“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” ― Alan Wilson Watts
I had come prepared to offer up a lengthy etymology of the f-bomb and its usage in the gaming medium, but the less said of Babylonian Flesh Checkers, the better. Instead, in the spirit of bait and switch articles everywhere, the f-word I’m going to write about today is “fun.” Fun is peculiar burden shouldered by games and, I would argue, at the center of why critics of other mediums—Roger Ebert, for example—have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that games can be art.
If there’s one assumption both game designers and gamers tend to make about games, it’s that “games are fun.” When you think of a bad game, you’re probably imagining one whose mechanics or interface made for a frustrating or boring experience, one that’s flawed in its execution. But can there be a “good “game that fails to invoke a sense of fun?
Most games serve up a platter of “fun” by putting us in the role of a powerful person able to make do-or-die decisions using skills, powers or resources far beyond what we could muster in real life. Games have given me a taste of what it’s like to be a god, Roman general, vampire swordsman and anthropomorphic space jockey fox man.
The last one notwithstanding, it’s safe to say I will never be any of these awesome things in real life.
The horror genre serves as a good bellwether for just how ingrained the power fantasy has become as the metric for fun. More than any other genre, horror depends on the feeling of helplessness, of being up against odds far greater than the protagonist should be capable of handling. Some games have embraced this idea, notably the early offerings in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video game series. Ammunition was limited, the characters slow and somewhat ponderous to control. The enemies were tougher, faster or stronger than you.
A funny thing happened when Resident Evil 4 came around: Leon Kennedy, the plodding police rookie had morphed into a kung fu prodigy with the mysterious ability to randomly spawn ammunition from possessed Spanish peasants. Meanwhile, at the weekly White Wolf game, I’m deciding whether my vampire should wield twin katanas or deal lethal damage with his boxing mastery. Even when we’re supposed to be scared, we still have to be extraordinary.
Power fantasies are the mainstay of gaming, the high concept hook that brings gamers back to the table time and time again. This is particularly true of video games, where we tend to play as testosterone-poisoned mayhem artists high on destiny, but the power fantasy is no stranger to the tabletop. We like them because being awesome is fun. And game developers know that fun sells.
But fun has become a burden we inflict upon games that we spare other media.
What kinds of movies come to mind when you think of a “fun” movie? Summer popcorn flicks? Light genre films? Crazy CGI effects and over-the-top martial arts? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Schindler’s List, Chinatown, Citizen Kane or Muholland Drive aren’t the first things that come to mind. It’s unlikely that fun was a priority for the makers of these highly acclaimed movies and, unless human frailty is your particular methadone, you probably won’t walk away from these films feeling like you had a grand old time. The same is true of books and even music.
It’s assumed that these media will tackle heady, disturbing, or emotional topics. You know, the stuff that happens in real life. To suggest the creation of a game that eschews fun puts you way out in the dangerous and pretentious indie wilderness, where marauding bands of human interest story writers viciously cannibalize any novelty they can find into fuel for their war machines.
Brenda Brathwaite made headlines a few years back with her board game, Train. At first glance, Train appears to be a simple draw/roll and go game featuring freight trains. As you play, your train picks up passengers and whisks them away to their final destination. The peculiarities of the game begin to add up: the broken window under the board, the freight cars filled to capacity with human beings.
The destination turns out to be Auschwitz. According to Brathwaite, the game’s end state tends to be a cathartic moment where players realize just what it is they’ve been doing and immediately stop playing. Train, for most of its players, is not a fun game. Reactions vary from shock, to anger, to feelings of violation and, yes, even apathy.
Of course, Train is not a commercial product and would be difficult to market outside of an educational setting. Commercial developers can’t be faulted for wanting to make money. We have to want games that make us think, make us feel small or help us empathize with people who may be weaker than us. So Leon “Combat Roll” Kennedy can kill a zombie. That’s not impressive. With his skills and arsenal, who couldn’t? But what does Jenny, the 13 year-old blind girl do when the dead walk?
The best movies and books make us work. Developers shouldn’t be afraid to make players work. In her book Reality is Broken, game designer Jane McGonigal describes games as a form of voluntary work, one which places obstacles in the form of rules, between players and a goal. She argues that play is not the antithesis of work (that would be despondency). The potential for fun, or more appropriately engagement, is written into the very DNA of games, with their cycle of observation, experimentation and feedback.
There are so many ways in which games, a uniquely interactive medium, can engage us. Why limit them to fun?