On Monday, we discovered that “fun” is really just another word for “learning” and that putting players in a flow state is where this elusive “fun” comes from. Today we dig deeper into this concept to learn more about “fun,” digging into LeBlanc et al.’s “8 kinds of fun” and relating that back to flow theory and other things.
We currently have an idea of what is fun, but it would help to know why these things are fun. What if there are new kinds of fun waiting to be discovered?
I will be at Protospiel this weekend, so I may be a bit slow in responding to email or validating forum accounts. Likewise, next Monday’s lesson may be slightly delayed in posting, depending on what shape I’m in when I return.
Here are a small selection of the answers to the mini-challenge from last time (propose a rule change to add interesting decisions to Trivial Pursuit):
- Answering player hears all six questions on the card, then predicts the number they’ll get right. If they don’t overestimate how many they’ll get right, they get N points (where N is the number of correct answers); otherwise they get nothing. Presumably, players play to a total score rather than moving around the board. This decision is interesting when the player is not entirely sure whether an answer is correct, and they must choose their level of risk (based on how certain they are and their relative score).
- After earning a wedge, you can choose to keep answering additional questions on the card for additional wedges (or additional turns), but if you miss one then you lose all of the ones you’ve earned that turn. An interesting push-your-luck mechanic.
- Instead of rolling to move, a player can attempt to answer a question of the color of a nearby space (anywhere within 6 spaces) to move there. If they fail, they do not move. Another risk/reward mechanic, where you risk completely wasting your turn in exchange for more precise movement.
- Once per turn, you can force another player to answer a question for you after hearing it. If they get it wrong, your turn continues; if they get it right, your turn ends. Reminiscent of “You Don’t Know Jack.”
- You can get more than one wedge of the same color. You may trade with opponents at any time.
- You read your own question. After looking at the answer, if you are incorrect, you can bluff and claim you were correct anyway. If no one else challenges you, then proceed as if you had answered correctly. If you are challenged… well, the original tweet didn’t specify, but presumably the winner of the challenge gains something and the loser loses something. I’d recommend, loser of a challenge loses their next turn, and if the challenger was correct it immediately becomes their turn (possibly skipping other players in the process).
Read the following:
- Natural Funativity, by Noah Falstein. We’ve talked a lot about what is fun, and from the MDA Framework we know there are different kinds of fun. But why are these things fun in the first place, and not other things? Noah provides a useful theory.
- Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs, by Richard Bartle. If you’re too young to know what a MUD is, it is basically a precursor to today’s MMO. Replace the word “MUD” with “World of Warcraft” and it will still make perfect sense.
- You may also find it useful to review the MDA Framework, specifically the part that talks about the 8 kinds of fun.
Kinds of Fun
You may remember from the MDA Framework that the authors listed 8 kinds of fun. These are:
- Sensation. Games can engage the senses directly. Consider the audio and video “eye candy” of video games; the tactile feel of the wooden roads and houses in Settlers of Catan; or the physical movement involved in playing sports, Dance Dance Revolution, or any game on the Nintendo Wii.
- Fantasy. Games can provide a make-believe world (some might cynically call it “escapism”) that is more interesting than the real world.
- Narrative. As we mentioned earlier in passing, games can involve stories, either of the embedded kind that designers put there, or the emergent kind that are created through player action.
- Challenge. Some games, particularly retro-arcade games, professional sports, and some highly competitive board games like Chess and Go, derive their fun largely from the thrill of competition. Even single-player games like Minesweeper or activities like mountain climbing are fun mainly from overcoming a difficult challenge.
- Fellowship. Many games have a highly social component to them. I think it is this alone that allows many American board games like Monopoly to continue to sell many copies per year, in spite of the uninteresting decisions and dull mechanics. It is not the game, but the social interaction with family, that people remember fondly from their childhood.
- Discovery. This is rare in board games, but can be found in exploration-type games like Tikal and Entdecker. It is more commonly found in adventure and role-playing video games, particularly games in the Zelda and Metroid series.
- Expression. By this, I think the MDA authors mean the ability to express yourself through gameplay. Examples include games like Charades or Poker where the way that you act is at least as important as what other actions you take within a game; Dungeons & Dragons where the character you create is largely an expression of your own personal idea; or open-world and sim video games like The Sims or Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion or Fable, which are largely concerned with giving the player the tools needed to create their own custom experience.
