The Limits of “Fun” (#BoRT)

September 3, 2012

Oh hey, Alan Williamson over at Critical Distance is bringing back Blogs of the Round Table! I used to have some fun bouncing from blog to blog reading these things, so I think I’ll give this one a shot. Here’s this month’s assignment:

2K’s Chris Hartmann recently said that achieving photorealism was the key to opening ‘new genres’ of games. Without discussing whether or not this is true (it isn’t), what genres or subjects have games left uncovered, and what should they be focusing on? Alternatively, if photorealism isn’t the limiting factor on the diversification and evolution of gaming experiences, what is? Were Belgian Eurodance group 2 Unlimited right with their assertion that, in fact, there are No Limits?

Ah…hm. Right. Since I have never felt inspired by a discussion of genre, I’ll go with option 2, thank you.

* * *

You know, it’s a funny thing, looking back at where games have came from, because for almost any individual trying to look back, it becomes a personal history. “Where have games come from” could have as much to do with Colecovision, Turbografx-16, and Virtual Boy (well, maybe not Virtual Boy) as they do Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Genesis. One person’s treasure is another’s unknown quantity, and there have been enough games and gaming systems out in the last 35 or so years as for it to be a virtual impossibility that anyone could do a comprehensive history based on personal experience.

As such, we have to share our experience. The internet is the obvious vehicle for that now, as blogs, user reviews, and actual legitimate criticism are available in abundance for those willing to look. For a while, though, we didn’t have such obvious venues for discussion.

We had magazines, magazines that offered reviews with rating scales that looked like this:

Presumably, the faces were there just in case we weren’t sure how to read numbers.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved GamePro, and probably read more issues multiple times than was healthy for a growing boy in the mid-’90s. It was one of the most identifiable gaming mags out there, and it was a common enough touchpoint to be something you could talk about with friends in school hallways. It was so common, in fact, that its reviews felt a bit like gospel truth at the time. These reviews were rated in the four categories that you can see above: Graphics, Sounds, Control, and something GamePro called “FunFactor”. It was this last category that was typically seen as the most important; after all, one could get past primitive visuals, lousy music, and even shaky controls if the game was fun to play. That was the point of games, after all, right? Fun?

It is the idea of “games” and “fun” being necessarily paired that limits the medium. When we fall into the trap of comparing games to books or movies and marveling at just how little the narrative structures of games have in common with those of other mediums, much of the difference can be attributed to the desire of the developer to give the player something “fun” to play. The words “player” and “play” themselves carry with them connotations of fun, unlike, say, “reader” or “viewer”. Books and films are offered the opportunity to be Serious Business by not necessitating that the consumer of such media have a pleasurable experience. One can marvel at the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood while never ever suffering from the delusion that it is a “fun” movie. One can absorb something as nihilistic as The Road without cracking a single smile. These are great works, but they are allowed to be so by not being bound to the constraint of offering enjoyment to their audiences. Some art is work.

Knowing that there are films, or books, or even pieces of music (hey, Lou Reed) that are specifically geared toward making their audiences work toward understanding enhances these mediums as a whole. The idea that we should be “playing” games, presumably having “fun” while we do so, necessarily reduces the possibilities of the medium.

There are counterexamples, of course, mostly at the fringes of PC gaming, but there are a few major publishers who have been willing to take the risk of offering an experience to gamers that is not at all intended to be fun. Perhaps the recent highest profile of these counterexamples is Spec Ops: The Line, a game whose gleeful toying with player expectations is expertly detailed here. Sure, some of it falls into shooter conventions, but its questioning of the genre and of the player for enjoying that genre is a commendable step toward challenging consumers of these games, rather than simply pandering to their base desires. Games like No More Heroes and the Fable series monetize manual labor, repetitive tasks that aren’t really fun, but do benefit the player in a very real way. And then, of course, there are little things like Passage, which is more like an interactive short story, except without the words that typically get in the way of such things.

