Do Video Games Need To Be Fun?

Do Video Games Need To Be Fun?

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).

ADAM: So, firstly a big tick of approval for James’ opening on fun, so I’ll avoid repeating what he’s said about that word. I might expand on some of what Ben’s touched on though.

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.


    • I don’t think they have to be fun necessarily, but I do think they need to enjoyable. And there’s a big difference between those two terms.

      • Games do not need to be enjoyable in order to be fun. Games need to be engaging, in that they tell whatever story they have well. What makes games engaging is when there is no discrepancy between what the gameplay tells us and what the rest of the game tells us. CoD may want to tell me I’m a soldier, but I’m pretty sure no soldier in the world does what you can do in that game. Likewise, Greek Torture is an incredibly boring game, but it effectively tells EXACTLY what greek torture is like, only through its gameplay/mechanics.

    • I didn’t have a sense of achievement while playing the Endless Forest yet it’s still a game, and I still thought it was incredibly good.

  • Semi-related (but not really) rant incoming.

    As a general thing, I think that a lot of people – and this isn’t isolated to games, but it’s one area I notice it a lot more – need to lighten up.

    Specifically, games are entertainment. You play them to be entertained. Entertainment value can be related to quality, but quality is in no way an indication of how well entertained you will be by a game. And what is entertaining for other people is not necessarily what is entertaining for you.

    We all get so hung up on review scores and oh this game over here is shit because it has bad graphics and this next game is awesome because the gameplay is so refined and stuff, and I think we tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Bad games can be fun. Fun games can be bad. Not everyone will agree with your opinion. Not everyone finds fun what you find fun. Mechanics might make a game fun for you. Story might. Does it matter if what you enjoy is different to what someone else enjoys? Is your opinion on a game somehow less valid because it’s not the same as other people’s? No. You just enjoy different things.

    And this is a two-way street. There’s nothing wrong with other people not finding what you enjoy to be entertaining. This doesn’t mean that their opinion is invalid any more than it would mean yours is. Not liking their games does not mean those games are bad. Don’t tie so much of your self-esteem into whether what you like is what everyone else likes, and remember not to knock down other people for the same reasons.

    • Except you’re wrong. Games are not ONLY entertainment. Games are also art. And with art we have to look beyond the concept of “fun” and “enjoyable”, in fact games have to grow up and stop being so infantile. Not all of them, of course, but certainly more of them. Games, just as film in the 20’s, can’t be expected to remain mindless entertainment forever, they are turning into expressive media. Because art is subjective, any game has the potential to be art. But as with every art form, a form of objective curation would be welcome.

      If we decide on this curation, we should look at what makes games a unique form of expression. In my opinion this is gameplay, mechanics, rules, whatever you want to call it. Not the 3D art, not the rolling soundscape, but the gameplay is the integral form of artistic expression.

      When we admit this, we can say that whatever the game tells through its gameplay, is in necessity its message and its story. If that gameplay is incredibly boring, but tells what it needs to tell perfectly, it is a good game. Play the Graveyard.

  • Very interesting discussion.

    I find myself agreeing more with Adam and Brendan’s contention that while fiction can’t be separated from mechanics, games aren’t (and shouldn’t be) just digital representations of familiar ‘fun’ game concepts. They can be – and that’s all well and good – but I find myself far more engaged by mechanics that are sheathed in a fiction or setting that does something more than entertain. The power of the medium lies in the intersection between its interactivity and the potential narratives (ludo or otherwise) that can arise from this.

    As to the (related? tangential?) question of ‘what is a video game’, I’m not going to tempt ridicule by trying to even approach it, except to say that I veer more towards Dan’s ‘separate and new’ concept of the ‘videogame’, as opposed to ‘video game’. The former (to me) distances the term, rightfully, from traditional entertainment media and provides a more useful platform from which to argue that ‘videogames’ can be more than just mindless fun.

    For an artform still trying to prove – perhaps futilely, or needlessly – that it can be mature and even emotionally challenging, I think doing away with the conceptual connection to traditional games is a better move.

        • Same, I stopped playing shortly after the BC expansion because it felt like I was logging in to do things I had to do to keep up.