- Submission. A name that often has my students chuckling with their dirty minds, but the intent is games as an ongoing hobby rather than an isolated event. Consider the metagame and the tournament scene in Magic: the Gathering, the demands of a guild to show up at regular meetings in World of Warcraft, or even the ritualized play of games at a weekly boardgame or tabletop-roleplaying group.
Recall that these are not all-or-nothing propositions. Games can contain several kinds of fun, in varying quantities.
Why not just create a game that has all eight kinds of fun? Wouldn’t that be the holy grail of games, the game that’s fun for everyone? Unfortunately, no. Just because these are different kinds of fun does not mean that everyone finds all eight of these things fun at all. Not only do different games provide different combinations and relative quantities of the various kinds of fun, but different players find different combinations more or less fun than others. About half of the people I run into think that Chess is fun, and the other half do not; the “fun” Aesthetic arises not from the game alone, but the combination of game and player.
Are these eight the only kinds of fun? No; even the authors admit the above list is incomplete. There are many classification schemes out there to identify different kinds of fun, including Nicole Lazzaro’s four fun keys, or Pierre-Alexandre Garneau’s fourteen forms of fun. Even the 8 kinds of fun from the MDA paper are debatable. Is it meaningful to separate Fantasy and Narrative, or are they just two ways of looking at the same kind of fun? Is submission really a kind of fun, or is it what happens when you have a game compelling enough to earn the status of “hobby” – is it a cause or an effect? What, exactly, counts as “expression” and what does not?
And where does the whole “fun is learning, learning is fun” thing from last time come into this discussion?
Evolution (sans Pokemon)
Falstein’s answer is to take a trip back to early pre-history, when humans were at their hunter-gatherer stage. Primitive humans had to learn many skills in order to survive and reproduce. If we found it fun to learn certain skills, we would be more likely to practice them, and thus more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on our genes to the next generation. Over time, those things that made us most likely to survive ended up being the things that we find “fun” today. Not all primitive hunter-gatherer skills are necessarily useful today, mind you, but our genetics haven’t had time to catch up with our technology yet.
In short: if a caveman found it useful, you’ll find it fun.
Falstein proposes three kinds of fun: “physical fun” (useful for any physical feats that allow us to fight or escape danger), “mental fun” (the problem-solving part of our brain that gave us such useful things as the wheel and fire), and “social fun” (the benefits of banding together in groups for mutual survival… and, of course, reproduction).
When I first saw this, I thought “wow!” Except I spelled it “WoW”… because, what is World of Warcraft, but physical fun (combat), mental fun (optimizing your equipment and skills), and social fun (dancing Night Elves)?
But we can apply this evolutionary thought process to any “kinds of fun.” Let us look some of the MDA’s 8 kinds of fun in this context:
- Sensation includes physical movement (good for building muscle) and looking at and hearing things that are interesting (good for detecting opportunities or dangers).
- Fantasy allows the kind of “what-if” scenario part of our brain to get stronger, allowing us to come up with novel ideas.
- Narrative is useful for passing on vital information and experience to others in your group, increasing the chance that all of you will survive.
- Challenge is a convenient way for different humans to show dominance over one another in a relatively safe way – “I can throw this rock further than you” is more useful than “let’s fight to the death” if you’re trying to build a colony.
- Fellowship opens up the possibility of new food sources (a single one of us might get killed hunting a large beast, but a group of us together can take it down). It’s also rather hard to pass on your genetic material to the next generation if you’re alone.
- Discovery is what makes us want to explore our nearby territory. The more territory we know, the more potential places for us to find food and shelter.
- Expression probably comes from the same part of us that is hardwired to communicate through language. Language, and communication in general, are pretty useful.
- Submission is… well, I’m not sure about that one. Maybe it is an effect of fun rather than the cause.
Discovering New Kinds of Fun
We can do this in reverse. Instead of taking something that’s fun and tracing it back to the reptilian parts of our brain, we can isolate skills that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have needed to survive, and then use that to figure out what we would find fun. For example, here are some activities that are often found in games:
- Collection. This is the “gathering” part of hunting-and-gathering, so you would expect it to be fun. And it is. When I was a kid, before video games became ubiquitous, the world’s most popular hobby was stamp collecting. In many board games you collect resources or tokens. Trading Card Game players collect cards. In the video game world, we’ve been collecting things since Mario first started collecting coins.
