There have been several blogs in recent days that touched this subject. For example Azuriel's or Eric's.
Kdansky commented on the latter:
"There is also the misconception that you can ask people if they have fun. That’s not actually true, because you often get a “Yes” when they are just being Skinner-boxed. I doubt they have fun, it’s just that they do not realize how bored they are due to the constant stream of rewards."And this is as good as any contentious comment to encourage your mind to start working. And thus, to increase the probability that you remain reading; especially if you disagree.
First, a little more context. Have a look at GrumpyElf, one of the few bloggers, I follow, who still play World of Warcraft. Among other things, he says he wants to have a reason to kill mobs; while alone. And I so agree. But wait a second .. isn't that grinding? Well, I guess it is.
I have fond memories of farming mobs in the Eastern Plaguelands during classic WoW. I did it for gold and the lucky epic drop. And, yes, out of boredom and a myriad other reasons that a psychologist could come up with. One of the most important reasons why I don't play WoW any more is that there just wasn't anything to do anymore that I considered worth doing. All the remaining goals didn't seem to be worth their journeys. None kept my mind busy. Sure, I could still kill mobs, but they died too fast and the gold they dropped was inferior to doing dailies. And I found dailies too boring, repetitive.
I would expect you to now look at me with a really strange glare in your eyes. Did I just say that I prefer killing mobs to doing dailies, because killing mobs is less repetitive? Well, I guess I said that. That's how I feel. But it doesn't make any sense, does it? At first glance, I suppose, no.
So, have I been wrong, and farming mobs in Eastern Plaguelands wasn't actually fun. No .. I am very certain that I had fun. Not immensely so, but still, fun. And doing dailies more than once was not fun. I am absolutely certain of that.
Now, we could compare how dailies and mob grinding keep your mind busy, how frustrating* they are and how they seem worth their respective goals. And I am pretty sure that would explain why the one is more interesting if done for a long time. And why the other is more interesting when done for a not-so-long time. But I did this kind of exercise often enough by now. I'd rather reject something else.
If you want to determine how fun a game is, you could have a look at the goals and a look at the journeys. And if you were a rational homo economicus, you would then assert that the goals are worth G and the journeys cost you J. And, thus, your profit is G minus J. And a lot of people actually fall for this.
It's a fallacy, because if it were so simple, the best games would have no journeys. They would just shower you with rewards. All at once. Of course, the game would be over very, very fast. After all, there's no journey, nothing you have to do to reach the goal. But according to this fallacy that would create a spike moment of utter happiness that grows proportional to the number of rewards.
We know that this isn't true. If I started up a new MMORPG, and right after logging in I got all the best items and the best titles and the best achievements and the biggest pets, that wouldn't make me happy. It wouldn't be fun. And, besides, the worth G correlates with the cost J.
Journeys need to keep your mind busy, they need to seem worth their goals and they must not be not frustrating*. Thus, the best journey is the one which you undertake without ever looking up. Without ever reflecting on yourself. The best journey keeps you completely focused... Do you remember 'flow'?
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.Fun, it seems, really is flow. But I don't want to use the term exactly the way Csíkszentmihályi (thanks for Ctrl-V!) does. For example, I actually think that it is possible to produce flow even without any challenge. Challenge is just one of those things that are really good at keeping the mind busy. It is not a necessary part of flow, only a very useful one.
Using just the quote as a definition of flow, fun is flow. And my understanding of a good game is this: The longer a game can keep the player as much in the flow as possible, the better it is. This is, of course, a subjective definition as it depends on the subject (the player), and only indirectly on the object (the game).
This is actually a very controversial understanding, because I ignore the aftermath. What happens if you, ex post, consider the goals not at all worthy? My answer to this: In that case this reduces your fun afterwards, but not your fun while playing the game!
I did have fun running around in the Eastern Plaguelands. Period. I might consider this ridiculous or wasted time later on, but I did have fun. And, needless to say, I disagree with Kdansky's comment.
*An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that.