I’m going to take the fun out of games

Fun and games no longer.

Welcome to another (unwelcome?) edition of Peter’s notebook of ideas for things having to do with video games. Today, I’d like to strip out the idea of “fun” as an identifying attribute of video games (or the broader concept of interactive mediums.) Fun has provided the foundation for success of video games. It’s an idea that the gaming community keeps coming back to: when evaluating the merits of gaming as a medium becomes too vague or needlessly complex, just say screw it, they’re great because they are fun. But this isn’t a universal rule. There are certainly exceptions that core gamers can identify. And as for myself, that exception is Silent Hill 2. That being said, it’s not really any easier to define what exactly makes games compelling outside of the fun you’re having. Never the less, I’m going to throw another of my two-cents into the sea of opinions about video games.

I’m a programmer. I haven’t done a whole lot in the way of programming for video games, but I’ve still made the attempt. What has nagged at me ever since I started writing code is the thought that the bits and bytes that go into a game are not fundamentally any different from those that go into any other program (e.g. Microsoft Excel.) And I’ve always wondered what the magic threshold is for when a program becomes more than a number cruncher and becomes a game. It’s something that bugs me anytime I go back to thinking about making games. At first, it seems like a game  is something along the lines of a program that amuses you without serving a practical purpose.  If you were to peruse the amateur game-design landscape you can see that this is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to a programs becoming a game.  If you’re sitting down to write a design document, that isn’t going to take you very far.

We use terms like “gameplay” and “game mechanics” to capture the elements that give programs their special status as video games.   Even then though, we are using the term to describe something that is observed in existing games.  There isn’t an underlying principle from which new and interesting games can be built upon.  The only principle that’s universally agreed upon that makes programs become games is fun, and it’s a crutch.  Enthusiasts want video games to mean more, and we try very hard to convince people outside of the core community that they do.  Yet, we still struggle to even communicate the meaningfulness of games to each other.  So the challenge in my mind is how do you capture the idea of a “meaningful” game without relying on the concept of fun?  What do you need to build a game?

To put the question to rest in my own mind, I’ve found that programs need to construct and orchestrate three concepts in order to become a game: verbs, spaces, and impressions.  Each corresponds with different concepts we’ve identified in existing games while providing basic principles to flesh out into different types games and interactive experiences.

God Hand has all the best verbs.

An example of a game verb in action.

Verbs represent the assorted actions the player or participant can utilize.  Hit things with a sword, move a block, jump around; all are actions that are immediately available to perform.  Of course, this isn’t unique to games.  Programs have clearly defined verbs like open, save, close, etc.  So verbs alone do not make a game.

Game Spaces

Game Spaces

Spaces offer opportunities to the participant to explore and apply verbs.  They can be levels, worlds, singular puzzles, and everything that surrounds them such as music, stories and characters.  Combining verbs and spaces creates an opportunity for interactive drama.  The designer can build on how the participant uses verbs, challenge them, create tension, release, and creatively work around expectations.  At this point, the program serves to create that interactive drama, but it still leaves the question of why should the audience care in the first place?  Verbs can be entertaining on their own, yet shallow.  Spaces bring depth to the equation, but there’s nothing intrinsically compelling about either of them.

The T-1000 is disappointed with his score.

The player leaves their mark in both cases.

It is the impressions that the participant makes in the program that attracts them to interact with it in the first place.  Impressions are made by running the program or playing the game in a way that’s unique to or reflective of the participant.  This can be a high score, choices that change a story, a decision to develop a character class, or even a series of achievements.  When combining impressions with verbs and spaces, the program is given depth and the participant can feel that they have created and now own a unique experience.

A lot of existing game concepts fall under one or more of the concepts listed above, but I believe these elements provide a basis from which games can be built or critically analyzed without having to fall back on concepts like fun or how they imitate established games and genres.  They can also offer a simpler way to look at games and convey their meaning to others who have no investment in video games as an interactive medium.  Game reviews, aside from informing consumers about a product, are an opportunity to share with people outside of the core community what make games special.  And you can bet when someone is confronted with a 2000 word review on why a game is good or bad, they probably won’t bother trying to digest it.

Games should be able to be described in a few sentences.  What do you do, where do you do it, and what’s in it for the audience.  Everything that follows is justification.  But that first part ought to be enough to sell the idea of the game to a receptive audience whether or not they are already gamers.  Other mediums can be complex, but they are ultimately compositions of simpler elements which express more complicated ideas.  Video games and interactive entertainment are no different. And even if you don’t agree with the concepts I’ve outlined there are still underlying elements that have to be more clearly identified before a game can be sold to skeptics and those who don’t otherwise care.  They can be arranged into something that’s fun, but they can still be used to express other ideas as well.

TL;DR summary: Games are glorified computer programs.  Complexity doesn’t equate to meaning.  Succinctness in building and describing games is valuable.  Avoid using words like fun, gameplay, etc. They don’t actually mean anything.  I should be doing something else on my day off.


10 Responses to “I’m going to take the fun out of games”

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