Why do people play video games? Most people would answer, “because they’re fun.” While that is a fairly adequate answer, fun is an imprecise word. Why are games fun? Why are some games more fun than others? Why do some people find certain games fun, while others don’t?
Obviously, these are all very difficult questions to produce answers for. It probably wouldn’t matter so much if games made themselves… but seeing as how we, as game developers, are in the business of creating fun experiences for people, it would behoove us to try to assign some parameters to this ‘fun’ thing.
I’m by no means the first person to think about this – some very intelligent people have actually done most of the hard work for me. What I’m about to share with you is basically a digested and regurgitated version of articles other people have written (I’ll link to those at the end). Almost all the sources I could find agree on a few different categories of fun, which all basically describe the same concepts, but the terminology might vary a bit.
Relaxing/Easy Fun – Accessibility
Characteristics of easy fun in games:
- Simple, intuitive controls
- Wealth of feedback, including unconditional player encouragement
- Simple, non-threatening problem-solving scenarios
- Few UI elements
- Minimal learning curve, with few complicated or confusing gameplay mechanics
- Reliance on cultural/innate knowledge (bombs are bad so avoid them, etc.)
This is the kind of fun that the casual game market focuses on: simple systems whereby players are given control over something, and can succeed or fail depending on their inputs, which are guided and kept very simple. Easy fun is characterized by accessibility: these are the elements of a game that can draw an unpracticed, unmotivated player in and keep them playing. Players are also given constant feedback / encouragement.
An example of a game that makes heavy use of easy fun elements would be Fruit Ninja. The premise is extremely simple and the controls are about as obvious as they could possibly be. There are no complex gameplay mechanics to speak of, and the UI consists of nothing other than a point counter. Feedback is instantaneous, visually exciting, and players are given encouragement in the form of random “criticals” and pomegranates that award a great deal of “star fruit” – even though the player didn’t really do anything exceptional, they are made to feel like they did. This is a great way of avoiding player frustration, and retaining people who aren’t necessarily great at video games.
Easy fun tends to be the least rewarding though, in terms of satisfaction gained. Would you feel better beating your little sister at Chutes and Ladders, or besting a renowned chess player? What this means for the developer, is that if you focus entirely on easy fun elements in your games, response from the gaming community will probably be pretty lukewarm overall. You might get a good number of downloads, but you probably won’t gain too many devoted fans.
Challenging Fun – Potential for Mastery
Characteristics of challenging fun in games:
- Learned control systems / keystrokes
- Feedback primarily utilized as a way of enhancing gameplay experience, rather than a means of encouraging the player
- Daunting problem-solving scenarios
- Numerous UI elements that allow for tracking various game data
- Considerable learning curve, usually including gameplay elements that benefit from practice
- Tends to rely on ‘game culture’ / established conventions in games
Challenging fun is what draws core gamers, fanatics and competitive gamers. It’s the kind of fun that arises from accomplishing something difficult. Mastery of a particular game game, level or mechanic is often accompanied by a feeling of gratification, which is more pronounced the more difficult the given task. This is part of the reason why many core gamers will denounce games for being ‘too easy,’ and adamantly seek out games that offer the greatest challenges.
A great challenge doesn’t necessarily make a game fun though – part of the difficulty in appealing to core gamers is that they are much harder to please. A casual gamer may be perfectly content clicking on that cow over and over again, but a core gamer will immediately detect and condemn gameplay elements that are poorly executed or conceived. Challenging fun arises from game systems that already ‘work,’ and merely have their difficulty level brought to the nth degree.
Not everyone necessarily possesses this drive for mastery of arbitrary tasks. This fact, coupled with the inherent difficulty of targeting a highly critical market has led to a back-burnering of these fun elements in the majority of mobile/casual titles.
