined sugar
in sufficient quantities to make it cheap and accessible to the
masses even more recent. For those hunter-gatherer ancestors, an
urge for sweets drove them to find and eat ripe fruits and berries,
which were in fact good for them. This same fruit is now ironically
spurned by kids, in favor of much more concentrated and less healthy
sugary snacks and drinks. This principle that I'll refer to as Refined
Sugar Syndrome, or RSS for short, also applies to many of the
things that people do for entertainment that have become less helpful,
or even dangerous, in modern society. This is particularly relevant
for video games, as the technology behind them has in effect made
possible a concentrated, particularly potent play experience that
is both very new in its expression and very old in its origins.
are a specialized form of play, and play goes so deep into our history
that we see it in other species. Everyone has seen puppies and kittens
playing with their siblings, tumbling and nipping, stalking and
leaping. That's a way for them to practice the survival skills they'll
need as adults (or at least, that their ancestors needed before
people made them into pets!) For dogs that are social creatures
like us, this also provides a chance to establish dominance and
to learn to live with their peers. Johan Huizinga makes note of
this in his book Homo Ludens (Latin for Game-Playing Humans) and
also believes the drive to play is fundamental to humanity. People
share this instinct to play, and our larger brains and complex social
structures have caused us to extend that play well into our maturity.
So not surprisingly, when you really look at not only games, but
all human entertainment, you see that at its heart it is all about
learning about survival and reproduction and the necessary associated
social rules and behaviors.
who thinks there is a difference between education and entertainment
doesn't know the first thing about either."
- Marshall McLuhan, Communications Theorist
first time I heard that quote I thought it was an overstatement,
but the more I've learned about education and entertainment, the
more I realize McLuhan was right. Young children love to imitate
adults, and their play, alone or in groups, often involves emulating
adult behaviors. Human babies are born at an unusually early and
helpless stage of development compared to other species, to let
our large brains develop and grow outside of the womb without further
increasing the dangers of childbirth. This shifts a burden on us
to continue learning throughout life. Play activities are, of course,
common throughout childhood, and the technologies of video games
have helped promote interest in play well into adulthood. Our modern
fast-changing global culture has put even more emphasis on the ability
to keep learning throughout life.
remember that we have to look at our hunter-gatherer ancestors to
get a better idea of evolutionary influences that made us the way
we are. Let's consider a hunter coming home with a haunch of antelope,
enough to feed his family for a few days. What should he do next?
Modern research suggests that foraging is a very efficient method
of subsistence, and there were many hours available for other tasks.
Our successful hunter could go right out again to hunt some more
and try to make another kill. Of course there are people who are
driven to work at survival tasks every moment available - today
we call them Type A personalities - but most people balance that
with other activities. One alternative for our hunter was to just
rest, sleep or otherwise conserve his strength until a growling
belly motivated him to brave the dangers of the savannah again.
Like work, we all need some rest time too for peak efficiency, and
simple genetic and cultural variation ensures that some people prize
rest more than others. That kind of personality is also well-represented
today. But there's a third alternative to work or rest.
must do a few things to survive. Everything else is entertainment."
- Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence expert,
at GDC lecture March 24 2001
three hypothetical tribe members, Aagh, Bohg and Cragh. They've
come back from a successful hunt where a critical spear-toss downed
an elk, and they brought back enough meat to feed their families
for several days.
goes right back out to track down a deer he saw earlier. He'll keep
his hunting skills sharp that way, but it can be dangerous work,
and even though deer are safe prey for most of human history there
have been plenty of dangerous predators in the wild hunting for
us as well. Aagh may not come back in one piece from this unneeded
hunt, and any deer he finds may not get eaten before they spoil.
passes his time by kicking back and catching nothing more challenging
than some rays. He is well rested by the next hunt, but also out
of practice, and his muscle tone has deteriorated. But he has a
Cragh's brain, by random chance, is wired a bit differently. He
finds it boring to sit around doing nothing. He finds it pleasurable
to balance a piece of wood on a rock, and then throw stones at it
until he knocks it over. Like Aagh, he is building survival skills
- but does so it in the safe confines of home. Like Bohg, he stays
safe - but also stays fit and slightly improves his chances for
success in the next hunt. Over hundreds of thousands of generations,
those genes that Cragh carries are more likely to spread, and the
activities - including games - can also be passed on through word
of mouth in the tribe from generation to generation.
is not to say that the more proactive survival strategy of Aagh
or the more passive one of Bohg are not also useful - given changing
circumstances, like the food supply, danger from predators or climate,
and actions of neighboring tribes, spending leisure time playing
will not be the best thing to do all the time. But it's easy to
see how it crept into our human repertoire of genetic and societal
survival tricks. Evolution theory suggests that diversity is also
a necessary survival trait in the long run, so there will always
be a large bell-curve cluster of people who prefer the mainstream,
most popular approaches to survival, but also some people with more
obscure or unusual preferences. But now we have a logical basis
for a theory to explain why so many people gain pleasure from leisure-time
activities that in one way or another honed their ancestors' survival