          The game has improved that element a lot since Cataclysm and cut back the unpleasent elements of ginding. With a broader range of activities it’s a far more enjoyable game to play now than it was in vanilla.

        • This is exactly why I stopped playing World of Warcraft. I used to really enjoy the game; my very first character was a night elf priest and running around Teldrassil for the first time completing the simplest of quests… that was fun, I really enjoyed it. As time went on (and the more characters I started to roll) it got repetitive and boring. Enter into the raiding environment and you have no choice but to be sucked into the “WoW is a second job” phase, if you want to be included as a top raider.

          I’ve returned every time Blizzard released a new expansion (well done on getting more money out of me, guys, I applaud you) but quickly after reaching the level caps and completing the content for one of my characters, it no longer remains fun to repeat the process again. With each expansion pack making all the gear I earned obsolete rather quickly by quest greens/blues and world drops, I fail to see much need to go get the next “high end” gear again because I know Blizzard will just quickly make it useless in the next expansion. And that’s not fun, either.

          I’m sure I’ll probably be back when the next expansion comes out… again. (lol hai Blizz)

    • The kids who spawn kill and headshot me into oblivion every time I try to play certainly sound like they’re having fun at the end of every round of CoD.

      And, you know, I feel happy I’ve contributed to their fun, I’ve assisted by being a bullet pinata.

      And that’s how I’ve stopped going insane while using Xbox Live.

      • The truth is, is that new, unpredictable, and skillful games tend to be fun. Games where you can get better by putting time into it, but still be better than someone else because of your ability is always nice. A game where intelligence can improve your game is always nice. But what seems to always be great Is when games have twists and turns, and have unique features. I hope to one day see an MMO first person shooter, a mix of realistic and imaginary, and randomized features that keep the game new and surprising, as well as the route for those who want to take the time to customize for their own personal touch. That would be an amazing game.

  • I don’t feel like “fun” is the correct word. Video games don’t necessarily have to be fun, I think a better description would be that a game is enjoyable or satisfying. I wouldn’t say that I had fun playing Limbo, but damn that was an enjoyable and satisfying game, and I regard it a good deal higher than I would a game which has it’s sole intent based in fun.

    • This is how I tend to feel.
      I’ve played various artsy indy games that have often been about invoking emotions that aren’t what I’d describe as fun. But they’ve certainly provided quite an experience.

      Even playing Myst way back in the day, I didn’t find that fun exactly, but I always walked away wanting more.

  • You know what, when you asked a little while ago about movies that we are watching (tell us dammit or whatever?), I wrote two entries. It was only when I looked back at them, I seriously didn’t ever make the connection previously, that both movies were about suicide. This is by no means a fun topic, and both movies covered them from two very different angles, but both told a story, a bloody interesting one and I am glad to have watched them both.

    I don’t specifically want to play a game based on this subject but I must acknowledge that while it was not fun, I was very interested in these stories and they were very engaging. When i consider a video game, I want it to be an engaging experience, where you feel a connection to the fictional world, where you are drawn into the story. Sure the game mechanics and other features have to make it an enjoyable experience, but ‘fun’ is not something it has to be.

    I look at heavy rain, this was an interesting story but apart from the press X to Jason part, it was not really fun, and it was a good game.

    And ol faithful Trials HD. During the first 6 months of playing this game, my heart rate was never so elevated and I have never attempted to break a controller in my bare hands… It was not so much fun as it was rewarding for reaching your goals. That satisfaction was what kept me coming back…

  • Fun is subjective. Everyone in this article seems to be referring to fun and character movement in world (running, jumping, shooting, skating etc) as the same thing and story, visuals, sound etc as addons. It doesn’t work like that.

    I find a good story with compelling characters fun to read, watch or hear about. I find certain things fun to look at as they are pleasing on the eyes. I find certain sounds to be fun and enjoyable to listen to.

    Video games encompass such a large range of things and can have all of those (nice visuals, good story, good soundtrack, fun mechanics), some of them or none at all.

