Fun in class, in sex?

 Posted by (Visited 10098 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Oct 132008

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.”

Teaching Game Design: Lessons learned from SIEGE.

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.

  39 Responses to “Fun in class, in sex?”

  1. This post prompted the Words on Play blog to write their own answer, citing Marc LeBlanc’s 8 Kinds of Fun,

    You can call me Malcolm, Raph.

  2. My mom gets her kicks out of a good Tetris game, where the slowly quickening pace gets her gradually into the flow. It’s interesting to watch her play, because you can clearly see the moment where her brain goes into higher gear, resulting in a literal cascade of cleared lines in a very short time. Of course, the game will always catch up eventually.

    I don’t play Tetris myself, but several of my former teachers have triggered similar “cascades”. The brain is quite literally a tangled web of associations. If you anchor a new idea into a few existing concepts and show a few applications for that idea, the mind starts exploring those possibilities at an exponential rate.

  3. I’m surprised that you didn’t bring up the other half of the obvious response to the school “counter-example”: sometimes school is fun! Why else would anyone voluntarily go to grad school, and enter academia, and by doing so essentially volunteering to spend the rest of their lives in school? Besides, who hasn’t had the experience of looking up something on wikipedia, only to follow links and find yourself 3 hours later looking at a completely unrelated article, engrossed by all the information?

    So while school isn’t always fun, I think it’s obvious that it at least has the potential to be fun. Besides, there’s a pretty clear-cut gaming analogue to the tedium of memorizing dates. We call it “grind.”

  4. That point gets really tiresome. I answered it last year, so I’ll just repost what I said in Danc’s blog:

    The reason a chemistry text isn’t more fun is because it doesn’t teach you skills: it teaches you concepts. Concepts are further divorced from the pragmatism of reality than the skills that are forcibly acquired in the pursuit of goals. The appropriate analogy would instead be that you learn more from an hour in a chemistry lab than you do from a game; in such a case, I think you would agree that this is questionable: both have relatively equal educational potential, given appropriate conditions.

    Just like the Civilization games include encyclopedias that give you reference cards to help you play, the chemistry lab gives you a textbook to enlighten you as to the concepts which you can expand into skills.

    The law of constant composition, for example, is a concept. It is not a skill. You do not DO anything with the law of composition (other than fractions, which is a skill): you merely know it. Successfully mixing a reagent, on the other hand, is a skill.

    Chemistry texts are boring because you are utilizing active skills (how to read, how to memorize) in order to acquire concepts that you may feel have a low perceived value, in large part because the skills they form the foundation for also have low perceived value. Someone excited about chemistry, on the other hand, will devour the text with gusto, because the perceived value of the concepts is high, as the skills that build upon them are have high perceived value.

    Strictly defining terms is decidedly useful. Yes, classes are about mastery. But mastery of what? Here’s a better counterexample: how many masters of martial arts call their activity “fun”? The activity is unquestionably skill-driven, but while they may both enjoy it, the only people told that it’s fun is kids under 12. And their parents.


    “Why is sex fun (by some standards), and yet doesn’t involve mastery (ahem, again by some standards)?”

    Maybe it should be asked of the people who have fun whether or not it involves mastery. Applying a double standard, in the most literal sense, is not conducive to actually figuring out what’s going on.

  5. I thought fun wasn’t just about learning, it was about learning-by-doing. And I thought I remember reading that in your book, Raph.

  6. The comment about taking over the reward systems is closest and there are years of testing and research to back that one up.

    Many theories are recasts with a goal to increase the name recognition of the author (eg, meme theory, tipping point theory). As in casts of data types, they enable a value to be reused in a different context but also to lose originating identity by swallowing it in the new keyword.

    Burgess was right. Modern culture is socially approved theft for the sake of disguising the repetitiveness of the act itself.

    Adultery isn’t a sin against society. It is society.

  7. @Thom, I’m not so sure that there’s a substantial difference between learning and learning by doing. There’s a difference between memorization and learning, sure. But I think was Raph was trying to get at above, and what Michael goes into more depth about above you is that memorization of concept isn’t the same as learning of system. Only when we start to see the underlying pattern does the “fun” kick in.

