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Book Excerpt: 'A Theory Of Game Design' - What Games Aren't
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Book Excerpt: 'A Theory Of Game Design' - What Games Aren't

December 3, 2004 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

My personal breakdown would look a lot like Lazzaro’s:

  • Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally.
  • Aesthetic appreciation isn’t always fun, but it’s certainly enjoyable.
  • Visceral reactions are generally physical in nature and relate to physical mastery of a problem.
  • Social status maneuvers of various sorts are intrinsic to our self-image and our standing in a community.

All of these things make us feel good when we’re successful at them, but lumping them all together as “fun” just renders the word meaningless. So throughout this book, when I have referred to “fun,” I’ve meant only the first one: mentally mastering problems. Often, the problems mastered are aesthetic, physical, or social, so fun can appear in any of those settings. That’s because all of these are feedback mechanisms the brain gives us for successfully exercising survival tactics.

Of course, learning patterns is not the only thing that is entertaining. Humans enjoy primate dominance games, for example. You could argue that jockeying for status is also a challenge, of course.

Physical challenges alone aren’t fun. The feeling of triumph when you break a personal record is. Endurance running can be immensely satisfying but you have not solved a puzzle. It is not the same high as when you win a well-fought game of soccer thanks to your teamwork.

Similarly, autonomic responses aren’t fun in and of themselves. You have them developed already, so the brain only rewards you for doing them in the context of a mental challenge. You don’t get a high from just typing, you get it from typing while pondering what to say, or from typing during a typing game.

Social interactions of all sorts are often enjoyable as well. The constant maneuvering for social status that all humans engage in is a cognitive exercise and therefore essentially a game. There is a constellation of positive emotions surrounding interpersonal interactions. Almost all of them are signals of either pushing someone else down, or pushing yourself up, on the social ladder. Some of the most notable include:

  • Schadenfreude, the gloating feeling you get when a rival fails at something. This is, in essence, a put down.
  • Fiero, the expression of triumph when you have achieved a significant task (pumping your fist, for example). This is a signal to others that you are valuable.
  • Naches, the feeling you get when someone you mentor succeeds. This is a clear feedback mechanism for tribal continuance.
  • Kvell, the emotion you feel when bragging about someone you mentor. This is also a signal that you are valuable.
  • Grooming behaviors, a signal of intimacy often representing relative social status.
  • Feeding other people, which is a very important social signal in human societies.

A lot of these feel good, but they aren’t necessarily “fun.”

We also enjoy visceral experiences of various sorts - these are often challenges to ourselves.

Aesthetic appreciation is the most interesting form of enjoyment. Science fiction writers call it “sensawunda.” It’s awe, it’s mystery, it’s harmony. I call it delight. Aesthetic appreciation, like fun, is about patterns. The difference is that aesthetics is about recognizing patterns, not learning new ones.

Delight strikes when we recognize patterns but are surprised by them. It’s the moment at the end of Planet of the Apes when we see the Statue of Liberty. It’s the thrill at the end of the mystery novel when everything falls into place. It’s looking at the Mona Lisa and seeing that smile hovering at the edge of known expressions and matching it to our hypothesis of what she’s thinking. It’s seeing a beautiful landscape and thinking all is right in the world.

Why does a beautiful landscape make us feel that way? Because it meets our expectations, and exceeds them. We find things beautiful when they are very close to our idealized image of what they should be but with an additional surprising wrinkle. A perfectly closed off plot, with just a couple of loose threads. A picture of a farmhouse, but the paint is peeling. Music that comes back to the tonic note and then drops a whole step further to end on an unresolved minor seventh. It sends us chasing off after new patterns.

Beauty is found in the tension between our expectation and the reality. It is only found in settings of extreme order. Nature is full of extremely ordered things. The flowerbed bursting its boundaries is expressing the order of growth, the order of how living things stretch beyond their boundaries, even as it is in tension with the order of the well-manicured walkway.