Believe me, I realize that the idea that a game doesn’t have to be “fun” to be great isn’t a new concept, but such an idea is certainly one of the limitations of the medium. The money is in fun; people don’t play Call of Duty or Gears of War or even World of Warcraft to be intellectually challenged. People play those games because they satisfy some definition of “fun”. At some point, our money should start going toward things that aren’t “fun”. Our money should start speaking to experiences that offer a range of emotional responses, that draw us into experience that make us question our values, our preconceptions, and our biases.

Maybe instead of looking for the Citizen Kane of gaming, we should be looking for, say, its Taxi Driver.



  1. Well neither Citizen Kane or Taxi Driver is a “fun” movie. Citizen Kane is heralded because of its advancement of things like cinematography.

    As much as I’m encouraged to see games willing to step outside of “fun” in order to deliver a narrative, or invoke a theme, I’m always hearing Will Wright’s voice in my head, “Play is the thing, play is the thing…”

    We underestimate and undervalue play, as if it isn’t enough to teach us, or simply to enjoy. There are lots of things that can be “un-fun” and valuable, but play is inherent because it’s valuable and fun.

    Our money doesn’t have to exclusively be applied towards things that are “fun” or those that are not; my money goes to both, and will continue to. Further, fun and “experiences that offer a range of emotional responses” aren’t mutually exclusive. Having fun is an emotional response, so if you want a range of those, wouldn’t including fun make sense?

    • Fair enough – my tossed-off reference to Citizen Kane is more a nod to baby steps — I see Taxi Driver as something that’s very willfully “un-fun”, while Citizen Kane is great on far more levels than its sense of fun, or lack thereof. I see the ‘Taxi Driver of Games’ as a stepping stone to the ‘Citizen Kane of Games’, whatever that even means anymore.

      As for your other points, perhaps I’ve gone too far to the other side – I don’t think that games should *never* be fun; rather, I think that “fun” shouldn’t be the utmost justification for a (AAA) game’s existence. I would like my money to go to both games that are fun and games that are not. I don’t want to have to look outside of games for “not fun”.

      Sure, I want to have fun playing games – I just don’t want that to be the only reason I play them, and I want to feel as though they, as a format, are open enough to welcome experiences that don’t place fun above all.

      • I’m a huge film geek, but I’m not one of the ones that reveres Citizen Kane. I think we need something more like Reservoir Dogs (or a couple of other films from the early 90s American Indie movement) in gaming now.

        I think what you said about a full range of emotional responses, including fun, is correct. I don’t appreciate a game that goes out of its way to be un-fun, but I appreciate anything (game or otherwise) that is honest. If the narrative, characters or theme aren’t fun, but it’s an honest expression, then I support it. I’d prefer fun, but I think I know what you’re saying about full range of meaning, even if it’s not light hearted.

  2. Excellent point Mike! I think this is part of the process gaming is going through on its way to becoming art. (Not that I don’t think that it’s already art, but some games more than others, and we’re still a long way off from being widely recognized or taken seriously as art.)

    At my school, our theatre department doesn’t do comedies. Our director doesn’t see something as art unless it’s really saying something profound. To her, theatre needs to go beyond being “fun”, and in the plays she chooses, a laugh in the wrong place can derail the entire performance. Those plays contain scenes that are funny, or even hilarious, but the memorable moments are rarely fun. Life changing, perhaps; but fun, certainly not.

    I think that what you said here also touches on a general trend I see in gaming: we’re finally moving past some of the old mechanics, whether by creating new game mechanics (e.g. Wii, Kinect, etc.) or by filling in other areas like writing. RPGs rarely had engaging mechanics, and so had to rely on good stories; now shooters are cliche unless they stand out somehow, whether by having a good story or concept (e.g. Bioshock series), or by changing the mechanics (e.g. Borderlands combines a shooter with Diablo-style skill trees and loot). Playing with the mechanics seems to me to be an attempt to find the fun factor again; but fleshing out your old mechanics with deep stories built on rich themes and complex characters – that goes beyond fun, to the realm of meaning, purpose, and…art.

    Thanks for your insights!

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