    Which is exactly why Math as taught in school is horribly boring, but for the mathematician that actually understands the *why* of the formulas rather than simply that they need to plug a number in at the points where their teachers tell them, math is almost mystical, barely removed from art. It’s because the see the pattern beneath it all, and they get to explore the weave and warp of it. There are all of those “ah ha!” moments as you make a new connection, as the whole begins to form from the pieces. You don’t get that by looking at a list of facts or concepts and memorizing them. You get that by thinking about them, playing with them, doing stuff with them. Even if that doing is nothing more than turning the concepts over in your head and seeing how the light catches on them from different angles, it’s still something. Learning is never truly a passive process.

    But most of the learning we do in school isn’t really learning; it’s regurgitation. And mimicry is a skill early mastered, and thus utterly uninteresting.

  8. Sitting in a classroom is analogous to watching somebody else play a video game. It can be entertaining, even fascinating, to watch a skilled player, but sooner or later I always want to take the controls and steer the avatar to where I want to go.

    The classes I relished in collge were the ones where the instructor routinely tossed his or her notes out the window and turned the lecture into a conversation, weaving the material that had to be covered in with narratives suggested by the students. It was inefficient, impractical, and utterly engrossing. It became, in a very real sense, an interactive game –much like Ellipsis’ example of exploring Wikipedia.

    Similarly, sex is (one hopes) an interactive multiplayer experience with a very intense and responsive reward/feedback system. There is an element of learning skills, or at least displaying mastery of previously acquired skills. I guess I don’t quite understand how it would stand as a counter-example to the theories of fun.

  9. @len,
    … and?

    Where exactly does that insight take us?

  10. This is a spur of the moment comment. I think I understand the deeper concept of defining fun as learning a new skill and then moving on to mastery. Maybe mastery is a bit lofty. Maybe mastery may be a goal instead? Learning new skills to obtain a goal seems to make a bit more sense to me.

    Take the school example. I for one was driven by that concept in college. College for me was fun. After my first semester, I had a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve. That goal caused me to look at all of my classes in a different frame of mind. How will this class add to my skill set for my specific path in education? Armed with that question and a goal to graduate with straight A’s actually caused me to have a lot of fun working toward my goal or mastery.

    Just a few thoughts thrown out there.

  11. Re: Sex

    Just another example of why we need your Game Grammar, Raph! It’s a sad state we all can’t even agree on what fun is.


  12. It’s a sad state we all can’t even agree on what fun is.

    I disagree with that statement. I think it’s fine if we can’t agree on the definitions of terminology. The game design field doesn’t yet have hundreds of years of formalization, institutionalization, and countless theorists; most people name Huizinga and Callois as the oldest names in the theory business.

    The sad state, in my opinion, is the flailing criticism: instead of contributing by offering a constructive opinion or actually building a counterargument, they fire off a note of varying scathe and call it a day’s work accomplished. To quote Roosevelt, they are not The Man in the Arena.

  13. @Makkaio, see, that’s exactly it. When you look at it in terms of “how does this fit with this other stuff to achieve this goal I want” you move back to the concept of patterns rather than memorization of bits of information. It’s no surprise that it becomes fun. Ultimately it doesn’t matter *why* we focus on the patterns, or even *what* those patterns are; as long as the focus is there, the effect should be roughly the same.

    The end point of the whole “theory of fun” thing is once you reach mastery the activity loses the bulk of it’s appeal. You can still return to it for say, relaxation, or as something to zone out to, but it’ll never offer the same sorts of rushes. So mastery actually kills a lot of the fun. As a designer, you actually don’t want your players to completely gain mastery over your systems. If they do, the systems get boring.

    There’s actually a story there about why the game industry ended up the way it has, and why Nintendo is ascendant when no one thought it could be, but it’s really off-topic so I won’t go into it here.

  14. “Where exactly does that insight take us?”

    All learning is not intensional. Not all fun is anticipated. Society is a set of knowns walling out unknowns.

    I don’t think it takes you anywhere. It defines what you are and that is the key to knowing if you will be any fun.

  15. Mastery of sex is not required for it to be fun any more than mastery of a musical instrument is required. Mastery of attitude is.

    On the other hand, mastery in both cases determines how much fun the other players are having.