Delight, unfortunately, doesn’t last. It’s like the smile from a beautiful stranger in a stairwell - it’s fleeting. It cannot be otherwise - recognition is not an extended process.

You can regain delight by staying away from the object that caused it previously, then returning. You’ll get that recognition again. But it’s not quite what I would call fun. It’s something else - our brains rewarding us for having learned well. It is the epilogue to the story. The story itself is the fun of learning.

Last, people often take DELIGHT in things that are not challenges.

Fun, as I define it, is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes. Consider the basketball team that says, “We went out there to have fun tonight,” versus the one that says, “We went out there to win.” The latter team is approaching the game as no longer being practice. Fun is primarily about practicing and learning, not about exercising mastery. Exercising mastery will give us some other feeling, because we are doing it for a reason, such as status enhancement or survival.

The lesson here is that fun is contextual. The reasons why we are engaging in an activity matter a lot. School is not usually all that fun because we take it seriously - it’s not practice, it’s for real, and your grades and social standing and clothing determine whether you are in the in-crowd or whether you sit at the table close to the cafeteria kitchen.

It’s very telling that when we lose a competition, we often say, “Well, I was just doing it for fun.” The implication is that we are shrugging off the implicit loss of social status inherent in a loss. Since it was merely a form of practice, perhaps we didn’t put forth our best effort.

We get positive feedback for climbing the social ladder. We’re just tribal monkeys throwing feces at each other in order to own the top of the tree. But notice some of the subtleties there: climbing it while helping others (naches and kvell). Climbing it while pushing the boundaries of our knowledge (fun). Climbing it while strengthening our social networks, building communities and families that work together to improve everyone’s lot (grooming, pairing, and feeding others).

As monkeys go, that’s pretty darn good. In the general run of animals, it’s amazing. It’s a lot better than being a shark that only gets feedback for eating.

I think there’s a good case to be made that having fun is a key evolutionary advantage right next to opposable thumbs in terms of importance. Without that little chemical twist in our brains that makes us enjoy learning new things, we might be more like the sharks and ants of the world.

But delight tends to wear thin very quickly. Real fun comes from challenges that are always at the margin of our ability.

So how does it feel? Well, the moment a lot of players like to cite is “being in the zone.” If you get academic about it, you might reference Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” This is the state you enter when you are experiencing absolute concentration on a task. When you’re in absolute control, the challenges that come at you are met precisely by your skills. Lazzaro called this “hard fun,” and it’s the state from which you are most likely to emerge feeling either frustration or triumph.

Flow doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it feels pretty darn wonderful. The problem is that precisely matching challenges to capability is incredibly hard. For one thing, the brain is churning away and might make a cognitive leap at any moment, rendering the rest of the challenge trivial. For another, whatever is presenting the challenges doesn’t necessarily have any sense of the level of understanding possessed by the player.

As we succeed in mastering patterns thrown at us, the brain gives us little jolts of pleasure. But if the flow of new patterns slows, then we won’t get the jolts and we’ll start to feel boredom. If the flow of new patterns increases beyond our ability to resolve them, we won’t get the jolts either because we’re not making progress.

When there’s flow, players usually say afterward, “That was a lot of fun.” When there isn’t flow, they might say “that was fun” somewhat less emphatically. The absence of flow doesn’t preclude fun - it just means that instead of a steady drip-drip-drip of endorphins, you’re getting occasional bits. And in fact, there can be flow that isn’t fun - meditation induces similar brain waves, for example.

So fun isn’t flow. You can find flow in countless activities, but they aren’t all fun. Most of the cases where we typically cite flow relate to exercising mastery, not learning.

To recap the preceding pages: Games aren’t stories. Games aren’t about beauty or delight. Games aren’t about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

When the balance is really perfect, people often zone out.


This article is excerpted from Paraglyph Press' A Theory of Fun for Game Design (ISBN # 1932111972). For more information about the book, please visit


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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