Social Fun – Community-building Capabilities
Characteristics of social fun in games:
- Multiplayer support
- Potential for competitive play
- ‘In’ jokes, game culture references
- Social media integration
Social fun has only been an obvious factor in gaming since the advent of the Internet, but it really has even predated that: social fun is about the real-world connections made over gaming, which have existed in sports for thousands of years. In the early days of gaming when arcades were still relevant, social fun was one of the factors that contributed to the development of game culture. People thought of games as a social thing. It was only when games made the leap to home consoles that they began to induce isolation and antisocial behavior in gamers.
All that has been changing over the past ten years or so though. Nintendo, presumably observant of this fact, heavily marketed the fun ‘party’ nature of the Wii, which brought in a whole new market of casual gamers. Coupled with the advent of social media integration and increased potential for leaderboard tracking, gamers are becoming more connected than ever.
Does this mean games are getting more fun? In a certain sense, yes – we are social creatures, and on some level, we need that kind of stimulation, and honestly many gamers haven’t been getting enough of it.
What’s interesting about social fun though is that it often operates outside the confines of the game playing experience. Big game franchises have established their own culture, so to speak, whereby fans can bond and have genuinely fun experiences over their shared appreciation of games. This is particularly evident with larger franchises that have extremely loyal fanbases. A prime example would be League of Legends: though a relatively new franchise, LoL has amassed a throng of devoted fans who not only play the game together, but make fan comics, art and cosplay together over their shared love of the game characters and world.
Social fun is simultaneously the most exciting and frightening form of fun in video games. On the one hand, it allows gamers to be more interconnected and enjoy social experiences together, but it can also lead to ‘avatarization,’ whereby players end up neglecting their real lives (see any number of news-breaking cases of World of Warcraft players alienating their spouses, losing their jobs and friends, dying in Internet cafes, etc.) As game developers, it is prudent that we be aware of this issue, as it is something of a public health issue. We can engage gamers better than ever before, but it is our civic responsibility not to facilitiate self-destructive behavior.
Escapism – Narrative / Immersion
Characteristics of escapism in games:
- Well-written storylines/dialogue
- ‘Wish fulfillment’ (this is borrowed terminology, see first source below)
- Cohesive game world
- Avatar customization
- Quality art direction / character design
This isn’t exactly a form of fun (I would argue that it is), but I am including it here because I feel that it is just as much a reason for playing games as any of the other fun factors I have mentioned. Escapism has its roots in more established forms of entertainment like books and films. Humans are imaginative beings, and we are often quite willing to suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to be taken to other worlds.
With games, we are provided even more opportunities to immerse ourselves in imaginary environments: we not only see, or read about fictional characters, but we can be them. This is one of the primary bases for MMORPGs like World of Warcraft – these games are designed to immerse players in fictional worlds. The efficacy of the medium toward this end is evident given how loyal the customer/subscriber bases are, and again, how easily players can slip into ‘avatarization.’
Escapism isn’t necessarily this dramatic a force though. Not everyone wants to leave the real world entirely, but I think pretty much everyone likes to hear about things that aren’t rooted in, and perhaps limited by reality. A much more typical use of escapism in games would be narrative structure. Why do we play RPGs? Honestly, the game mechanics have gotten pretty stale and derivative over the years, but it is still a commercially viable genre. I would argue that this is because of the escapism factor involved with enjoying a fictional narrative, and to a certain extent controlling its outcome. It’s fun to meet a cast of characters and guide them toward some goal or destination.
The role of narrative in games is becoming more evident lately given the increasingly cinematic nature of games (see Final Fantasy XV, Metal Gear Solid 5); the line between movies and games is starting to blur. Gamers have been enjoying rich story lines for a long time with games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, but to the rest of the world, these have still just looked like games. Now though, it’s clearer than ever that we don’t just play games for high scores – we play them because they possess the capacity to move us.
Fun in Video Games – Conclusion
These are the four main reasons I can come up with as to why anyone would play games – these are the parameters of ‘fun.’ I think the main key to creating games that are as fun to as many people as possible, is to consider and incorporate as many of these areas into each game as possible.