  16. I’ve been thinking about this since I read it yesterday, and I think I’ve got a line on how to break this down, deconstruct it a bit. I’ve not read “A Theory of Fun” beyond the excerpts yet, so hopefully this won’t be at cross-purposes.

    Preface: I’ve taken a *lot* of college classes, and have found varying levels of fun and involvement in each. Likewise I’ve played a *lot* of games over the years, with the same varying levels of attachment and drive. Here’s how I’d break down the conditions needed for fun, the soil and sunlight, and please forgive me a bit as I’m at work and can’t flesh these out nearly as much as I’d like to (it makes sooo much sense in my head, you know?):

    1. A Goal. Motive, in other words. There has to be an end-point or end-state you desire to reach when you start. Timeframe isn’t critical; it’s just as valid to have a goal of mastering a skill or game as it is to have a goal of winning one PvP match or cooking one tasty meal (versus becoming a renowned chef). However, a large scale makes progress difficult to detect unless broken down into smaller sub-goals either consciously or unconsciously. In games, quests often do this breaking down for players: think about the feeling you get when you run out of quests but still have a ways to go to hit your next in-game milestone.

    2. Noticable Progress. A sensation of progress to the goal is essential. Actual progress does not matter, it’s the feeling of making progress that’s necessary. Without it, a sense of frustration will likely begin to eclipse fun.

    3. Variety. There has to be some amount of variation that prevents exact repetition or the brain will start to rely on cached memory (seriously) and as a consequence become bored (since it isn’t being engaged to any significant extent). Boredom, like frustration, will eclipse fun.

    4a. Feedback, Discreet. Let’s call this the thrill of victory. These little endorphin rushes do a lot to increase the feeling of fun and enjoyment. In this case an A-HA! moment is the same as a rare drop, depending on what you’re doing. (In the severe case, it’s these “little rushes” that lead to gambling addictions, but let’s not go there.)

    4b. Feedback, Continuous. Let’s call this the feeling of confidence. This is the background good-feelings you get from having gained capabilities on your way to your goal. Feeling like you can now do certain things if you choose to, can take advantage if opportunities present themselves, can do something cool if called upon to perform, can be noticed or get complimented out of the blue, et cetera, all of this puts you in a better frame for fun. (In severe cases this can begin to supplant an individual’s sense of self-worth, but let’s not go there either.)

  17. I should add, reaching a goal or sub-goal is also a bit of discreet feedback. In case that connection wasn’t clear.

  18. @Raph: In the “learning skills” world of fun, how do you account for novels (and their video game equivalent the JRPG)? It’s hard to argue that you’re learning a new skill when you read a novel (with the exception of perhaps the first few novels you read, which is nearly the same case in traditional JRPGs) but a lot of people would define reading as a fun activity.

  19. Laura,

    I think there are TONS of pattern matching things that go on when reading a good book. The assembly of disparate ideas and psychologically complex character is a form of pattern matching, of observing a complex system and learning new nooks and crannies.

    This is why we find rote, by the numbers fiction with flat characters less compelling.

    It’s also why I like your blog — the mushroom fairies piece being a recent favorite, and also the wind farm one. At your best, you force a fresh perspective, and expand people’s mental libraries of patterns.

  20. Peter, I had a whole big response posted up but Raph’s site went all CPU Quota Limit Reached! and died between me typing it and hitting send, so it got lost.

    It basically boiled down to that list of yours being really good ways to stimulate the root cause of what A Theory of Fun suggests causes fun, but that they’re ultimately unnecessary in terms of the fun existing. It comes down to the pattern matching, as Raph points out above. So those things help make it so that there’s more pattern matching, or makes the pattern matching process more obvious, but it’s not the root cause.

    Drawing that distinction is important, because stuff like variety is important because it prevents mastery from occurring too rapidly, and mastery removes the fun from the equation. But there are alternate ways to approach the mastery “problem”, such as using patterns that are just plain harder to master (which is not always going to be the best solution, but it can be *a* solution), that don’t necessarily have a great deal of variety. If we mistake our techniques that amplify the underlying causes to be the causes, we risk misapplication of those techniques and worse we can’t properly explore how we could improve or replace those techniques.

  21. Learning how a process operates is more fun than memorizing the data which the process tends to print.

    This is where schools tend to fail.

