Saturday, 1 August 2015

What is Fun?

"Fun" is a three letter word that I have seen create contention in all sorts of discussion. Particularly discussion of games, both tabletop and digital. What is fun? According to a running gag on the videogames section of a certain imageboard, "fun is a buzzword for when you can't actually think of any reasons why a game is good." If you talk about utilising all the tools in a competitive game available to win, someone may say that you're prioritising victory over fun. There's a saying that any game is fun with friends. Are these accurate statements? Can we quantify this fun? I want to unpack this word in relation to games.

If the word fun seems ambiguous, let's unpack the other word first: what does the word game mean? Reading from the nearest dictionary to me, the Merriam Webster, these are the most pertinent definitions:
  1. Amusement, Diversion
  2. Sport, fun
  3. Scheme, project
  4. A line of work; profession
  5. Contest 
There's some interesting things going on with this dictionary's explanations. If we presented the Merriam Webster dictionary to those utterly opposed to ESPN2 broadcasting games like Heroes of the Storm, perhaps people would view professional video game play with more respect. The fourth option means I can make creative wordplay like describe someone's ability as their "game game". However, we've gotten nowhere with a dictionary that claims games and fun are in fact the same word.Let's take a gander at's definitions instead.
  1. an amusement or pastime
  2. the material or equipment used in playing certain games
  3. a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.
  4.  a single occasion of such an activity, or a definite portion of one
  5.  the number of points required to win a game
  6.  the score at a particular stage in a game
  7. a particular manner or style of playing a game
    I like definition three here. Combined with Merriam's first and third, it seems like games are a planned activity with an arbitrary set of restrictions to provide amusement.

    However, we know that games are capable of more than a simple state of amusement. There are games that have shocked, scared, angered and saddened people for a plethora of reasons. Not just videogames either. I've seen people with a sense of fear as they flip over a card in Red November. I've seen people miserable at the table after realising they won't be able to complete a family set in Elysium. I can't even count the number of times I've heard raised voices after another player cut off someone's plans in a myriad of games. So I would describe a game as such:
    A planned activity with a set of arbitrary limitations and rules in order to create meaning or emotional response.
    I'm not a game designer. I'm someone who likes to see how stuff works and consume media. It seems appropriate to look at a definition from someone who is then. Someone with a lot of experience and industry knowledge. Someone like Chris Crawford, designer of a strategy game for early Apple and Amiga computers called Balance of Power. Why him? Because he founded the Game Developers Conference. While he left the industry in 1992 after a powerful final speech, there's a fascinating piece about him that was written two years ago available here. One of the parts of the piece that grabbed me is his frequent talk of the verbs of videogames. Given that a game is about performing a task, I think it's fitting to say that games are themselves a verb.

    What's a verb then, eh? Merriam Webster gives us an almost purely linguistic definition. does while also providing the more primary school textbook description. That's the part I want.
    1. any member of a class of words that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

    There's a key word I want to focus on here. State. My primary school used the word being. Either way, a word related to what something is. If we say that games themselves are verbs, and a verb is an indicator of existence, then we can describe a game as thus:
    A planned activity with a set of arbitrary limitations and rules in order to allow those involved to convey their current state.
    Aha! This is something we can start to quantify! A game isn't just something that lets you amuse yourself, it's something that lets you say who you are! When you most feel engrossed in a game is when you're operating in a way that matches who you are, or your desires. I'm saying that how much fun you're having in a game is how well you can express yourself.

    This is why people enjoy different things. They're fundamentally unique and thus want to show who they are in different ways. I'm analytical yet lazy. This comes through in how I express myself in games. I most enjoy competition when I can quickly grasp the rules and devise an efficient low-resistance path to victory. This means in Street Fighter 2 I play Chun-Li, who eschews combos in favour of controlling space with fireballs and stored supers mixed in with a threat of a throw that deals a third of your life. In The King of Fighters 13 I always kept Kula on a team because she had long reaching fast B moves for footsies, a fairly good antiair normal and anti-fireball options. In Guilty Gear I had the most fun when I could ignore elaborate setups or difficult movement in favour of simply throwing a Nuke, FRCing it then steadily swatting the opponent with Justice's ridiculous normals and Michael Sword. In 7 Wonders I often focus on owning resources so I can easily afford expensive Blue cards while gaining money to take advantage of a strong leader or the Gamblers' Guild. Conversely I play Race and Roll For the Galaxy far more aggressively as I feel that simply ending the game before anyone's VP-manufacturing systems are in place.

    But what about games that aren't purely competitive? I think that a certain scene at the end of Final Fantasy 7's first disc impacted so many people was because they were at an age where they were starting to actually understand what loss means. They saw their own experiences in what they were playing. People enjoyed the gut-punch of Spec Ops: The Line because it reflected their own disgust with the plethora of xenophobic modern wartime shooters. People hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 because it viewed their hours upon hours of self expression with nothing but contempt.

    Even sentiments like "play for fun, not to win" work if we assume that fun = self expression. They're people who have their own fixed idea of what constitutes a competition, and see certain playstyles as fundamentally opposed to their own. Thus, what you're doing isn't merely not fun, it is viewed by them as not meeting their definition of a victory at all.
    Why is everything fun with friends? Because those are people you are comfortable with showing more of yourself with. You're communicating who you are both through the game and through verbal communication! You're doing even more self expression than you would with people you aren't directly talking to.
    So finally, if someone says that they like a game because "it's fun" but can't elaborate further, it probably means they see themselves in the game but don't know exactly how. Ask them questions about themselves. Their views. Their interests. They might take a deeper look inside and learn something about themselves they didn't know before. Maybe you will too.
POSTHUMOUS EDIT: After linking this a few places, anotak, lead designer for the Street Fighter 4 Remix mod linked me this. It's a nifty book with an interesting little spiel about definitions.


  1. Ffffffffff, Pichy, you are missing the point of Blaugust by actually writing something REALLY GOOD.

  2. I am not sure what it says about me that I play El Fuerte, the King and the Boot, but I'm pretty sure that I'm okay with it.

    1. "As long as one enjoys" is the best I can take from this blog.

  3. Excellent post, Pichy. I think this is why I love gaming so much and identify as a "gamer" even though I don't actually play tons of games.