8.2.14

The Word "Fun"

In a room full of game designers, the word “fun” can be a bit like the word “Jesus.” Occasionally problematic. So – lest I be descended upon by the Flaming Armies of the Internet – I should invoke a certain geek deity.

Gary Gygax – without whom there would be far fewer (arguably no) good games in the world – wrote that, "It is absolutely necessary to understand the only valid purpose for role-playing games. The games exist to provide entertainment. Entertainment is basically fun.” Part of the fun he wanted came from jumping into a unique world. Part came from the imaginations of friends.

Among game designers today, “fun” is decried for being vague and misleading. I’ve flatly called it boring (and it is, if we don’t tie the word to something more specific). Alternatives like, “happiness,” “reinforcement,” and “engagement” fly better in certain crowds. The fact is, life offers up a huge variety of motivating blips. Pigeons in a cage can be taught to peck buttons at outrageous velocity, if you give them food pellets at just the right schedule (or cocaine, on any schedule). World of Warcraft raid guilds can pull in dozens of people, for hours every day, just to get the most enchanted of magical swords and hats and pants.

When designers do magical things with games, players experience a hell of a lot more than flat neurochemical blips. We learn wholly new ways of understanding our lives. But – for a variety of reasons – novelty doesn’t happen too often. Mostly, if publishers are shelling out tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, game developers copy designs that they know work. It’s why Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other modern war franchises look near-identical. When they do whip the batter in a slightly new way, such crazed architects of those designs speak in a hodgepodge of already-made games. They say things like,

“It’s a Skyrim-style open world with a Sims aesthetic. We’re calling it: High School. There may or may not be Animal Crossing collectibles.”

Makes sense to them, but only because they’ve each spent thousands of hours in different games (it’s disturbingly easy to hit the 100–hour mark in each Skyrim, The Sims, and Animal Crossing).

Basically, fun comes first. Whether it’s Debussy’s first time putting a finger on a piano, Picasso first putting paint on canvas, or Brendon Chung programming out his first level in Half-Life. There’s always that initial spark. Same for regular folk, a kid seeing carpentry, or boatbuilding for the first time. Or the future librarian, sliding that first book off the shelf. We need that spark.

The language I’m using here does come largely from games, because fun is that industry’s bread and butter.

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