Friday, November 18, 2011

On Fun, post #2231

There are countless posts about fun by now. And as long as I think that I make progress at pinning it down, or at least revealing interesting characteristics, I'll probably continue writing about it. That having said, let's jump in.

Humans could do all kinds of stuff with their mental and physical capabilities. We could solve differential equations all day or repeat singing the same song for hours. What we do or don't do is decided in our brains and mostly happens on a subconscious level.

Since our brains evolved to maximize the probability of reproduction of our immediate social group (natural selection), they usually make us do things that help with that 'goal'. Fun is a tool the brains use to this end.

The question, “What is fun?”, can now be answered: "Fun is what our brain makes us feel, if it 'wants' us to do something." Humans are sophisticated robots in this model.

While we engage in an activity our brains constantly check whether the activity is still 'worthwhile' to the end that it maximizes the chance of reproduction of our immediate social group. But this is a pretty damn hard choice to make because our brains miss lots of information. And thus they can quite easily be fooled.

The job of a game designer is to fool the brains of other humans into thinking that an activity, which may be pointless, is actually worth doing because it is fun.

If you like to play games you want to be fooled. There's nothing wrong with this. I'm sure you already realized that playing video games doesn't maximize the chance of reproduction of your immediate social group.


  1. Hmm I dont think its all about reproduction. There are also status and hierarchy psychological mechanisms.

    In fact Id think most games are exploit entirely different aspects than reproduction.

  2. It's all reproduction in the end, Max. Hierarchies are useful to this end. If they weren't useful, those societies with no hierarchies would have reproduced better and we would be them now.

  3. "Since our brains evolved to maximize the probability of reproduction of our immediate social group"

    Natural selection works on the level of individuals (really the differential survival of individual genes in individuals) rather than groups. The old "social group" selection ideas lost out in 60s and 70s as is well explained in Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene":

    Individuals cooperate only in order to maximize the survival possibility of their own genes. Other than kin selection (where we share genes with family) that means reciprocal altruism.

    This is very relevant to internet games because without a mechanism to keep tabs on each other reciprocal altruism breaks down: A successful strategy is to cheat on responsibilities when the consequences for doing so are low or non existent.

  4. Interesting point. Thanks Roq.

  5. Or to restate Roq's point - with annoymity and the ability to outrun consequences (character renames, server transfers) it becomes more advantageous to be a douche bag. Examples are a too obvious to point out :)

    Also worth pointing out that fun is subjective. Different people's brains value and encourage different things. I don't get any psrticular jollies from ganking lowbies, for example, but there are clearly people who do. Likewise some people value intrinsic rewards (feelings of success, or at least advancing their mastery of a skill by taking part in difficult content or PvP) whilst others feel they have nothing unless there's an extrinsic reward (teh shinies).

  6. Saying that fun is subjective is like saying that the earth is round, I think. :)

    I have a little follow-up to this post coming. I just wanted to introduce the new approach to< "what is fun? - and how is that insight useful for game design?"< first. Let's see if it works.

  7. It might be stating the world is round, but in that case there are a lot of flat-earthers out there blogging and even designing games :) Try and count how many times you see people state things like 'PvP without rewards is not fun' without qualifying who it is not fun FOR. Likewise there are designers trying to make their game 'more fun' without considering which players are going to have fun with the new features and which ones will just be irritated by it. Hence Blizzard and their belief that 'raiding is fun' for everybody, so making raiding more accessible is obviously what the players who aren't already raiding want.

  8. Well, fun is subjective - it differs from person to person - but that doesn't mean it is static. It is quite possible to change a person's perception of fun.

    Add to that that most people don't know 100% what is fun for them. They just have a rough guess and it is part of the game designer's job to figure the rest out.

    Moreover, some things are fun for nobody and some are fun for a lot of people. Fun varies from person to person but it is not arbitrarily 'distributed'.

    Finally, if someone says "X is not fun" I usually take it as two things. First, "I think it is not fun for me", and second, "I think this is not fun for most other people".

    Argueing against him by stating that fun is subjective is usually not constructive ;).