A post by Liore and a comment on said post by Talarian reminded me of a conversation on Twitter from a while back. The reminder, in turn, reminded me that I needed to write this post. After my initial draft, I was really unhappy with the end result of this. I did some serious refinement for this finalized piece, but there are definitely parts of the argument that feel like they are missing. This does not represent my final view on the topic, but I think it is worth sharing and discussing.
Far too often, when we are presented with the prospect of a new game by a friend, we either ask or are told about the game’s level of fun. For most, a game is only as good as it is fun and a game that is not fun is, obviously, not very good. Despite deeper stories, more nuanced themes, better developed characters, richer settings, and more complex mechanics, the entire medium still gets reduced to ‘how fun is it’, but I think games can, sometimes are, and more often should be more than just sources of fun.
Part of the issue is how interchangeable words like ‘fun’, ‘entertaining’, and ‘enjoyable’ have become to modern English-users. For the purposes of this post, I am going to use more rigid definitions than I expect of even my own speech. To highlight this, I will leave these words in quotes to differentiate them from a more standard usage. If you have a disagreement you wish to express, please keep this in mind.
‘Fun’ is a bare minimum form of ‘entertainment’. It is the kind of shallow experience that many mobile games provide. Similarly, I would consider a ‘popcorn flick’ to be a ‘fun’ movie, and every Dragonlance book I read as a kid to be a ‘fun’ fantasy novel. The quality of ‘fun’ implies a lighter and simpler nature that can sometimes border on being frivolous or even foolish. While ‘entertaining’ in their own right, these experiences are far less interested in educating or inspiring the experiencer to critically think, and are more interested in simple enthrallment.
‘Entertaining’ does not equal ‘fun’. Something that is ‘entertaining’ may or may not be ‘fun’. This article (I hope) will ‘entertain’ you, but I am not lacing it with simple jokes or easy puns to make it ‘fun’. Instead, my aim is to keep your interest and to present you with an idea worthy of your fullest consideration. I wish to challenge you to think, to critique, and to respond. My goal is not your mirth; it is to provide you a different perspective – a bit of enlightenment either from your acceptance of my view, your rejection of it, or something else entirely.
The ‘enjoyment’ of something that is ‘fun’ may be easily extracted, but a more enriching and engaging form of ‘entertainment’ may come only after serious trial. For example, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a notoriously difficult read due to being written in a fictional slang, which mostly combined elements of Russian and English. I read it in high school and loved it, but there were many moments where I wanted to give up and others where I had to get help. I persevered and am better for it. The book, aside from being culturally important, is a feat of writing worthy of overcoming any difficulties in experiencing it.
Video games are still young, but I think the time has come to stop using ‘fun’ as the highest peak to which they may ascend. The last few years have given us games worthy of deeper inspection, which have also inspired more introspection. Papers, Please is a fantastic example since its mechanics aren’t exactly ‘fun’, but the whole of its parts remain utterly engaging, transcending the aspirations of more simple-minded video games like Donkey Kong or Frogger. Despite difficulty in games being almost a faux pas at times, series like Dark Souls have garnered mainstream success while focusing on challenge, rather than accessibility and instant gratification. The rise of esports and theorycrafting also reflect the deeper, more scientific elements of playing and competing in games on a serious level.
As with books and movies, my utopian vision of gaming still has room for shallower and more frivolous gaming experiences. I am simply advocating a mindfulness that mindlessness isn’t the end game of all games. Video games can and should be about more. Increasingly they are, but it is still up to us to be a little more specific than ‘fun’ when arguing the value of those experiences we love and want to share. Behind the bleeps and bloops, deeper meaning can exist, and once the screen fades to black, we may find a reflection of ourselves locked deep in thought. Games may never have to be limited in what they can do, say, or inspire again.
P.S. They can still be ‘just for fun’, but like doing better to depict women or minorities, I’d like some discussion about how video games can do more than be passing frivolities.