What is fun? Part I

I’ve wanted to make games for a very long time. Why? I assume the reason is the same for most other people who want to get into the game industry: because I love games.

However, since I’ve started making games, I’ve also started playtesting a lot, with a lot of different people. When I playtest a game, I closely scrutinize how the game plays, but also how the players react to it. What this has shown me is that, while many people love games, they love games for different reasons.

Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it honestly came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I started grad school I thought fun could be quantified pretty simply, but after struggling with it for half a year or so, I eventually conceded that it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d thought.

Today, I want to spend some time going over some of different ways that games provide people with enjoyment, which I believe is the main reason people play games. I’m going to focus on non-digital games, using lots of examples, but I’ll always try to tie in Corporate America, explaining how I’ve attempted to include outlets for different types of fun in the game.

It turns out that there’s a bit more to say about this than I expected, so today I’ll go over a few types of fun, and later this week I’ll wrap up the list.


Traditional games like Chess are all about strategy.*

Strategy has traditionally been so central to games, many people think of it as the only fun games provide. It’s true that many of the oldest games in the world, like Go and Chess, almost exclusively employ this type of fun. I would be willing to bet that most of the members of the board game industry come from the tabletop generals that get the most enjoyment from strategy. I know I did.

I’d say people enjoy strategy for two reasons. First, it feels good to understand a system or solve a puzzle. It makes you feel smart, which most people seem to enjoy. Second, it gives you an opportunity to prove your superiority over others and to show off. That’s great for you, but it can be a major problem for other players. For this reason, it’s actually really important to reign in pure strategy, since it will turn off a lot of players. Given the tradition of games, it’s almost impossible to avoid strategy altogether (and honestly, who could resist including at least a little?), but including other types of fun can help keep it in check.

One way to reign in strategy is minimizing the times players can directly attack each other over. Games like Chess are called zero sum, which means anything good for one player is bad for the other: anything good for you hurts your opponent. One of the lessons I learned from Dominion, a very popular deck building card game, is that not having any attack actions that target one other player is a great way to limit the ability of deeply strategic players from ruining the fun for other players.

Strategy is central to Corporate America. The most obvious place is in building businesses. Here, you have to decide which businesses are worth investing in, and how you plan to build the rest over subsequent turns. However, strategy permeates throughout the game, from knowing when to buy an extra consumption card to knowing when it’s worth entering a presidential election. To make sure that deeply analytic types can’t ruin the fun of other players, I made sure to keep the number of ways to directly attack other players fairly low.

Raw Emotion

If strategy is the fun of exercising the reasoning part of the mind, here we’re talking about the opposite extreme: the seeking out of emotions. Many emotions have yet to be captured very well in games. Love comes to mind, though you could argue that Tamagotchi and other virtual pets are a first stab at that. True sadness is also elusive for games. Note, however, that movie like games, which are deeply story based, can capture these emotions in the same way that films and other traditional media can.

Even if games aren’t great at capturing all emotions, there are two that I believe games have done a marvelous job of evoking: suspense and excitement. These are actually both pretty closely related, and are usually both associated with randomness or hidden information.

Pandemic features suspenseful moments when infections spread, especially after an outbreak.

By suspense, I mean a somewhat anxious uncertainty about a future event. A great example of this is revealing infection cards in Pandemic immediately after an outbreak. There’s a good chance that the one city you weren’t able to contain could come up… but will it? Suspense comes up all over the place: when you’re trying to sneak past your opponent’s row of monopolies in Monopoly or as you’re rolling the dice during a big attack in Risk.

Excitement can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but in this context I mostly mean a big event occurring that will change the game in an exciting way. Revealing a great hand in Poker after a high bid is very exciting, as is finally getting the combination of cards you need to carry out your master plan in Dominion.

For Corporate America, I didn’t explicitly think of suspense or excitement when making the game. However, randomness and hidden information in the game led to both. Three main places come to mind. First, revealing consumption cards. When you pay to reveal a card, you don’t know if your investment will pay off, which is very suspenseful. When you’re lucky and the card you reveal is the industry you have a lot of synergy in, it’s very exciting. Second, bidding for president can be extremely suspenseful, since you can’t know how much your political rival is bidding. This can lead to very exciting elections when two or more candidates bid a lot of money. Finally, because money is hidden information throughout the game, the final count can be both suspenseful and exciting when you discover how your rivals did.

Exploration and Discovery

Betrayal at House on the Hill features both world and story exploration.

For many people, figuring something out can be a great time. Similarly, discovering what happens to your favorite character in a book might be why you keep reading. Many games offer both of these opportunities. Some games, such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, are all about exploration and discovery, starting with an exploration of a mysterious haunted house and ending with an exciting, unknown story to act out. Similarly, storytelling games such as Dungeons and Dragons and the many RPGs that follow in its footsteps are interesting because you and your fellow players discover a story together. Even games without much of a story element, such as Agricola, can offer exploration and discovery by providing a complex system that give players a chance to experiment and play with different strategies to find what works and what doesn’t.

In Corporate America, there are no built in stories to discover or worlds to explore, so you see more of the Agricola style exploration: there are many viable strategies and discovering what works and what doesn’t can be fun in itself. However, at least the first time or two playing, discovering all of the jokes on the business and legislation cards can also be a lot of fun.

Creative Expression

Lots of people are creative, but they don’t have an outlet to express themselves creatively. Their jobs might not involve any creativity, and they might feel awkward sharing their creativity outside some structured environment, such as school or work. Many people studied and loved creative pursuits when younger, but don’t practice any more. They might feel embarrassed because their skills are not professional quality, even though they are still good. Games can offer these people a safe space to express themselves in a way their lives do not.

In Once Upon a Time, players get creative in telling a story together.

While classics such as Pictionary and Cranium offer the best examples of this sort of creativity, directly asking players to do something creative as part of the game, other outlets exist as well. For example, Balderdash asks people to write dictionary definitions, allowing them to get creative with words and try to mimic a writing style. Games like Once Upon a Time and Dungeons and Dragons invite players to creatively tell a story together. Even games like Dominion and Magic: The Gathering allow players to combine game pieces however they want to create their own decks, creatively designing a system in a way an engineer or programmer might.

Corporate America certainly offers strategic creativity, since the many businesses combine in different ways to offer different styles of corporate empires. However, the real creativity comes in the more free form parts of the game, such as the presidential elections. Here, players get a chance to bust out their rhetorical and acting skills to try to convince their fellow players of things that may or may not be in their best interest. Note that this is actually one of the places where the game breaks down easiest, because without someone to step up and set the scene for this type of creativity, players will sometimes be unsure of how the game should proceed.

The List Goes On

I still have a handful of types of fun to discuss, but this is already getting a little long, so I’m going to call it for today. Stay tuned for discussions of Showing Off, Socializing, and everyone’s favorite, Being Naughty next time!


Note: Part II is up!

* Image by Alan Light under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

Other images snagged from the rich galleries of the Board Game Geek.


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  1. Great article! Really gets the creative juices flowing to think about how to include (and, as you say, sometimes reign in) different kinds of fun in games.

    I’d posit that there’s another very important form of fun that you don’t bring up here, though: the fun of interacting with a tactile, responsive system. This is a big part of the reason that people like Monopoly, with its huge stacks of play money, or why they will spend minutes at a time just scrolling around the UI of their iPhones, bouncing the viewport around lists with their finger. Even Go, one of the most strategic games of all time, is intensely satisfying to play in its physical incarnation; the way that the stones gently clack as they’re placed on a quality wooden board is intoxicating.

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