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In the two weeks before writing this piece, I've seen easily a dozen scattered, derivative definitions of fun. Five page "manifestos" and weird Rubik's Cube personal philosophies. No respite at DigiPen the other day. Covering for another prof, I thought I'd poison the youth with design theory.
"Oh, sweet," says one edgy-looking student. "Me and a buddy have been talking about making a unified theory of fun. An exhaustive language for games."
"Neat," I say. "Have you read Raph's Theory of Fun?"
I click to the first slide, a cropped image of the cover.
"Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games?"
"I stared at the first page for awhile."
"Good enough." I say, though it really isn't. I want the laughter, but they only give me puzzled stares.
Fun is a lazy word. A bit like "game". On first blush anyone can grin, nod their head, and think they understand what you're talking about -- but there are breathtaking gulfs between Today I Die and World of Warcraft, between Monopoly and Foursquare (both social networking or playground variants). Pete Garcin wrote a good piece last year about the problems of broad language, though he wasn't looking to, "pick on 'fun' specifically."
Let's pick on fun, specifically.
Fun is a process. Idea to shipped game is roughly the difference between a frozen ovary and a 24-year-old human. Things happen in between. Fun may or may not be one of those things. Maturity may or may not be one of those things.
Testing early and often doesn't just work out bugs. The creators start to see what, in this growing new reality, is enjoyable. The social element? Running? Painting? Climbing? Problem solving? We hope that by the time it ships, this little life is, at the very least, functional.
That fun process sometimes gets a few tries. Super Mario 3D Land Director Koichi Hayashida recently said that even across Nintendo's games, they've added to the pot, taken some away, and considered what elements to keep and why.
Hayashida said, "What you have to do is make an investigation at every new stage and say, 'Okay, which of these elements is working well for us, and which of them do we need to think about minimizing, or removing entirely?'" He's trying on these mechanics, but all that talk requires crunch and craft to mature. Within the process, or even between projects, there isn't much time for talk. Studying new and glorious descriptions of fun is laudable, but not exactly a priority.
We already have a vocabulary. We use games to talk about games, especially where those are emblematic of a certain type of experience. That's the lingua franca. Like certain words in Sanskrit poems, which translate to pages of English description, naming certain games condenses hours of detailed, unique memories.
I recently overheard during a games critique: "Ditch the broken Portal puzzles and stick with your 3D VVVVVV mechanics" among dozens of constructive quips that spoke in the shorthand on tap: our mosaic cant of games. All calling to mind experiences we've got in common, before said team hunkered down for the long, hemorrhoid-inducing crunch to include two, maybe three of the dozens of suggestions floated.
Cliff Bleszinski was on fire with these ludic linguistics in this interview with Brandon Sheffield. Easily a dozen quips like, "I would've loved it in Skyrim if my fiancee could have left a treasure in a chest in my house while she was playing, Animal Crossing-style. You know, Fable with the orbs in the world, that's where we're all going, right?"
That sentence is going to mean fuck-all to a lot of gamers, let alone shambling great-grandmas (he's talking about this). To the right audience, there's a depth of meaning. But that language of games isn't the same as an elastic alphabet. It's a rough-hewn, hodgepodge collection of hieroglyphs. Finished, well-peddled games form the brunt of our symbolic language. And the effort required even to copy known hieroglyphic passages is staggering. Equivalent to carving into solid stone, with tools that'll seem antiquated and ball-busting in a generation or two.
Graduating from referential hieroglyphs to a specific alphabet might be a seductive adventure for some, but a unified language is a major undertaking. Beyond the question of whether anyone would give a shit (we have, after all, spent thousands of hours learning our various shorthands) well... whose work -- of the dozens (probably hundreds) of academics and devs who've contributed -- do you favor?
Ernest Adams, Richard Bartle, Jesper Juul, Nick Yee, Steve Swink, Janet Murray, Koster, Bogost, McGonigal, Hunicke, Brathwaite, Schell, etc, etc? Some of them conflict, sometimes clearly and vocally, sometimes subtly and in back channels. An uncareful vocabulary might suddenly get political. Maybe that invites a counter-vocabulary, and then the whole point of the exercise is gone, lost in translation.