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Forget Fun. Is It Engaging?

Fun can have a variety of meanings to many people. Reid explains how fun has a very specific meaning and how its overuse restricts our acceptance of games that can't be described as fun. He offers a new descriptor for all games to strive for.

Reid Kimball

April 4, 2009

3 Min Read

The word "fun" gets used often to describe games and many feel that a game lives and dies by whether or not it is fun.

However, the word fun has a very specific meaning that can't possibly include art games. If it doesn't include art games, then we ought to use another word besides fun when describing the goal of a game.

First, lets go over some quick definitions.

Fun –noun

"A source of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure."

If we take the root of enjoyment, we get enjoy.

Enjoy -verb

"To experience with joy; take pleasure in."

If we're going to be strict with definitions, it will be a tough sell to say an art game, like Passage is fun, that is, it provides us with a joyful experience that we take pleasure in. Instead, I found it to be cathartic (the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, esp. through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.) and profoundly introspective experience.

In the past I’ve had difficulty justifying art games because it has been drilled into my head by reviewers, educators and colleagues that the only purpose of a game is to be fun. If that is true, more artful games that deal with rather painful adult themes cannot exist in this industry.

Yet, I believe games that deal with more adult themes, even painful ones can and should exist. But first we have to agree that fun is not the root purpose of games, but instead a distinct flavor of a type of quality that all games share; which is the quality of being compelling, engaging or engrossing (all used interchangeably).

Compelling –adjective

"Having a powerful and irresistible effect; requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect: a man of compelling integrity; a compelling drama"

Or... a compelling game.

Engaging/Engrossing –adjective

"Fully occupying the mind or attention; absorbing: I'm reading the most engrossing book."

Or... I'm playing the most engrossing game.

Take note of the words, "Fully occupying the mind or attention." What else does that remind you of? Flow, perhaps? Nearly all games have their foundation derived from the concept of flow. We achieve a state of flow when we set our own internal goals, receive feedback on how we are doing and achieve personal growth through the pursuit of those goals. Upon completion, we move on to more difficult goals and thus repeat the cycle, maintaining flow.

If we agree that all games have this concept of flow, and when implemented skillfully can induce the state of being engrossed within the experience or compelled to experience it, then we can also agree that both fun and serious adult themed games can coexist. Fun is one type of experience that can engross a player, while catharsis is another type of experience that can engross a player.  

The next time you think to say that all games must be fun or hear someone else make that claim, try stating instead that games must be compelling or engaging. By saying that, you include all games that can be fun or cathartic. Eventually, this will broaden our acceptance of  which types of games can be created. We'll get to a point where a designer can make a game about less pleasant aspects of the human condition without others dismissing it as a game because it's not "fun". The key question will not be, “Is it fun?” but “Is it engaging?”

Also posted on my blog Reiding...

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