    A game with terrible mechanics but a great story can be considered fun by some and horrible by others. Similarly a game with great mechanics but a terrible story may be fun to some and horrible to others.

    It’s silly to try and classify something based on something that’s subjective.
    I might find the story fun but you don’t.
    You might find the mechanics great but I hate them. Just play what you think will give you the most enjoyment. The great thing about gaming is that there’s something out there for everybody.

  • In my review of Child of Eden, I gave it a perfect score, because to me it’s the perfect video game.

    It isn’t trying to be a film you interact with, or a novel come to life, or a boardgame you play on your computer – it’s a pure video game, in that it could have only existed on a modern console made by programmers and 3D artists and designers.

    Moreover, and I think because of it’s video game-ness, it’s so much fun. I seriously have not had that much fun playing a game in years. It was simply unadulterated joy.

  • I think while story, visuals, sound and atmosphere are important, the underlying gameplay is what essentailly makes a game fun. I bought CoD: World at War the other week and inititially I was really enjoying it. The atmosphere and tone of the game was spot on and the gun-play was fun (although the gun-sounds are terrible), but it started to wear on me quickly. All these factors slowly lost their shine and I started to feel bored with it. Initally there’s a thrill shooting stuff up, but then as you step into a routine made dull by repetitive gun-fights and a story that’s hard to engage with. I actually don’t mind CoD games; the single player sections are generalyl well directed as a rollercoaster ride with pew pew pew, but I found WAW became too flat an less fun. Take Bulletstorm for example – it’s got a throwaway plot and an incredibly annoying cast, yet critics loved the gameplay.

  • Wow great article. I kept waiting for someone to make a distinction between fun and entertaining. To me having fun equates to happiness or joy.

    But people can be entertained by something that makes them happy, horrified, awed, saddened, aroused, intrigued, challenged, angry and a dozen other emotions. Games don’t have to be fun, but to represent any level of quality they have to entertain. And entertainment doesn’t always come from mechanics alone.

    • This is most of what I wanted to say above, yeah… just in less words 🙂

      I like being ‘entertained’, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘fun’, or have ‘fun’ mechanics. Entertainment is just as often the result of a brilliant story or great character interaction, as it is from ‘fun’ gameplay.

  • desiring some ‘fun’ after a series of not-so-fun games, Mark’s earlier article made me head to the stores and pick up Skate 3, for 15 bucks. Cheers, the game is a hoot.

    It’s something I can play for twenty minutes here and there, in front of my girlfriend (I’m still trying to undo the damage I did to gamings’ reputation by showing her Mortal Kombat – idiot!). I don’t need to crank the sound, dim the lights and get into the ‘atmosphere’, I just start flicking the sticks and giggle when I face-plant.

    The best thing is that because I basically dress like a teenage skate bum, I’ve made a character that looks so uncannily like me that I’ve given up on the hall of meat – it’s just too painful.

    While I love the ‘experience’ games as well, it was totally refreshing to play a simple game like Skate. In conclusion, fun is fun.

  • Different strokes…
    I’ve played many a games and some I keep going back to were the simpler ones I guess. Castle Crashers is a great example. Simple, funny, fun. Maybe I’m just a simpleton

  • This is something that I often argue about with my friends.

    I don’t think games have to be fun. What games need to be is engaging. Whether it’s the mechanics or narrative a videogame has to reach out and engage the player, such as with linear games like CoD4, or allow the player to engage with it, which is more open world non-linear games like Minecraft.

    A game I always use as an example in this argument is Amnesia. There is nothing about hiding in dark corner quietly sobbing to your self whilst some unspeakable horror stands within arms reach and searches the air for your scent that I would define as fun. That game was terrifying and I couldn’t stand to play it for more than 15 minutes at a time. But I kept coming back. Despite being only able to stand it for short periods of time something about that game just kept drawing me back.

    When a videogame stops being fun it is still a videogame.

    When a videogame stops engaging with the player it becomes a movie.

  • I agree with the people mentioning ‘entertaining’ as opposed to ‘fun’. Also ‘recreation’ because games are a more active form of entertainment than say, movies.
    I wouldn’t necessarily say games need to be fun, but I really think they need to be enjoyable.
    And not frustrating. I think this is a more important quality of a great game.