  22. I keep meaning to put together a coherent response for Peter, too, heh. However, I need to be out the door in 20 minutes, so I can’t right now and I’ve put this off a couple days already.

    If nothing else, I want to point people here:

    The comment I posted comes from here:

    This actually jives quite nicely with Eolirin’s comment. I’ll try to post something of substance later. :p

  23. @Eolirin, I’ve gotten into the habit of copying my posts into Notepad before hitting Submit (not just here, but online forums generally). This has saved me from anguish numerous times.

    @Michael Chui, thank you and no worries, I barely find time to post myself. 🙂

  24. Okay, here’s my semi-coherent response.

    I’ve been reading McKenzie Wark’s “Gamer Theory” this past week, so a lot of his academic-punk thought processes have been filtering through me. I think the most important point on fun is that it’s different for everyone. So if you’re designing, then you need to start by accepting that most people won’t have fun no matter what you do.

    I think you’re right about the feedback loop being important. People tend to have fun if some kind of evaluative process happens, either by the doer or in response to her actions. (Point of argument: In classrooms, the evaluative loop generally takes a ridiculously long time to wrap around. This builds anxiety or apathy, both of which run counter to fun.) I notice this, oddly, in the workplace. One of the things my VP has pointed out is that the agile software dev process works in part because people have fun, they get passionate, and they’re recognized for their contributions.

    That wraps back around into Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” concept, which Raph has asserted isn’t the same as his framing of fun, but you know… still. I remember having a discussion about that detail here on the blog, but I can’t remember the details offhand. I think the difference is in your points 2 & 4a (those look like the same thing to me, btw). Flow isn’t victory. Victory takes you out of flow, because suddenly you’ve taken a step back and you realize what you’ve finished. There’s something in that that expresses a qualitative difference between flow and fun, but I can’t figure out how to describe it. I can feel it! :p

    I also disagree about a “goal”. While a goal might be necessary in a game or in class, undirected play can also be considered fun, can’t it? Noodling, or even just hanging out with no purpose in mind is a fun activity without any actual intended achievement.

    *rubs head* That was a less structured response than I’d have liked to give, but I think I’ve hit every point I’ve thought to. I can feel my brain shutting down, though, so no more tonight. 🙂

  25. @Michael, see, the interesting thing about Raph’s theory is that fun isn’t different for everyone, it’s in fact exactly the same for everyone… what ends up being different is whether the underlying patterns are ones they’ve mastered already, or alternatively whether those patterns are dressed in ways that makes them ignore them entirely. The process involved in generating fun, by Raph’s definition, is always the same, even if certain contexts work more or less for certain people.

    Assuming it holds up against continued examination, this gives you a very strong starting point. Since you’re now dealing with a quantifiable objective principle, you can understand *why* an activity isn’t fun for a person. You can start to identify where you’re falling down with an individual; they’ve already mastered it, you’ve screwed something up so they bounce off before they get to the underlying patterns, etc.

    The biggest difference with Flow is that it’s Zen like, and it can occur even after you’ve achieved a point of mastery. Fun doesn’t necessarily cause Flow like states, and it doesn’t have the same sorts of boundaries; you can have punctuated fun, but Flow is more of a constant state for the duration. You also can’t have fun once you’ve attained mastery; there’s no new patterns to discover. So it’s closer to a quantitative than qualitative difference. Fun comes from pattern recognition and matching; learning basically. Flow is more a state of being absolutely present with the activity you’re performing; you don’t need to necessarily be learning anything, you just need to immerse and not be broken out. There’s a Zen Buddhist saying, “When eating, eat; when sleeping, sleep.” This is a description of living life in a constant state of Flow. Very very different things.

  26. @Eolirin,

    the interesting thing about Raph’s theory is that fun isn’t different for everyone, it’s in fact exactly the same for everyone…

    I disagree with this statement, but since we’re reaching the same conclusion, I won’t quarrel over it. 🙂

    Since you’re now dealing with a quantifiable objective principle

    So it’s closer to a quantitative than qualitative difference.

    Out of curiosity, have you gotten any further than calling it “quantifiable”? I mean, have you quantified any of this at all, or are you just suggesting that “objective” is synonymous with “quantitative”?

    There’s a Zen Buddhist saying, “When eating, eat; when sleeping, sleep.” This is a description of living life in a constant state of Flow.

