When a game designer (or student) first starts trying to define why games are “fun” they have trouble even conceptualizing it beyond “I know it when I see it.” Then they encounter Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and/or Koster’s Theory of Fun and have this huge epiphany: Eureka, all fun comes from learning a new skill! Then after awhile, they enter another stage of questioning this: wait a minute, if all fun comes from skill mastery, why aren’t students driven by the promise of fun to get straight A’s in all their classes (even the poorly taught ones), since that involves mastery of the material? Why is sex fun (by some standards), and yet doesn’t involve mastery (ahem, again by some standards)? At any rate, you could think of this as three stages of evolution of a game designer, and different designers are going to be in different stages, and when they encounter one another there will be chaos when they start discussing the nature of “fun.”
Some interesting questions there.
- “if all fun comes from skill mastery, why aren’t students driven by the promise of fun to get straight A’s in all their classes (even the poorly taught ones), since that involves mastery of the material?”
The promise of fun is not fun, obviously. I suspect that the promise of fun only works when you can visibly see the fun ahead. 🙂
I’d also add that very very few classes I have ever taken have managed to put me in a state of operating at the boundary of challenge, or even at the level of mastery that feels like power. I can distinctly recall when literature classes ceased to be fun because essay-writing was a largely rote process — the analytical tools were mastered years earlier, and essays were just repeated proof that I could juggle, so to speak. At that point, it felt like tedium, not power.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the class was poorly taught. It could mean “poorly balanced for this particular player” — the same affliction that hits most games. Every student/gamer is going to come to a challenge at a different level.
My theory of fun also says that mastery and fun involve facing something that isn’t noise. A lot of our pedagogical methods involve rote learning, or learning of disconnected concepts without a sense of the underlying patterns. But it is the mental models, the patterns, that seem to be the source of fun in games, and many classes are not taught in this way.
This means that instead of learning to see the pattern behind what appears to be static, students spend their time mapping a chunk of static — they learn it, certainly, but they don’t necessarily grok the underlying systemic nature of it.
- “Why is sex fun (by some standards), and yet doesn’t involve mastery (ahem, again by some standards)?”
See, this is why the word “fun” is treacherous. There’s some powerful hindbrain mojo and some outright physical, non-psychological stuff going on with sexual behavior, drives that aren’t necessarily “fun.” Sure, it can be fun in the games sense, but it’s quite easy to look at the situation and circumstances and start finding other reasons why that sort of fun might come up (plenty of skills to master, for example). Particularly given that fun is itself a cocktail of endorphins and chemicals affecting the brain, and sexual arousal provides yet another cocktail. Teasing “fun” out from all the various drugs your brain is on at that time is going to be improbably complicated.
This post prompted the Words on Play blog to write their own answer, citing Marc LeBlanc’s 8 Kinds of Fun, breaking down the ways in which LeBlanc’s 8 ways apply to sex. Marc’s 8 sorts have always seemed to me to complement ATOF just fine. Sensation falls into the category of aesthetics and visceral reactions that Nicole Lazzaro has written about so much, Submission seems to me to be what comes at master, and everytyhing else can easily be seen as varying sorts of patterns and mental models to build.
The real intent here is exactly to provide a starting point for discussions like these, not to provide a definitive answer — so I don’t tend to see the various models of fun that are out there as being in conflict, but rather like the old parable of the blind men and the elephant.