    • I guess you can be entertained without having fun.

      Some might find reading emails or codex entries in games fascinating, because they add to the story, but it’s not ‘fun’ in the traditional sense…

      • I think you can’t separate the two. If you find a game entertaining, you must find it fun and vice versa. And no developer in the history of games has ever sat down around a table with their team and thought “Right, let’s make a game that is no fun at all” Every games is designed to be entertaining and fun.

        Do games need to be fun? I think the question is kinda pointless. It’s jut not possible to design a game that is no fun to anyone.

  • While I hate comparing games to movies, I see saying “all games need to be fun” as being like saying “all movies need to be comedies”. Dramas have their place in the movies and games that are not fun but try and deliver a message also have their place…you may not want to play them but I don’t want to go to a Victorian drama movie.

  • Games need not even be entertaining.

    Like all forms of art, it is enough that they engage and involve.

    Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an aesthetically disturbing painting. It twists expectations of form and is unpleasant to look upon. Yet it has merit since it manages to evoke these unpleasant emotions.

    I’d argue that the iOS title Dreamscape is not fun. It’s mechanics force laborious back tracking and the story (revealed over time through fragments of memory) almost exclusively speaks in the language of betrayal and emotional abuse. It isn’t fun and I’ll never play it again – is it an unworthy game despite its inherent unpleasantness of play? I’d suggest not, it left me more affected than any other iOS title I can mention. No matter how bored I was with what was happening on screen, I felt compelled to finish it. It had engaged me in a way that other ‘enjoyable’ or ‘fun’ titles had failed to do.

    I’ll always remember Dreamscape. It was an affecting journey and for all its perceived failings it still succeeds as a videogame.

  • The problem here is trying to give the word “fun” a precise definition, that’s where we’re going wrong I think.

    For me, skulking around in the dark waiting for something to pop out and kill me in Dead Space is intense. I’m nervous and very very twitchy but in the context of that game, it’s fun.

    Running through tight alleyways, gun at the ready waiting for an enemy to pop around the corner so I can blast him right between the eyes in CoD is exciting and yes, it’s fun.

    Getting that star at the end of the level after bouncing and flying and running my way around a technicolour dreamland in Super Mario Galaxy fills me with a sense of achievement and it’s fun.

    If the game’s mechanics work, if the graphics style suits and if there is the added but not necessary bonus of an amazing story then it doesn’t matter if it’s blasting aliens, collecting coins, microwaving rats or racing around a track. It will be enjoyable and it will be fun.

  • I think another way to tackle it would be “is fun the only ingredient that makes a great game” Things Trials HD. Starts of fun, but by the end of it you are so insanely frustrated it is only a miracle that your screen is in one piece and the controller has not gone flying out the window. There has to be an end game, or that next horizon that you feel compelled to reach wether for glory or just out of sheer frustration and the need to beat this damned level that just KEEP MAKING YOU AWOIJA!!!!

    Fun may be what gets you started, but is not always what keeps you going.

  • Just quickly touching on the “videogame” name issue, it’s as specific a term as bird. Good videogames engage the player in a digital medium, birds have feathers and lay eggs.
    Hopefully we’ve also come to the point where media is to videogames as animals are to birds, one form of an even larger bracket.
    To try and get involved in specifics is tricky and likely to involve the debate of definitions, which presents its own problems as definitions are created by experience, not reading a dictionary from cover to cover. Even different editions of the same dictionary are worded differently.

    Scemantics, like games, can be fun, but it’s not when you get bogged down in them.

    • “media is to videogames as animals are to birds”

      This is a great analogy. I am going to steal it, if you don’t mind. Usually I stick with ‘books’ as opposed to ‘novels’. Asking “what makes a good videogame?” is more akin to asking “what makes a good book?” than “what makes a good novel?”

  • I’ve been saying for years now that games only need to be compelling.

    If fun is compelling, cool. But there’s other ways to be compelling than just being fun.