    “When having sex, have sex.”?

  27. If the theory is correct, there’s definitely the ability to make use of it in a quantitative way, though the questions used to build the model are partially qualitative. I’m not using it as a synonym, but it’s in a kind of grey area in the same way that statistical analysis of polls are often quantitative studies of qualitative values. Quantifiable simply means that you’ve got a measurable value, and binary states are measurable. You can also demonstrate, in a measurable way, the current skill level of a particular person at that moment, by using various tests that demonstrate mastery. Since the model is based on the existence or lack of existence of “skills” at specific levels of mastery, you can definitely peg where a person is, and thus determine where a person will find fun. In order to demonstrate any of that, you’d need to run actual studies, and that’s beyond my means certainly, but in theory, you should be able to make a quantitative model out of it, if it’s true anyway. You’d also need to have a more developed sense of game grammar or the gameplay broken down into “atoms” that people’re working on than we do now so that you can better see what’s really happening, but it’s doable.

    And I did say closer to, rather than is, in the second case for a reason.

    And I know you kinda don’t want to quarrel over the “fun is the same for everyone” thing, but I think it’s important for me to try to say why I’m saying it that way, because I think the difference isn’t “real” but comes from us defining the statement differently and I want to be on the same page. In terms of various activities, different people will find different things fun. So, I may find doing X fun, and you may find it boring. But what the theory is basically saying is that if I’m having fun with X and you’re having fun with Y, the reason why we’re having fun with those things is the same reason, even if there’s no cross over for either of us in terms of what the activity is or how we go about it.

    And it comes down to the patterns and mastery equation again. If I’ve mastered a set of skills, exercising those skills is no longer “fun”, though it can still be enjoyable. I don’t get the endorphin rushes from making new progress and advancing my understanding of those patterns, because I’ve already mastered them, so there’s nothing more to be gained. You may not have. You may find that activity really awesome. Or, I may simply be so uninterested in those particular patterns that I never bother to look at them, or they may be too hard for me to make any progress and I quit out of frustration. Those are all individual limits and preferences that’ll make the activities that I find fun different from the ones that you do. But that’s different from the cause being different between us; the cause is in the patterns and the mastery thereof. There’s a generality underlying the specifics of any given activity. You can apply pattern recognition, sorting, and mastery to the vast majority of actions that a human can take. Fun is simply the exercise of those basic, shared, common functions, even if how we go about at getting to them is wildly different.

    Again, assuming the theory is correct.

  28. Quantifiable simply means that you’ve got a measurable value, and binary states are measurable.

    Being in love is also binary, but you’re going to have to explain to me how to measure that. 🙂

    More seriously, I think that you fail to recognize that qualitative approaches are also measurements; the difference is simply that those measurements can’t be easily reduced to numerical values, and thus have more difficulty being generalized.

    Quantification is numbers. Anything else is qualitative and comes with all the disadvantages that denotes.

    I think the difference isn’t “real” but comes from us defining the statement differently and I want to be on the same page.

    Which statement, Eolirin?

    When I say “fun is different for everyone”, I mean that given a population, a subset will have fun, another subset will not, and there will be an overlap of those who can’t decide. This is a tautological truth. I don’t pretend to say I know exactly why this is true: you make the claim that Raph’s theory, and definition, are correct. I say that it remains to be proven, or at least survive a battery of attempts to falsify it. This hasn’t properly happened, and you, being a stickler of the scientific, should know that as well as I.

    You are being extremely fast and loose with your acceptance of Raph’s theory. From “skill” to “mastery” to “pattern” to “fun”, all you’ve done is rephrase the statements in Raph’s book as gospel truth. That’s lazy.

    Back when I was still in college, I took a course called Research Methods. We were split into project groups to set up the basis for research: set out the variables and operationalize them, decide what kind of study to conduct and how, etc. We brought in Raph’s book, Jenkins’ paper, and finding insufficient substance, we collectively hit the stacks in educational scholarship, trying to figure out a definition for the various concepts. We didn’t get to the point where I was satisfied, and we certainly didn’t get to the point where we could call most of the analytical methods proposed both “quantitative” and reliable. We ended up sitting back and agreeing that we just couldn’t prove the aim of the study, which would have simply been to show that games could teach.