- Spatial Reasoning. Primitive humans needed to figure out spatial relationships in order to build useful tools (for example, if you want to find a big stick to make a crude ladder or bridge, you need to be able to estimate length; if you want to stick two pieces of wood together, you need to be able to figure out how to make them fit). Many games make use of spatial relationships, from Tetris to Pente.
- Advancement. I see this as kind of a meta-skill, the skill of learning new skills, which is obviously useful to a primitive human that needs to learn a lot of skills. We see this formalized in games all the time, from the overt Experience Points and Levels to finding new items or buying new weapons that give us better stats or new capabilities.
- Finding Shortcuts. Finding novel, undiscovered ways to work around problems in ways that take less effort than normal helped primitive humans to conserve their energy; in that sense, laziness can be a virtue. Ironically, in games, this often takes the form of deliberate rule-breaking and cheating.
- Griefing. Like other forms of competition, putting other people down is a way to show dominance and superiority over your peers. (Yes, some of us find it annoying and immature, but cavemen are not exactly known for their emotional sensitivity.)
Perhaps you can think of other kinds of fun. Feel free to add to the list in the Comments on this blog post.
Games Change Over Time
Play in general, and games in particular, help us to exercise the skills we need for adulthood. While the things we find fun require millions of years of evolution to change, the games we play can change with each generation. As such, you can tell a lot about a society’s values by looking at its most popular games. (A few centuries back when most people were farmers, grain harvesting was a big deal to a lot of people. Today it is not, so we do not see a predominance of “grain games” in our contemporary world.)
This gives yet one more potential starting point when designing a game. Think about what kinds of skills are useful in adulthood in your culture. Find a link between those and the skills needed for a primitive hunter-gatherer to survive. Then, design a game that exercises those skills. Most successful learning games do this, by integrating the learning into the game. The actions in the game either consist of using the skills that need to be learned, or the learning of a skill is the victory condition of the game. In both cases, the gameplay is aligned with the inherent fun and joy of learning, and you can end up with an “educational” game that is also fun. Note that this is in stark contrast to the typical “Edutainment” title that requires rote learning as a prerequisite for play, or that separates the learning and the gameplay, which has been proven time and again to be not fun.
So, now it would appear we have all the answers. Flow states are pleasurable. We are driven by our hardwired tendencies to build useful hunter-gatherer skills. Games can exploit these to produce that thing we call “fun.”
Is that it?
First, we must question our collective obsession with this “fun” business. Fun is not the only pleasurable emotion. For example, designers often talk of:
- Fiero, the triumphant feeling of completing a significant, challenging task. “You rock!”
- Schadenfreude, the gloating feeling you get when a rival fails at something. “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.”
- Naches, the warm feeling of self-worth that you get when your child, student, or other person you are mentoring succeeds. “I’m so proud of you!”
- Kvell, the emotion you feel when bragging about your child, student, etc. “My kid is an honor student at Wherever Elementary.”
None of these emotions would be described as “fun” exactly. None of them are directly related to flow states, either. But they are pleasurable. And they could certainly add something to a gameplay experience.
Also, as we discussed when talking about art games, “fun” is not necessarily the only purpose for which games could be made. We may read War and Peace and say that it is a good book, but we would not call it fun. We may say that Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are great movies, but people would look at us very strange if we said either one was fun. Macbeth is not particularly fun. Viewing the Mona Lisa is not fun. The daily news is rarely fun. And yet, these things can all be deeply meaningful.
A game reviewer might say of the Mona Lisa: “Great visuals, but only one level, low interactivity, not much replay value. Interesting, but not very fun. 2/10.”
The rest of us would not.
So, that premise that I started with last Monday – “a game designer’s job is to make a game fun” – is something that you should all be a bit uncomfortable with by now. Fun is certainly a strong component of many games, but games do not have to be limited to that. Our role as game designers goes beyond making a game fun. A game designer’s job is to craft a meaningful gameplay experience.
Fun just happens to be a convenient and easy way to do this. But never forget that it is not the only way.
Koster points out in A Theory of Fun that players are, at their core, lazy. They tend to seek games similar to those that they’re already good at, so they are not learning something that is new, which reduces the amount of learning-pleasure they can receive. They tend to look for loopholes, exploits, and cheats, which likewise circumvent the pleasurable learning process. Players make the game less fun – but they do it anyway.