  • I’ve read a vast amount of differing opinions on this in this post, and to me it proves the answer that “No, videogames do not need to be ‘fun’.” – They just need to be engaging.

    I enjoy a vast range of different games, and while most of them I consider ‘fun’, not all of the possess that quality. “Engaging” and “satisfying” are two words I might use to explain what it absolutely essential in a videogame.

    To summarise my view, ask yourself this (to the ones who can relate): Was Demon’s Souls fun? Hell NO! But was it a good ‘game’? Hell YES! It was both “engaging” and “satisfying”.

  • Without a player, videogames are nothing, and this is what makes them unique from other media: if you leave a movie running, the narrative continues; if you put a book down, it doesn’t stop being a book. Games *respond*, and so it’s important that the game meets a minimum standard of engagement or else it simply can’t be. Games have to be engaging.

    Engaging is not the same thing as fun. Non-fiction can be engaging, but learning a foreign language, say, isn’t expected to make you whoop for joy. Fun is an easy way to engage people, and there’s not much of a market yet for games that are engaging but not fun, but there’s been plenty of games recently that have dabbled in being engaging while not being fun.

    Moreover, I’d question the idea of ‘fun’ as the be-all and end-all of gaming. It’s very easy to make games more fun via unethical means, like adding gambling mechanics, and by removing anything that’s not immediately fun, like challenge or mastery. That way lies Facebook games, and even Zygna recognises that this isn’t sustainable (as evidenced by their games gradually increasing in complexity).

  • “…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?”

    I would suggest that The Sims does this very successfully. Sure, I personally don’t experience the emotions like terror, fear, happiness and so forth but my characters do (or at least they simulate that they do).

    Hell, that game is entirely based on completing mundane and average tasks: doing the laundry, cooking dinner, exercising, taking care of children, developing romantic relationships… All of the things that most of us would generally roll our eyes about and cringe doing any other day of the week.

    Who wants to go and wash, fold and put away my clothes FOR REALS, just for fun? Come on, don’t all eagerly thrust your hands into the air at once.

  • Considering games as ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ is really just scratching the surface of what is really going on when we play games.

    The thing that makes any activity ‘fun’, is actually learning (when it takes place at an optimum level). When you strip games down to their foundations, they are essentially learning experiences, where the player begins as a novice, plays through the game with a bunch of support and learning systems that scales up with the player’s mastery, and ends with them as an expert at that particular game. This process becomes ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ when the player enters ‘flow’ (challenge increases to match mastery). Educators talk about a similar concept called the Zone of Proximal development (Vygotsky), which supposes that students should be taught at a particular difficulty level. If a task is too easy, the student becomes bored, and learning is unlikely to occur. If the task is too hard, the student gets discouraged and gives up. Of course learning doesn’t take place here either.

    In a nutshell, games are learning experiences. The ones that are the most ‘fun’, are the ones that keep players learning at an optimal level. As a PhD student in education, my mission is to rethink education to teach students the way their favourite games do. If you feel the same way, follow @DamonPThomas on twitter 🙂

  • There’s whole different scales of fun, playing Kinect Sports is fun, but a whole different kind of fun to playing Half Life 2 for instance.

    More important is that games don’t feel like a chore (the original Mass Effect turned into this for me) grinding is not fun. Neither is getting stuck on some bit (this happened a lot to me on Gears of Chore – saps the fun right out of the game)

  • For MP games:

    Winning easily = not fun
    Winning a very close game = fun
    Losing a very close game = not as fun as winning, but still fun
    Losing very badly = not fun

    This is why games like TF2, League of Legends, Starcraft II, SF IV and CSS will always be, in the long run, much more fun than games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and the current flavour of the month FPS shooter. The former games are all meticulously balanced so that players can hit that optimum ‘close game’ threshold that has maximum fun. Meanwhile, running around in Black Ops getting a forty kill streak with the broken knife build is just… boring.

