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Fun is Boring


July 5, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Let's say you're undaunted. Neat (the experiment is underway anyway). The very first thing to do, before committing your views, prognostications, and formulas on "fun" to print, is to read Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Seriously. It costs 15 dollars, most days, on Amazon. That's 20 bucks, with shipping. You can afford that, if only to keep ten thousand game developers from crying out in terror, then suddenly closing their browsers. It's an easy book that mixes lay psychology with this curious craft (and the comics are adorable).

Pulling on some of Nicole Lazzaro's research, Raph expands our vocabulary past fun. For instance, Lazzaro is credited with highlighting cross-cultural terms for social engagement. Shadenfreude, the unpronounceable German word for the glee of watching other people fail. Fiero, a fiery expression of achievement. Kvell comes from bragging about a person you mentor, and Naches is the pride of their success.

There are others. Lazzaro herself gets in-depth with a language of fun (easy fun, hard fun, serious fun, people fun, how we swap between -- I'll let her introduce herself in the video link above). Raph takes a wide swath of fun, for designers and players, psychologically and biologically.

Spoiler alert! Raph calls the highest form of fun Delight -- the learning that comes from matching new patterns, and improving ourselves in the most basic of ways. That learning is deeply rooted in our physiology, in human evolution, and "the only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower with games."

It hearkens to that old axiom: easy to learn, hard to master. The book spawned the popularity of some of the most delicious ideas in game design today. If you love games, then you're doing yourself a disservice by avoiding Theory of Fun.

Flow is oft-brandished by theoretical fun seekers. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, or even the easily-read Finding Flow, are primary sources here. If you're not into that, Gamasutra has one or two pieces on Flow worth perusing.

Jane McGonigal gives one of the better summaries on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work, in her second chapter of Reality is Broken. Near the end of the chapter, she briefly summarizes neurochemicals likely at play when we're experiencing the compelling in games, from adrenalin to oxytocin. This seems a hugely underrepresented path to mapping a lot of what we really mean by "fun". I recommend McGonigal's book, if only because it's the first about games to have hit the NYT Bestseller list. Reality is Broken was a first look at design for an awful lot of non-games folk.

It'd be hard to define fun and ignore the intended delivery mechanism. To that end, Ian Bogost's Videogames are a Mess works as an outline to major debates surrounding games (his Persuasive Games being essential to defining them), and Steve Swink's bubbly Game Feel piece is worth a look (for, the least of which, the balding fat man imagery). Hunicke's MDA [pdf link] is popular, Richard Bartle's Players Who Suit MUDs is a classic read, and Nick Yee's Daedalus is in some places a great extension of Bartle, and in all other parts great original work.

Look long enough at any one of these authors, and you'll get pointed toward dozens of smart pieces on fun and games. If your goal is to contribute, then show us where you fit. Don't spray and pray vapid semantics. Arguing about fun is like bombing for peace. At least try to avoid collateral damage. Better, contextualize your ideas and join the conversation. Better still, make your own new hieroglyph. Words on a page are rarely as good an illustration of fun as, say, an actual fucking game.

The present language of fun isn't just symbolic, it's incomplete. That we use games to talk about games -- whether it's bags upon bags of person-shaped figurines and multicolor plastic tokens, all poached from older games, or a "to play" pile of Xbox shooters -- the present history of titles simply doesn't represent a full language. We're not there yet. The nature of experience is too big, our patchwork language too small.


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