Let’s talk about fun for a bit. When you think of “fun” you probably think of something that makes you feel positive, happy, makes you smile, and perhaps “twinkle” a bit. Fun is a good time. Perhaps we have fun with friends or family, usually when we play, joke around, or watch a movie. For the longest time, we have used “fun” as the base descriptor for how the player feels about a game they have played.
But is having “fun” the only way to play a game? Should it be? There are plenty of arguments in favor of making games fun, and generally those are the types of games that sell the most. However, there are plenty of experiences out there that games can provide, that one generally don’t describe as “fun”. So perhaps we should move past fun as the baseline expectation of games.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Uncharted 4 Co-director Neil Druckmann talked about why they stopped using “fun” in their focus tests for the game.
“Fun” is such an interesting word. We took it off our focus tests. It was just a weird word that people were getting hung up on. How do you rate the dive sequence at the beginning of Uncharted 4? Is that fun? There’s no real challenge. There is a perceived threat, where they talk about oxygen, but that’s just weird narrative fluff. You can’t really run out of oxygen.
How did they respond to people getting hung up on this word?
It used to be, “How fun did you find this level?” Now it says, “Overall, how would you rate this level?” And one is “did not like” and five is “liked a lot.”
It becomes less about, “Did I have fun? Did I have an interesting challenge?” and more about, “Did I like it?” And I hope people interpret that as, “Was I engaged? Would I recommend it?”
All of a sudden the focus-test scores improved dramatically.
So when people stopped thinking of the game in terms of “fun” they started actually enjoying the game more? How is that possible? It is possible because “fun” isn’t the only emotion that games can convey. They can do a lot of things.
Take the game Liyla and the Shadows of War we talked about recently. That game in no way can be called “fun”. However, the game was quite engaging in the sadness and empathy for the people of the Gaza Strip it caused me to feel.
Another game is Train designed by Brenda Romero. Experiences with the game have shown that people at first enjoyed filling their boxcars and moving them down the line. But as the game progressed and people learned the true meaning of the game, those feelings of fun were replaced with betrayal and regret. But that didn’t lessen the experience for anyone playing. It added to their engagement with it.
Even many horror games cannot really be considered fun, even though those playing them enjoy the experience afterward.
So why do designers and gamers get hung up on “fun” being the default emotion to describe a gaming experience? Perhaps it has to do partly with the two terms “game” and “play” that we use. The first is the default title we give the products of this medium, despite the wide variations of experiences provided. The second is the primary way to describe how we interact with those products. Neither are very well equipped for the wide variety products we produce.
While many of these products can easily and accurately be described as “games” we “play”, there are quite a few that don’t meet the dictionary definition of the terms. When we think of movies, books, music, etc, each of those terms are generic terms without meaning outside the description of their medium. Yet, game means more than a name for a medium. Using it is kind of like calling all movies “comedies” or “dramas”.
So perhaps we need to start using a different term for games. One I am particularly fond of is “interactive entertainment”. It can even be shortened as “interactives”. It is a more generic term that more accurately conveys the nature of the medium and the way we experience them. In fact, the term easily replaces “play” as the common term for how we experience them. We “interact” with interactives.
Just think of virtual reality. While that field is primarily the thought child of the games industry, we aren’t using a game related term for it. Why? Because games are not the only thing that can be done with the technology. The same can be said about general gaming technology.
So with this wide array of emotions and experiences that games can convey, perhaps we need to stop using the terms “game”, “fun”, and “play”, except in those strict cases where that is exactly what the designer specifically was going for. We just need to stop using them as general terms for all products of this medium.