    For SP:

    Games that are broken in their difficulty = not fun
    Games that are very difficult, but beatable = very rewarding fun
    Games that are less difficult, but tell a good story = not as fun as the former, but still fun
    Games that are duke nukem forever = not fun

    I really wish people would stop comparing video games to films. Video games are NOT films, they are a separate medium that has the potential for so much more than a film. It’s gotten to the point where I consider cutscene heavy CGI-fests like Heavy Rain and Metal Gear Solid to barley even be video games. Why bother? Why not just make a movie. There is so much more that you can do with a video game, and so many better ways to tell a story.

    Valve games can tell stories without any cutscenes, Left 4 Dead is a multi-player shooter that tells a better story that most self-indulgent singleplayer games out there. If the GAME is good, people will READ in to the story. If you GAME is bad, people will not care about the story.

    In short, I agree with Mark. The mechanics of the game are everything. If the mechanics are frustrating in anyway, the game ceases to be fun

  • I think they look too much into definition, people can have “fun” doing activities that are tedious or just plain stupid to others, some people have the must fun trying to get all the collectibles of a game, others have fun just punching the hell out of other character or even just watching how the story unfolds.

    Fun is just too subjective, I find fun in the challenge of games and that very challenge that compels me, can make other people hate a game.

    • I appreciate the point you’re making but the question here is can person X find value in a gaming experience they do not consider fun.

      I it can be taken as a given that different people find different things fun but does a game have to be fun for someone or can it provide value irrespective of a person’s subjective enjoyment.

  • Fun can be different to many people. It all depends on what there taste is. Call of duty is fun for people who like the linear, shoot em up style games, Mario is fun for those who like a colorful world based upon missions and memorable characters. It is all to do with taste, people like different things.
    Video games should be fun yes, but often when that is the main focus of a game and a core element it doesn’t really work. Hardcore gamers often aren’t interested in the fun aspect of a game, fun relates to different games and every video game is fun, Its just whether those who are playing it classify it as so.

    Exploration and achievement hunting are part of that fun people like, if they were taken out it may not be as appealing. Game play elements, collectibles, missions, online play and all the different aspects of a game are fun, however most fun focused games turn out to be party games which don’t do well in the long run, appealing to families but not to hardcore gamers.

    I myself find a genre of games fun, but I think its the multiplayer ones that succeed well in being fun. I can’t remember a time where I haven’t laughed because I blue shelled a person in Mario kart just before the finish line. Fun can also be classified as enjoyment.

  • I wrote this last week but I think I was a bit late to the party (be warned, this is a long rant):

    “I play games because they are, in my opinion, the greatest medium at doing what all mediums of ‘entertainment’ attempt to do, which isn’t only to entertain, but to captivate and conjure certain emotions. They can simply do things no other mediums can.
    The problem is, everyone’s realized that games are good at being fun/entertaining, but very few seem to realize that games are also brilliant at summoning feelings other than amusement, and as a result, people only seem to make/accept games that are ‘fun’ in the traditional sense. This is partially the reason why storytelling in games, with a few notable exceptions, is terrible, and why very few games are genuinely emotionally affecting other than the brief feeling of ‘hey, this is pretty fun’ (despite games essentially being films with the added layer of interactivity and films being able to do, emotionally, what games often can’t).
    Some games do it right and realize that games are better at doing stuff than other mediums, and as a result, are fabulously effective. Metal Gear Solid 4 for example – the ‘microwave hall’ is one of my favorite ‘scenes’ in any medium, because by simply repeatedly tapping one button, it manages to surpass emotion that even some of the finest films can bring (you know, desperation and that). Or Red Dead Redemption – if the *minor spoilers* arriving at Mexico scene wasn’t interactive; I doubt it would be anywhere near as memorable. Or games like ICO or Shadow of the Colossus – if you played them with the sound off, and with the pretty visuals sapped, you’d have some relatively boring games (well, maybe not SotC), but add in those elements to the interactivity and you’ve got yourself some of the greatest experiences you can have on modern technology.
    Long story short, games don’t always have to be ‘fun’ to be good (provided they’ve got something else going for them), and should theoretically be the greatest of all mediums in terms of emotive exposition. Games should evoke a broad spectrum of emotions, not just amusement.
    This is also why I hate i-Phone games (coz they’re shallow, basically – this isn’t to say I don’t like games that are only fun, I just don’t find i-Phone games to be all that fun and have nothing else good about them (GENERALIZATION)).”