In fairness, game designers do this too. We probably do this even moreso than most players, since we are so experienced at finding patterns in games and we see the forms so quickly. This leads to lots of derivative work. Personally, the first game I ever worked on was a collectible card game, and even now I instinctively want to add cards, custom decks, cost/benefit decisions, and the concept of rarity to every game I make. Another designer I know sees everything in terms of RPGs. Another one of my colleagues tries to turn everything into a Sim game. Most of us, I think, tend to think in terms of one genre even if we’re working in another. In my experience, it’s usually the genre of the first game we work on professionally.
Is there something about us that makes us like one kind of game over another? If it is as simple as “personal taste” then why do we see so much overlap among gamers?
This brings us to Bartle and his player types. As with kinds of fun (and definitions of games), we find no shortage of people willing to advance their own theory of player types. Why read Bartle, then, and not someone else? First, Bartle’s was the first essay of its kind to gain widespread interest and acceptance, so it is important historically; second, because there are certain aspects of it that make for interesting dissection.
Let us look at the four proposed types of players in a MUD (or MMO):
- Achievers find it enjoyable to gain power, level up, and generally to “win” the game (to the extent that an ongoing, never-ending game can be “won”).
- Explorers want to explore the world, build mental maps of the different areas in their heads, and generally figure out what is in their surroundings.
- Socializers use the game as a social medium. They play for the interaction with other players. The gameplay systems are just a convenient excuse to get together and play with friends.
- Killers (today we call them “griefers”) derive their fun from ruining other people’s fun.
What is the motivation of each player type? Why do they do what they do? This relates back to the different kinds of fun.
Comparing the lists of Bartle’s player types and MDA’s 8 kinds of fun, we see parallels. Achievers favor Challenge fun. Explorers seem to like Discovery fun. Socializers are all about Fellowship fun. And Killers… well, they don’t map to a specific kind of fun in MDA, but the Griefing fun that I proposed as an addition seems to work well.
Other player type schemes show similar correlations: each “player type” is really a kind of fun, or a combination of several kinds of fun, personified. The two concepts (player types and kinds of fun) are really the same concept expressed in different ways.
This suggests that you can start with a list of kinds of fun, and invent new player types based on some combination of fun types. Car racing games combine Sensation and Challenge fun; I could propose a “Racer” player type as the kind of player who likes these kinds of games. And then I could make a guess that other games, such as “Xtreme Sports,” might appeal to the same player type since they have a similar “fun signature.”
You could also go the other way. If you manage to isolate a new player type (i.e. a pattern of play that appears in a nontrivial percentage of your playtesters), by studying that type and what the players are doing, you may be able to discover new kinds of fun.
Which Comes First?
If we can go back and forth between player types and kinds of fun, we may wonder if this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Is it better to start with players, or fun?
Consider this: as game designers, we create rules (mechanics). The rules create the play dynamics when set in motion, and those cause the aesthetic of fun in the players. The things that we create, are a root cause of fun. Therefore, it is the kinds of fun that are of greatest concern to us.
We do not create players. (Well, those of us who are parents could say that they do, but you know what I mean.) As game designers, our rules do not create new players or player types. Therefore, any list of player types is only useful to the extent that it is correlated with kinds of fun.
Let me give an example. There is a book, 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon, that proposes player types based on Myers-Briggs personality types. The main idea of doing market research, understanding the players that you are designing for, and designing a game to fit the target market is an idea that has definite applications in game design. But the implementation has a problem. Myers-Briggs types are mapped to player types, which in turn correspond to different kinds of fun. There are two levels of abstraction here, which means a higher-than-normal error rate. People do not always fall neatly and precisely into 16 categories, after all.
A more well-trod example is that of classifying players as “casual” or “hardcore.” Now we see why this distinction may be useful to marketing suits, but not so much to game designers. What kinds of fun correspond to these players? What is “casual fun” or “hardcore fun”? This is not clear. We are told that casual gamers want experiences that are short, easy to learn, not very challenging. Yet, some so-called “casual games” are difficult (Diner Dash), long (Puzzle Quest), or complicated (Virtual Villagers). Instead of spending time trying to define a single “casual gamer” archetype, I suspect it would be more fruitful to identify the kinds of fun that help a so-called “casual game” to succeed, and then work from there.
A Note for Teachers
As with last time, there are some direct parallels with teaching. Where I say “player types” and “kinds of fun” an educator might be thinking of “learning styles.” What I call Sensation, Narrative and Expression fun, you might refer to as Audio, Visual, or Kinesthetic learning.
Think of ways to apply this to your classroom:
- How many kinds of fun do you use in your classroom? Do you use a variety, in order to give all students a chance to be engaged and fascinated at least some of the time?
