Friday, September 2, 2011

Understanding Fun

While the last posts focused on how to make games fun, this post focuses on what is actually achieved when a game succeeds at being fun.

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'?

Wikipedia says:
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[2] 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.


  1. Regarding Kdansky's comment I think it couldn't be more wrong.

    Fun is a psychological state. It's something you think. If you think you're having fun then fun is what you're thinking.

    Or to put it another way the only possible measure of fun is the opinion of the subject. If you attempt to measure the fun state objectively, say by measuring pulse rate or pupil dilation then there are any number of potential false positives.

    As for fun being flow it's something I've seen suggested before. It may even work for the MMO context. But as soon as you take it out of that context the definition stops working. Suppose you visit a friend. He's funny and keeps telling you jokes. Then unexpectedly he squirts water at you which amuses you both. Did you have fun? yes. Were you in flow state? No.

  2. I think you might have a point there, Stabs. Thanks a lot!

    I actually thought about 'humor' before as one of the things that keep the mind busy. But I couldn't find a good MMORPG example that was significant enough.

    Maybe one has to differentiate between active fun and passive fun, like being entertained. A busy mind is important in any way. But in the case of passive fun there's no motivation, no goal.

    On the other hand, the goals might just be less dominant/visible. Watching a TV series, your goal is to satisfy your curiosity ("how does the story continue?")
    And while "just having fun with your friend" the goal might be to repeatedly come up with something humorous.

    Still, just listening to jokes (passively) can certainly be fun, without you having a goal or a motivation. It seems.

  3. I sort of agree with you Stabs, but I think people still end up experiencing the rather strange phenomenon of:

    1) Person plans to do X because they think it will be fun.
    2) *does X* for hours and hours even though they could stop at any time
    3) When asked the next day if X was fun, says "No -- I had no fun at all"
    4) Person still plans to do X again later because they think it will be fun.

    Playing Rift was a lot like that for me. I thought it *should* be fun, so I kept doing it for months. And if you had asked me while I was playing, I don't know if I would have said I was having fun or not.

    By your comment, you would presumably draw the rather semantic conclusion that any time I said I was having fun, I was having fun, and any time I said I wasn't having fun, I wasn't having fun.

    And on some level I can't really disagree. But part of me wants to make the claim that I was *never* having fun playing Rift even though I might have said so at the time.

    I don't really know what to do with any of these rather conflicting thoughts. :)

  4. Interesting highlight of the fact that dailies are not actually fun. I am thinking for several reasons:

    - You feel obligated to do it (whatever becomes a "must to do" is now a job , not a hobby)

    -It involves rigid mechanics and same pattern over and over. To kill random mobs I can go many different places. I can explore the area, I can experiment with things , I can simply stop any time and something else. Dailies- you need to do a) b) c).

    In the end after a week or so you doing them not because it is fun but because you will miss "bonus"

    I find that "daily" bonus is a double edged sword. It makes you come back over and over again. but at some point it makes you burn out. and then you leave game for good and memories of dailies are like memories of a bad chore.

  5. "I don't really know what to do with any of these rather conflicting thoughts. :)"

    The cognitive science answer is that this is because we know very little about what makes us tick. As R Bakker puts it:

    "The greatest anthropomorphism of all, it turns out, is ourselves. We are the last of the ancient delusions, soon to be debunked."

    Essentially we don't understand how our brains work, even experts don't understand and defining fun might be one of the most complex problems in the field.

    All I know is whenever anyone tries to pin it down with a pithy definition it wriggles free again. Although it's fun figuring it out - or is it?

  6. Although it's fun figuring it out - or is it?

    LOL. Well played sir.