State of the Art – “On the Tyranny of Fun”

Videogame media’s sine qua non condition for a good videogame: being fun. If, and only if it is fun, can it be deemed a good buy, a prime piece of entertainment or what they would foolishly call a work of “art”. Sure, technologically adept graphic engines, seemingly complex AI routines, innovative gameplay design and, occasionally (rarely?), captivating narrative and unique aesthetics can seal the deal. But the first and foremost condition for any review to assess, is each videogame’s “fun factor”. All those other features are, at best, just rationalization fodder for reviewers to find in their hearts if the game is worthy of 8, 9 or 10, B+, A or A+, or the equivalent in whichever scale is chosen by that publication. Of course, this is not just a case of the media, it is also a case for consumers. They’re the ones who determine what media focuses on, and naturally, together, they determine what videogame production focuses on, which is, undeniably, “fun”. But what is fun? What is the meaning that hides beneath this seemingly harmless three letter word, and why do so many of us spend half their waking life looking for it, in film, music, TV and videogames?

Csikszentmihaliy is a psychologist who studied entertainment across different contexts; through his research, he designed a model which encompasses entertainment’s cognitive and emotional basis. He discovered what he called flow, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. Sound familiar? In reality, flow is more or less what people understand to be “fun”: a pleasurable state of high arousal. But there is more to this “flow”. Besides a profound sense of enjoyment, whilst in flow, people enter a state of deep focus and concentration in their activity, they feel at one with their surroundings, losing any self-consciousness and awareness of the self, and even lose track of time.

Csikszentmihaliy also digresses on the conditions needed for activities to incite flow as a ratio between challenges and skills. According to his studies, for someone to feel flow, challenges’ difficulty has to adapt dynamically to the skills of the practitioner, always being great enough to warrant improvement, but without ever seeming too hard to achieve. When the complexity of a challenge far outweighs the skills of the practitioner, that person loses concentration, building up anxiety, and eventually leading into frustration when the challenge is left unconquered. Conversely, when the skills far outweigh the challenge, the result is boredom. The very definition of a game fits into this challenge/skill model – games are systems bound by rules, in which an artificial conflict is proposed to players, a challenge that requires effort (read skills) to be achieved, and which has different outcomes, some good (win), some bad (lose). As you can see, the game activity has challenges and skills built into its weaving structure which is why ludic videogames can so easily mimic the cognitive and emotional effect of flow (fun) in players.

Fun can thus be understood as a concentrated state of mind in which self, time and space dilute themselves as we become short-circuited to a specific activity. In other words, fun or flow, is a hedonic, mindless past-time, one which we engage for its capacity to release pleasure hormones in our brain for long periods of time. Fun is the very definition of entertainment. Now we have to wonder if fun is really the defining quality which distinguishes good entertainment, good art and good videogames from the bad. If you believe that the best quality a videogame should possess is the ability to waste your time, with you mindlessly feeling pleasure as if hotwired to an endorphin disposal tube, then feel free to continue to uphold the logic of fun. Corporations will be pleased to know that there are more of you anxiously awaiting for your next pleasure fix, i.e. the next XX hours spent vacantly staring at a TV screen. Ever wonder why you compulsively buy games? It is because the “fun” high is, like most highs, shallow and short-lived, your body needs it constantly because it never feels totally satisfied. It’s the media equivalent of fast-food – it tastes sweet and salty in the first bite, but it never really feels satisfying enough, and once you finish eating, you’ll still get a spike of appetite and hunger. It’s not nutritional, but it’s addicting, because that is the only way you’ll keep coming back for more, time and time and time again.

Obviously, the true value of videogames, as in other media, has nothing to do with this “fun”. It’s neither the pleasure nor the challenge in themselves that make up good entertainment. It’s challenge’s semantic value, its meaning and its proposition of growth for each and any one of us. If a videogame only challenges you into mindlessly pressing buttons to kill monsters on screen, then it is worthless. This is a lesson which in older mediums is fully understood. In cinema, for instance, while some critics might praise the latest explosion fest blockbuster, they will consistently distinguish between popcorn “fun” entertainment, and proper films. Very rarely is something as discardable  as a blockbuster elevated to film of the year. On the other hand, the same is practically a given every year in the videogame medium. The thing is that movie critics simply expect more out of film than just fun, they expect true drama and emotion – amusement, sadness, anger, joy, relief, fear -, they expect an artist’s views on life and socially relevant issues, they expect added cultural value, articulate narrative discourse and artistic expression. These are the challenges which we should be demanding for videogames. Whether or not they end up being “fun” is besides the point. Good media is additive, not reductive. It does not subtract time from your life, by having it pleasurably slip as sand through your fingers; it adds time to your life with new  sensations, new emotions, new experiences, new memories and new ideas. It changes you, changes who you are, what you know and believe in. Fun is not part of this equation, nor ever was.

