There is a collective mental block in the games community if it can’t abide any alternative to fun other than boredom, an alternative to infatuation other than suckiness. Is this a culture worth defending?
What if, instead of trying to reconcile all video games with one monolithic set of laws for design and reception, we admitted that video games have many possible goals and purposes, which couple with many possible aesthetics and designs to create many possible player experiences, none of which bears any necessary relationship to the commercial video game industry as we currently know it.
Consider casual games. Casual games already create experiences very different from so-called core games. The casual games industry likes to claim the older, more female demographic of casual game players as its main innovation, but the experience of playing Zuma or Bejeweled is also quite different from that of Gears of War or Civilization. Are casual game players having fun? Maybe.
But more likely they are zoning out. PopCap even built “zen” mode into some of their games after players reported that time limits and other traditional challenges created an experience quite different from the one they were seeking in such games.
Likewise, consider the newsgames I have been publishing recently in the New York Times and elsewhere. These are short web games, and so one might be tempted to call them casual games. But they are meant to produce neither relaxation nor distraction. Rather, they are intended to express an opinion, to editorialize. This is the principal aesthetic I have in mind when designing these games. They might also be satirical or wry or even (gasp) fun, or they might be none of those things. No matter, such aesthetics are secondary to the primary goal of editorial.
If you have to make a mistake in the fun versus educational balance, it’s better to be a bit too fun and a bit less educational than the other way around.
It’s a sentiment that seems hard to argue with, if you assume the goal of games is simply education, or fun, or both. If we rephrase this value statement by replacing “educational” with “editorial,” in the case of newsgames for example, it becomes far less persuasive. Education, fun, or other possible experiences might season an editorial game, but who would deny that the latter is its primary goal?