What 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 about.
When 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?
When 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 genetic preferences.
It 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.
Games 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.
"Anyone who thinks there is a difference between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either."
- Marshall McLuhan, Communications Theorist
The 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.
But 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.
"We must do a few things to survive. Everything else is entertainment."
- Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence expert, at GDC lecture March 24 2001
Consider 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.
Aagh 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.
Bohg 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 great tan.
But 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