- Sensation fun is pretty easy. Bring things to class that are interesting to look at. Bring props that can be felt or passed around. I know one teacher who will get the entire class to stand up and stretch if she sees the students nodding off.
- Narrative is another easy one. Most subjects have stories embedded in them. It is much easier for most people to remember a story than to remember a random factoid. We’re hardwired to tell and to listen to stories.
- Challenge often comes in the form of quiz-show-type games in class. While Jeopardy! is still marginally more interesting than the average college lecture, keep in mind that students are not making any interesting decisions. You can do better than this. Formal or informal debates and discussions with students taking sides can also play to this kind of fun.
- Fellowship can happen in class when students are put in groups, or during class discussions.
- Discovery is difficult in most classrooms, as everyone is stuck in their seats and can’t explore the area much. Field trips are an obvious way to work on this. If your classroom is internet-enabled, you can ask students to do Web searches, at least letting them explore a virtual space if not a real one.
- Collection is a kind of fun that is most often seen in elementary school classrooms, giving students stickers or gold stars. It is riskier in higher education (you run the risk of treating your grad students like they were in kindergarten), but it can be done. I know an Economics professor, for example, who printed out a bunch of dollar bills with his face on them, and handed them out to students during in-class exercises, pop quizzes, and the like. Students could exchange the play money for real cash and prizes at the end of the term.
- Advancement is a kind of fun that is inherent in any course where the later material builds on what was learned earlier. If you created a diagram of skills being taught in the class (with arrows drawn from the prerequisite skills to the new skills being layered on top), you might find that it looks a lot like a “tech tree” or “skill tree” in an RTS or MMO video game. By exposing this kind of skill diagram to the students (and then showing them when they gain new skills and “unlock” access to other more advanced skills) you can create a sense of accomplishment… and also make the connections between the topics easier to see. Incidentally, for department heads out there, you can also do this for an entire curriculum, diagrammatically showing the course requirements and prerequisites.
In general, the things we find fun are related to the skills our distant ancestors needed in order to survive. We can exploit this in our game designs to make games that are more fun.
Some people find certain kinds of fun more interesting and engaging than others. Tastes vary. Try looking at your own favorite games (and popular games that you don’t like) and see if you can discover your own personal “fun signature.”
Remember that “fun” is but one of many emotional responses that a game can invoke in a player. Our goal as game designers is to deliver a compelling experience, which may or may not be fun. Most of the art games in Level 6 were not particularly fun… but they were deeply meaningful. Fun is an important part of what we do, but do not seek fun at the exclusion of all else.
As you do your own research, you will undoubtedly run into many articles that purport to classify Fun or Players into types. Do not take any such article as gospel. Instead, analyze it to see if it makes sense. For fun types, can you see why we (or our hunter-gatherer ancestors) would find each type fun? For player types, can you see a link between player types and kinds of fun, since it is easier for a game designer to create a custom brand of fun than to create a new type of player?
If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts at your skill level from the War challenge from Level 7 (posted on the forum), and also at least three other posts at a skill level below yours (unless you posted in Green Circle).
Try to complete your feedback on or before Monday, July 27, noon GMT.
Let’s practice our ability to find mechanics that give rise to a specific kind of fun. The kind of fun we’ll be considering here is griefing (that is, deriving enjoyment from the act of ruining other people’s enjoyment).
Create a concept for a game that is built to appeal specifically to griefers (i.e. Bartle’s “Killer” player type). Post it in the forums. You do not need to create the rules for a game. Just create a concept that includes enough information to communicate what the gameplay would be like
Your post should include the following:
- Target medium or platform. Is this a PC game? Console? Board or card game? Tabletop RPG?
- Number of players
- A paragraph or two describing the game concept
- Another paragraph explaining why this concept will appeal to the target market.
Post in the forum that most closely resembles your skill and experience level as a designer:
Beginner, little or no experience prior to taking this course.
Intermediate, some coursework or exposure to game design but little or no professional experience.
Advanced, at least some professional experience as a published game designer.
Make your post on or before Monday, July 27, noon GMT. Then, offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts in the same forum, and at least three posts in one forum “below” yours if you posted in Blue Square or Black Diamond, before Thursday, July 30.
Can you think of a new kind of fun? Describe it and justify why it is fun in 135 characters or less. Post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. Offer as many as you can think of. Tweet before July 27, noon GMT.