This might sound like a silly question, but I think it draws an important distinction in determining what games we decide to play and enjoy. A game succeeds when it convinces someone to voluntarily exchange their time to act within the game’s arbitrary set of rules and constraints which are, by design, inconsequential as far as the player’s day-to-day life is concerned. (Though it is possible for incidental consequences as a result of gaming: socialization, anti-social behavior, procrastination, better hand-eye coordination, etc. But none of these are the primary function of the game.) When you think of fun though, what comes to mind? At least for myself, it’s light hearted experiences centering around amusement: blowing people away in an online FPS, making cute avatars do silly things that go beep and boop, building a castle, knocking it over, creeping around a virtual haunted house, or challenging friends to battles of wits and reflex. Games that are fun are amusing ways to spend your time, but is this an adequate definition for the range of reasons that gamers will engross themselves in virtual worlds?
Now, consider some of the things that people do for fun. Chances are that there are many examples of things that are not necessarily amusing in nature. I used to run as part of a cross country team. I was terrible at meets because I had asthma, but at the middle school level, it wasn’t a big deal. And getting up at 6:30 in the morning and running for miles at a time was something I did at the time for fun. I don’t know what I was thinking. Running wasn’t “fun” in the amusement sense of the word (the asthma made sure of that), but it was enjoyable for reasons I can’t quantify. I can see myself playing games for similarly vague reasons and wrote at length about Silent Hill 2 and how the game was satisfying without being fun or amusing. It’s a game that I played for fun, meaning for no particular reason other than I felt like it. I attempted to rationalize why I played it in the previously linked post, but at the time I had no better idea why than I did when I was half-way killing myself to run for cross country. People are compelled to do many things that aren’t amusing but compelling none the less.
We are used to a video game industry that began by marketing to children, and amusement is a key part of that market. But amusement is one means to the end of a good game; a means that can be interchanged with any number of design strategies which still can appeal to a gaming audience. Amusement has been central to gaming’s success, but it’s not paramount. A game that can entice its audience to engage and interact with it is a successful one.