    These are great places to start, but at the end of the day, it’s still just exposition. It is no less fictional than a great novel. It’s not science; it’s not even a hypothesis: it’s a philosophical paper. The word “theory” is being used in the layman’s sense–“This is what my standing opinion is.”–not the scientific “This is the falsifiable hypothesis that has stood up to dozens of attempts to disprove it.”

    We disagree about the statement because we don’t agree on what we’re using the word “fun” to denote. If that’s not an argument that we don’t really understand what we’re talking about, still, I don’t know what is. Replace the word “fun” with the word “pain”. It’s not so different.

  29. @Eolirin, Michael,

    I think that both of you are right in certain ways. From a physical perspective most humans aren’t wired any differently from one another, and thus there is a valid ground for saying that fun is going to be the same for all since in a very broad sense, stock model humans react to stimuli in largely identical ways.

    From a psychological or sociological perspective, however, you have contexts that alter how stimuli are perceived. Thus the experience of identical signals will not also be identical. Part of enjoyment, I think, rests on the expectations someone brings with them to what they’re doing, and we’re assuming “perfect knowledge” as it’s used in economics. Mismatch of expectations can really change whether an experience satisfies or thwarts a desire regardless of the “intrinsic” properties of the experience: just think about expecting to go to Restaurant X and ending up at Restaurant Y, and being grumpy and disappointed despite otherwise liking Y (which isn’t, for the record, saying that having something be different than expected is always bad, of course).

    Sometimes people don’t know why they find certain things fun, let’s not forget. Perfect knowledge is a valid assumption so long as it’s treated the way a physicist treats a perfect sphere (insert spherical chicken joke here). I think Eolirin’s most recent post does make this distinction; I interpret the post as saying that if the “physical” states are the same, they are in the states they are for the same “physical” reasons.

    I would disagree with the idea that fun is solely resultant from pattern-matching. But, I would say that for games, pattern-matching is the only one you are responsible for. Certainly you can not yet offer (much) physical sensation, or generate an awesome meal for the player that kicks butt at a cooking game. In being limited to sight and sound, and approaching these media with the goal of interactive participation, it does constrain what types of fun can be offered. In addition, some types of fun, such as those that come from general social interaction, cannot be directly generated by a game (or other software) developer to a significant extent (yet: right now those come from other people, who can be facilitated but not truly emulated or controlled). I’d say that (for now) pattern-matching and intermittent reward response are the walls of the box we’re in. For now, it may be all we have to work with.

    Plus, really, it would probably be more accurate to call pattern-matching an element of a fun-causing stimulus, and in our case we believe it is both the dominant element and the easiest to create. It’s like when we humans used to know only a handful of long-lasting pigments and thus were limited in what we could paint.

    Also, from someone who’s somewhat familiar with trance states, “Flow” is not the same thing as fun. I’d say that as a pleasurable or pleasant state, it makes fun easier, but much like the with sex (or intoxication, depending on what you find more analogous) there’s other stuff going on that will really obscure the specific mental processes we’re keen to tease out.

    Finally, even more scatteredly, I would not describe love as binary. No no no no no.

  30. insert spherical chicken joke here

    I didn’t know this joke, and I like it immensely. Actually, I think I’ve heard a version, but yeah. 🙂

    Certainly you can not yet offer (much) physical sensation, or generate an awesome meal for the player that kicks butt at a cooking game. In being limited to sight and sound, and approaching these media with the goal of interactive participation, it does constrain what types of fun can be offered.

    Limiting the discussion of games in general to videogames in specific is usually a mistake, in my opinion. Lest you forget, note the title of the OP and tell me which sensations are missing from that “game”. (I originally typed “mixing”, but I caught it before I posted.)

    Finally, even more scatteredly, I would not describe love as binary. No no no no no.

    Spherical chicken. 😀

  31. “When having sex, have sex.”?

    That won’t make it fun for all players. Goals ARE important. Posit two:

    1. Women come first.
    2. Everyone gets a cookie.
    3. When in doubt, see rule one.

    Applying skills learned elsewhere to the game being played is a way of changing the flow of play to introduced novelty and heightened fun. Classical guitar players master a technique called the rest stroke and another for a sustained 32 notes both of which are reapplicable. I’m sure the flute players and clarinet players have some as well.