The problem is that society, because of economic interests, harasses you to continuously seek out pleasure, no matter how shallow and unfulfilling it may be. They afford you sensorial pornography – all pleasure, no emotion. And the deal seems sweet, since you get free pleasure with none of the added cost or effort. But true media bliss has a price: it is demanding, requires work, education and culture on part of its audience. This is the most powerful insight of flow theory: meaningful challenges require meaningful skills. You know that you cannot extract pleasure from great literary masterpieces without first achieving a certain level of maturity, learning how to properly read, decode metaphors, allegories, paradoxes, grasp the sociocultural contexts in which authors wrote, have some idea of genre tropes, formal and narrative structures, and you have read many many many other books before. Then why should videogames be different? Why should videogames be so deep and artistic if even kids can play them? Their semantics so powerful, that even teenagers can understand what they’re about? Why should videogames be so moving and thought-provoking, if all they require is for you to happily press a few buttons for you to feel “fun”? Why would the so-called “great masterpieces of the medium” require no cognitive and interpretative effort to play? The answer, no matter how infatuated we may be, is always the same: because videogames aren’t, for the most part, good media.

Videogames shouldn’t necessarily be fun. They can be fun. But their value lies in everything else besides that which you call fun, all of that which rewards you in deeper ways. You simply can’t be spoon fed “fun” as if a little child and expect to extract something relevant out from that experience. So forget fun. Forget formulas, genres, pre-conceptions, clichés, aesthetic trends, blockbusters and big company logos. Praise videogames that challenge you in meaningful ways. Praise authorship, innovation, personality, uniqueness, ambiguity, non-linearity, complexity, aesthetic view, virtuosity… praise that which challenges you! Praise artistic expression above all else, and if you do so, maybe one day videogames will be more than just lowbrow entertainment.

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  • Comments (4)
    • Elbo
    • July 21st, 2010

    Fantastic read. I need to sit on it for a while to mull it over though, but so far I find myself in agreement.
    Lowbrow entertainment seems to be a problem I find in most of the mainstream modern media nowadays though. I can’t even remember the last time a big-budget tv-show taught me something.

    Ofcourse, gamers don’t help the cause either. Whenever somebody tries to do something different with the medium, it gets being called out on being pretentious.
    The Path is an excellent example how the medium can forego the focus on being ‘ fun’ in order to let the player learn or experience something. Ironically, the game not being fun was a much heard complaint.

    Anyways; it’s always nice to read your blog. We seek the same in our games, it seems. Please keep doing what you are doing. I for one, appreciate it.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 21st, 2010

    It is true that there has been a degradation of standards across different media landscapes. Capitalist and democratic values have put the emphasis of all media in rentability (all media must be commercially viable) and accessibility (everyone is entitled to media). The result is the predominance of shallow, easy to consume entertainment directed for the masses. It is easier to target the lowest possible denominator of a large body of media consumers, than actually risk conveying something that might not be understood except for the most cultured, elitist of spectators. Consumers, on the other hand, simply no longer expect to be challenged by media products, they demand quick pleasure for the lowest of prices, their work lives leaving no time, energy or mind for anything else. Critical, demanding audiences are now the stuff of small niche – only the most dedicated and financially independent authors can survive on such a basis.

    I believe Videogames suffer more, because the medium still is young. But also, because it is the only medium in which key opinion makers – creators, scholars and journalists – have completely assimilated entertainment rhetoric. They are apologists of the dogma of fun, and damned be anyone who challenges such a notion. The irony, is that those same people, are extremely demanding with other artistic mediums, just that when it comes to videogames, they magically lower the bar. I guess that is why something as beautiful, creative, and unique as “The Path” will always have a tough time in this medium. There simply aren’t enough people defending projects that contradict the current status quo.

    Cheers Elbo! Thanks for the comment.

  1. I agree, but “fun” is only a big deal in the mainstream games. Other independent titles seek to use game-play as an artistic tool, rather than the primary means of engagement. For example; STALKER (uses unsanitized game-play as a means of conveying atmosphere), Amnesia (doesn’t use game-play to be fun, but just to scare you) and even Pokernight at the Inventory (uses game-play as a way of delivering punch-lines).

    One huge exception I can think of though is Minecraft. A game that is about nothing but fun, but there is nothing wrong with that.

  2. If you consider the high arts that our culture holds in high regard; film, studio arts and literature, before they became artistic they were used for documentation purposes. Games and music have the unfortunate property of being an enjoyable pass time since their inception. That’s why I like ambient, music that tries to convey something rather than just an addictive beat.

    The actual reason why games were invented in the first place, was to keep people so addicted and immersed that they would forget to eat (an anti-poverty movement in the ancient Kingdom of Lidiya).

    Here Here!

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