Roughly a week ago, I wrote a piece called I Like Games, which discussed my preference for games with set mechanics, games that are fundamentally fun. Some people agreed, some didn't, but it seemed like a topic worth exploring, so I gathered up a group of the best Australian academics writing about video games to ask them a simple question: do video games need to be fun?
Joining me in this discussion is...
James O'Connor: Senior Writer for HYPER Magazine and a PhD Candidate writing about video game narrative. Ben Abraham: Editor of Critical Distance and a PhD Candidate focusing on video game criticism and blogging. Adam Ruch: Kotaku contributor and a PhD Candidate also writing about video games. Adrian Forest: Post-grad student focusing on the research of video game spaces. Brendan Keogh: Edge, HYPER and Kill Screen Mag contributor. Dan Golding: HYPER columnist and PhD candidate writing about video games.
MARK: As I mentioned in my article I Like Games, it’s always been my opinion that, while it’s dangerous to start throwing around hard and fast definitions of what should and shouldn’t be a video game, a game is defined by its mechanics. Mechanics are what makes a game rewarding. Narrative, character development, plot, arcs – that which is found in more traditional media – is important, but on a fundamental level the mechanics of a video game should be engaging, rewarding and fun.
I used the example of Skate, where the Flick-it controls would most likely be fun in absolutely any context, not just as part of a skateboarding simulator. The other easy example is games like Tetris – fully abstract games that depend on mechanics alone. I love the extraneous rewards built around games – cut-scenes, story, etc – they often provide context and work as a reward in video games, but I truly believe that a game, based purely on its mechanics, should be fun.
James, you mentioned to me before that you disagreed with this – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
JAMES: I have long taken issue with the word 'fun' in relation to video games. Plenty of games are fantastic fun, and some games really do need to be fun to succeed (see: Mario, sports games, fighters), but the belief that a video game must be fun is problematic. 'Fun' is a bit of a nebulous term, I suppose, but some of my favourite video game experiences haven't been much fun. Getting hit by a nuke in CoD4? Not fun. Running around the Normandy, talking to ship mates? Not strictly fun, either. Skulking around in Silent Hill? Hell, that's not fun at all. But I sure enjoy these games, because good times and fun aren’t always connected.
On a fundamental level I'm opposed to saying that a video game must be something in particular, as I've long felt that pigeon-holing can stifle creative thought. Video games should just be whatever they are, if they work, and the end goal for the interaction between the player and the game need not tick a series of boxes that could be appropriated across the entire medium.
BEN: So I was a latecomer to this conversation and having missed most of what it was about I had to go re-read Mark's piece I Like Games, which I quite enjoyed.
So here's the paradox I'm faced with: I enjoyed reading Mark's piece, and I agreed with it... but at the same time I felt like I couldn't agree with the equation "games = mechanics". If that were really the case, when the Skate dev team found they enjoyed the mechanic of the flick-it controls they would have just stopped at that point and said, "YES! We have a game! Now let's ship it and go drink some beers." Which, going off the few developers I know, is exactly what they would liked to have done.
But they didn't stop there. They went and developed that prototype into Skate. Skate is the game. The prototype is not the game, the prototype is (to get tautological) the prototype for the game.
What it seems like to me Mark is that you're arguing for a relative scale of importance for different elements of a game, and on that front I am totally on board with saying 'mechanics' are 'most' important, even if they're not the only thing of importance. Perhaps that steers us away from arguing about definitions of "fun" or "game" but to be honest definitions are slippery beasts, and they're liable to get away from you. Just when you think you know what fun is you suddenly discover the whole wide world of sex and pleasure and have to reincorporate that into your definition (that's just a fun example, there are plenty of others I'm sure).
If we re-read Mark's opening words, I can unfairly focus on a common (Freudian?) slip-of-the-tongue where video games suddenly become 'games' when we're talking about definitions. Video games aren't games, they're video games. You can't take the game or the fiction (art, sound, characters etc) out of them any more than you can take the audio track out of Singin' in the Rain and still call it the same movie.
You can definitely start building a game with a fun mechanic, like in the Skate example. But you can also start with a concept from the real (or fictional) world, and design a system that simulates it. In particular, this opens up that opportunity to simulate things that are not fun, and probably shouldn't be. Things like romance, war, fear, etc. Do we really want to turn the experience of romance into a fun game? Or perhaps worse, a competitive one... Fun is but one motivation/satisfaction that comes from games. Exploration and discovery is another one I'm sure we've all experienced, and what would there be to explore or discover, without the fiction, the representation of the world we're moving around in?