    Then there is mastery of breath that singers to high degree and all musicians to different degrees have to learn. Understanding of synchronized and syncopated breath techniques are taught in both music and tantra.

    Abstractions of fun are only fun for thinking about the game. The deeper meaning of the phrase is to focus on the act as that act which means when the technique is incorporated it expands the mastery of that act. The fun is bringing what is learned from applying the technique in a different medium back to the original.

    Watch the orchestra for the occasional blushes in the winds.

    A theory of fun is like a theory of breathing. If you have to think about it, you aren’t doing it right, but if you think about it, you can do it better.

  32. Limiting the discussion of games in general to videogames in specific is usually a mistake, in my opinion. Lest you forget, note the title of the OP and tell me which sensations are missing from that “game”. (I originally typed “mixing”, but I caught it before I posted.)

    True, I’d narrowed my line of thiking without, well, thinking about it. Thanks for pointing it out. I’d say that what I’ve said still holds for non-videogames, though, as in essence I’m saying that only so much can come from the game, or the part or parts able to be described as game. Consider the question, “How do we create a fun variant of Tag?” There is likely a limit to what the person writing the new rules can promise (or what the rules sheet can deliver) and thus in a rather indirect sense to what can, as had been brought up, be formulated as a falsifiable test. Isolatable and controllable variables and whatnot.

    Oh, but feel free, in the spirit of the OP, to replace “Tag” with any one of those… intriguing boxed games they sell in adult novelty stores. 😀

  33. I’d say that what I’ve said still holds for non-videogames, though, as in essence I’m saying that only so much can come from the game, or the part or parts able to be described as game.

    Yes, but the problem that normally baffles us, excepting Marc LeBlanc’s model, and helps undergird Eolirin’s assertions is that we can’t seem to come up with any other remotely reliable explanation for what fun is other than what Raph has proposed. It’s also worth appreciating how incredibly general the term “pattern-matching” is: it is not so different from what you do when you look around a room you’ve never been in; it is hard to say that “that’s not all of fun” when you can turn it on its head and say, “What isn’t pattern matching?”

    I will point out that theory is not something that needs to cover all bases: it should be helpful, but ultimately, innovation will shoot it all to hell.

  34. I’ve always taken the term “pattern-matching”, in this sort of context, to be anything that causes the brain to deveop a novel, efficient neural pathway. After all, there are scientific studies into why we laugh, and those point to a biological reward feedback relating to development of novel neural pathways. Pattern, for the brain, is (on one level) a matter of efficiency.

    Pattern-matching, then, is like lifting weights for the brain, and as you said, there are other exercises but none we know how to really describe. But like lifting weights, or exercise in general, eventually you have to find new challenges, otherwise you plateau. The brain doesn’t like to plateau.

  35. “The Organization of Behavior By Donald Olding Hebb”

    The cited texts explains the assembly building in the brain responsible for learned behavior based on perception. You are discussing this at several levels higher but some made references to studies. That is one of the better texts I’ve found if one is interested in theories of the physical mechanisms. has significant chapters for viewing.

  36. @ 16 Peter S.

    This may not have been the intention, but what you have written there also seems to be to perfectly encapsulate what any employee needs to receive from their work and superiors.

    It struck me as a fascinating point as the above is exactly what I feel like I’m missing from my employer right now, but is exactly what I’m getting from the games that I’m playing…

  37. Actually, that was the intention. I like trying to find “universal” rules in things, general conditions, behaviors, factors, etc. I use this general hypothesis: apparent complexity is often “just” a Moire pattern arising from a deceptively small number of factors. It’s fun to see if such things can be sleuthed out (meaning, I don’t go in believing this will be true, I go in to see if I can find something like this).

    I mean, think of how every color we see is a result of “just” three specific wavelengths of light.

    Of course, I’m also over-educated and extra-introspective, so there you go. 😛

  38. […] read about the connection between Raph Koster, sex, and English lit essays. Raph refers you to Word On Play, which takes it eight […]

  39. […] learning, but learning isn’t sufficient.  (Raph Koster elaborated on this recently, in a post discussing fun in games, class, and sex.)  The fun doesn’t kick in until you’re using the tools the […]

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