    To elaborate on that, yeah, as someone else said (was it the article, another poster? Damn I forget it’s all a crazy blur now!), Silent Hill is another brilliant example of games not needing to be fun. It’s mechanics were designed to provoke fear and tension to the player, not a feeling of fun, yet the Silent Hill series (at least the first 2, the only ones I’ve played) is brill. They also show what I was saying about games being better than movies – I’ve seen an abundance of horror movies and never been scared by them but Silent Hill always manages to give me the willies!
    In conclusion, games that are fun are good, so are games that give other emotions.

    • Dang! Just checked the post date. Why am I always so late with my marvelous comments? Missed the party again…

  • I agree with you, Mark, and I disagree with Brendan: although obviously I enjoy elements like the story and setting, I don’t see how they are inextricably linked to mechanics. You can describe Space Invaders as “launching projectiles at amorphous blobs that descend towards your character”, and not have to mention aliens or spaceships. Games of the same genre will often use similar mechanics, but it’s the way they dress them up in their own setting, or combine them with other mechanics, that differentiate them. Bioshock was fundamentally an FPS; it just had a great world, and you happened to be shooting elements from your hands instead of from a traditional weapon.

    But more relevant, “fun” and “entertainment” are different. You can be entertained by a dramatic or disturbing film, but watching it isn’t necessarily “fun”. You get other things out of it. Likewise, playing Amnesia is a stressful experience, but it’s entertaining in some way regardless.

  • Well isn’t games being fun kind of the whole point?

    There are games that want just too much time and waste too much time dicking around like needing endless hours just to unlock simple little things.

    UFC 2010 is my biggest example, just how much virtual training did they think was needed? You have to do hours of training just to get into five minute fights, felt like making a ship in a bottle, I’ve got my work to make me feel that way, and the stat decay?

    I love assassins creed brotherhood but collecting the flags around the city takes endless hours and you just unlock a cape that doesn’t do too much but the same thing a different cape did that also requires you to build all of rome.

    Awards, I look through my games and some games have like 200/1000 points unlocked despite me finisihing the game like 5 times, what do these programers want? I love games but ease it up on unlocking stuff, make games fun!

  • I view video games as new modern art form of escapism. Like other forms of “art” (novels, comics, movies, music, poetry, etc.), video games can be entertaining, educating, promote social discussion or argue for social change, but in the end they are all designed in a way to give the player a “false” sense of accomplishment. I say “false” because accomplishing a feat in a video game is not the same as accomplishing something in real life.

    In any case, I would agree with many of the other posters that video games need to be compelling, but they do not necessarily have to be fun. Besides, fun is subjective: a masochist would would no doubt have a ton of fun playing Battletoads, just as he would love going to a sadistic dentist.

    I think some games use fun like a loss leader at your local supermarket, it role is to get you hooked. All game designs build up a player’s sense of accomplishment, and so the gameplay mechanics, stunning art, compelling story, all help the player to escape reality and give them a sense of power and accomplishment. This goal can be done for good (education) or for bad (farmville) reasons.

    A little known tidbit (outside of the industry), during the heyday of coin arcades, the general rule of thumb for game design was that average player must die and need to continue every 2 minutes. This is why the old 8-bit arcade games kill you so quickly — they were designed like gambling slot machines. Interestingly, today we have a much slower pace of casual games, but those freemium style games follow the same principle, if you want to succeed (in a timely manner) you need to pay.

  • I think video games’ user-centricity compared to other media means we’ve conflated “fun” with “engaging.” Watching Commando is fun, and sort of engaging, but it’s not really meaningful. Watching Schindler’s list is not fun, but it’s engaging and meaningful. When I saw Blue Valentine, I thought to myself “I enjoyed it as much as I possible could,” but enjoyment is not the right word. Engagement is the closest word I can think of, and even that misses the mark. I guess games are inherently more engaging than any other medium if we interpret engaging to mean attention-consuming and more demanding, but they also rarely leave you with the same emotional resonance as an incredible film or song or book.

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