ADRIAN: I think what we're getting towards here is something close to my own position, which is that games aren't necessarily about fun or about mechanics. In fact, my entry point to this discussion was about the definition of what a game is, specifically that I don't think fun or mechanics define what a video game is. And I say that is because that doesn't encompass everything that people call video games, or everything that we're talking about when we talk about video games. I don't think Modern Warfare stops being a game for the nuke level, just because it has no mechanics or challenge to speak of, and isn't exactly fun. If you talked about it to someone else, you'd still call it a game. I think something like Tale of Tales' The Path is still a game, for much the same reasons. Essentially I'm arguing that we should respect the way the term 'video game' is commonly used, which is the exact same reason I insist on spelling it as two words, the most widely-used spelling. Which also lets us get away with calling them 'games' when we're in a video games context, because we're not just referring to some old-fashioned understanding of what a game is or can be.
I think this broad understanding of what a video game is and can be is a fantastic thing, because it supports the kind of diversity we see in video games today, and which hopefully we'll see more of in the future. Video games don't need to have or be any one thing to be worthwhile. They can be lots of things. They can be about experiences, stories, challenges, mechanics, they can have some or all, or maybe even none of those things. And I think this pretty widely understood, which is why the term 'video game' is generally used in such a broad sense. It's only certain voices that want to say that video games can or can't, or should or shouldn't be any one thing. Or that certain things are or aren't video games. I think if you want to say that games have to have mechanics, or fun, you're actually talking about a narrower subset of what's generally called video games, and you need to be more specific. What kind of games need mechanics? Which games need fun?
BRENDAN: Hi all. These are all some really interesting points so far. For me it mostly boils down to the fact that when we talk about video games we often find ourselves talking about a multi-layered beast with some kind of fundamental, mechanical core and an interchangeable, representational surface of sounds and visuals. But really, it isn't that simple. A video game's fictional, audiovisual bits cannot be separated from its mechanics or rule-systems. Try to talk about the rules of Space Invaders without talking about aliens and spaceships, the rules of Grand Theft Auto without talking about police and crime, or the rules of Super Mario Brothers without coins and monsters and spikes. When we play a videogame, any video game, we aren't separating the two at all, and the video game's rules only make sense in the fictional world that the video game projects.
Which is why I agree with Adam that video games are not games. Or to be more specific, they aren't just digital versions of non-digital games. Video games are not simply about 'winning' or 'mastery'. They can be about these things, but more broadly they are about participation and involvement. This is why linear video games such as Modern Warfare 2 and Heavy Rain can sometimes be as meaningful and memorable as more emergent games like Minecraft or Far Cry 2. Not because you, the player, are 'in charge' but because you have an important role to play within the videogame's fictional world and it is so fun to just lift your legs and let the current of the video game wash you away. Such an experience can't be explained simply by talking about mechanics and mastery, but only by understanding video games as these hybrid beasts of mechanics and fiction, video game and player.
DAN: Academics, it must be said, have a tendency to pull towards large questions. Ask them how parliament makes laws and very quickly you'll find they are discussing the problems of political legitimacy and the ethics of power. It's therefore no surprise that having asked us whether a videogame should be fun, we've rather quickly pulled towards the broader question of 'what is a videogame?'.
The problem is, the question of 'what is a videogame?' is actually the least interesting question you can ask about videogames. This is partly because, as others have said, you'll often end up with unworkable definitions. Tetris, Wii Fit, Farmville, Modern Warfare: these things have very little to do with one another, and share very few characteristics. The videogame is a messy, weird, and barely definable media form. It exists in many iterations and forms, and is often only brought together as a single medium because of happy coincidence and common usage of the identifying term. This is one of the reasons that I use the compound 'videogame' instead of the separate 'video game' - this new media form requires a new word, and 'videogame', like 'blacklist' or 'redhead', implicitly indicates a new definition. Just like a redhead is not someone with a red head, videogames are not simply video games, as Brendan has argued so well.
So instead of asking what videogames are, it is far more interesting to ask 'what can we do with videogames?' And of course, as those who have already responded, and as my examples illustrate, we can do many things with videogames. We can measure our weight. We can arrange blocks within a time limit. We can shoot terrorists, or play at farming with our Facebook friends. Must all of these activities be predicated on the basis that they are 'fun'? Of course not.
I couldn't agree with Adrian more when he says that 'It's only certain voices that want to say that video games can or can't, or should or shouldn't be any one thing.' Arguing what videogames should be is a self-defeating exercise, as creators will continue to explore and find new things to do with the medium. You might be able to define the videogame and its uses eloquently and intelligently, but it is a bit like arguing eloquently and passionately that a car will never run out of petrol. Your argument might seem persuasive and reasonable, but when it comes down to it, you'll still be stranded in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank of petrol.
What do you guys think? Do video games need to be fun? Is the word 'fun' even relevant? Let us know in the comments below.