If fun is about learning, then why do people replay games that they have mastered? I get asked this question a lot… though usually, it comes with a sort of aha! I have caught you out! sort of tone to it, because readers enjoy picking apart the arguments in A Theory of Fun for Game Design.
Here’s one that doesn’t have that tone, but gets across the essential question:
The question is then, why do people sometimes enjoy playing the same game over and over again? I’m not just talking about open world RPGs or MMOs. People often replay their favorite first person shooters, racing games, and strategy games. Why do we replay games that unfold in the same way each time?
I call this behavior “whittling.” I don’t remember where I got the analogy, but basically, a lot of folks enjoy whittling away at wood until there’s nothing left, then they start anew.
This would seem to contradict the basic premise that fun comes from mastering patterns. There’s no creative process in play, so no new pattern is being mastered — they’re not whittling to sculpt something. And surely, they aren’t really learning much about the bite of knife into cellulose after having done it a thousand times before. They are doing it to pass the time — the origin of the word “pastime.”
There are many many activities like this that we do all the time. It has been observed that many Facebook players use the games there as a form of “mindless clicking” to while away time. At GDC, Chris Trottier made the point that
To many adults and especially a “mom’ demographic, time spent for yourself is a guilty pleasure… What are the things you can do in the game to make a player say “I was really glad I spent my time here.” Fun is not enough. ‘Relaxes me’ is a clearer value.
We’ve long known that repetitive action has a calming effect. Meditation techniques are largely premised on repeated simple actions executed consciously until they become automatic, triggering particular brain wave patterns. Similarly, anyone who has run long distances, practiced a musical instrument, or indeed, engaged in focused practice on anything knows how this can feel, and how it can lead to a sense of flow.
The Wikipedia article on meditation states no fewer than three times that scientific studies on meditation vary wildly in quality, and that there is therefore no clear picture of what meditation actually is. That said, there is some evidence that meditation has positive effects on lowering stress levels, inducing calm, and capacity to concentrate and focus. There are also some physical markers that emerge: changes in heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and so on.
It is common in most forms of meditation to have a focus, something that you pay attention to closely, while at the same time allowing your mind to wander freely. A candle, breathing rate, or “everything around you” are common foci.
I suggest that people who use games as de-stressers by focusing on them in a mindless, repetitive way may well be just using the game as a focus for meditation.
Now, just as in the book I stated that flow isn’t the same thing as fun, I’m going to state that this isn’t really what we tend to term fun either. It arguably has significant mental benefits, but it doesn’t use the particular virtues of games. You could very well be whittling or gardening or reciting mantras under your breath instead. At most, it is an opportunity to practice mastery — you can’t very well use a game as a meditative device unless you have mastered to the degree where play is largely automatic. And by its nature as a practice, it will tend to push you away from feelings of frustration — which are a characteristic element of the experience of true fun.
I’ve had people write things like “so you’re telling me that I shouldn’t play games this way?” based on the comment in the book that you ought to move on from a game when you have mastered it, in order to keep learning more. And I still believe that it is true in the general case. But I have nothing against meditation — I actually think it is a very valuable practice — and if doing it with games is what does the trick for you, then by all means, continue. Just be aware of why you are doing it, and be cognizant of the many many other ways in which you could be meditating instead, some of which involve getting some exercise. 🙂