Fun in Games: It's Social All the Way Down

Matt Barton's picture

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes games fun. I've read quite a bit on the topic, including Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, and of course there are plenty of great articles on Gamasutra and in Game Developer magazine. However, it seems most people who bother with the subject end up with some very general criteria (just challenging enough, lots of rewards, etc.) rather than contexts. My primary thought here is that whether a game is fun or not may have little to do with the actual game. Rather, it's the context of the game and the gamer that's important. Even something like good marketing and packaging can have more to do with making the game fun than anything done by the developers or designers. However, the focus here will be on the social contexts that are often taken for granted by even the best game designers.

I'm certainly not saying anything new by claiming that fun doesn't happen in a vacuum. One reason we enjoy sports, freeze tag, or whatever, is that we're having fun with other people. We can also have fun by ourselves, perhaps by imagining scenarios (such as being a fighter pilot), but part of that thrill is also imagining the excitement of the other pilots and the praise of imagined superiors. I can't think of anything that's fun that doesn't involve real or imagined people. Even people who enjoy hunting or fishing find a lot of the pleasure coming from sharing their stories, and some personify the fish or deer. Even a "poor" fishing trip can be fun if you go with the right people.

Dungeon Master: Part of the thrill of games like Dungeon Master is imagining your party members having fun along with you.Dungeon Master: Part of the thrill of games like Dungeon Master is imagining your party members having fun along with you.One more parallel before I get into it. Imagine if we talked about basketball being fun the same we talk about videogames being fun. We'd focus on the rules of the game, the quality and bounce of the basketball, the drive the players feel to be better shots or dribblers or whatever. On the other hand, if you asked a basketball player what was fun about basketball, he or she would talk more about the thrill of being on the court with the other guys, getting immersed in the game and feeling part of something. I occasionally here gamers talk about this; being so immersed in a game that they "wake up" many hours later to find they've been playing all night. I've thought about when this happens to me most, and it's usually either in an MMO situation, a "hot seat" game, or a game where I have come to imagine my computer opponents (as in Civilization) or party members (as in a role-playing game) as having fun with me. Even playing text adventures from Infocom had me thinking that I was having fun with another person; in that case, the narrator (who is programmed to often respond wryly or sarcastically to inputs). We could also talk about the personality of Lucasfilm or Sierra games and how it often feels like you're playing the game with the developers (a situation brought on by the many in-game allusions to the game's design or contexts). In each case, the cultural and social contexts are vital--if we didn't "get it," feeling a connection to these imaged or real people--they wouldn't be fun at all. Context is king. Yet I bet many critics could write a book about Guitar Hero or Rockband without ever considering the context it takes place in--an America permeated by performance shows like American Idol and the "juke box hero" mythos.

We can enjoy shows like American Idol because we enjoy watching other people enjoying themselves as long as we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. It's not fun to watch people enjoying themselves if we lack that connection. For instance, I would never enjoy watching a kid pull the wings off of flies because I could never imagine myself having fun doing that. On the other hand, most people who enjoy sports like to watch other people having fun--but they're also imagining themselves out there on the field or court. If you don't believe me, go to a game where the players seem bored and disinterested. The cheerleaders are more necessary to a game than most people realize.

There are, of course, many fun games that resist this type of analysis. One is Solitaire. Are people playing Solitaire because they are imagining other people having fun with them? Perhaps they are thinking of someone who would be there pointing out matches, or thinking of other people playing Solitaire with them. Or maybe they have fun thinking about the people around them going on about their business while they are engaging in pure recreation. There is something fun about the thought that you're being "useless" while others are toiling away, often oblivious.

So, if what I'm saying is true at all, a developer could take advantage of it in at least four ways.

1. Create characters who ally with the player who are "team players" and show every sign of having fun. I think of Minsc from Baldur's Gate--as limited as he was, he often seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself killing things with the player. A few first-person shooters I've played have similar characters--Halo in particular comes to mind. There's just something fantastic about going into a situation in Halo when all your comrades seem just as eager to have fun as you are. Even if the situation is grim, there ought to be some signs that your ally is enjoying him or herself. If it's genuinely not fun, take it out of the game.

2. Create villains who seem to genuinely enjoy thwarting the player. This can be a tricky thing to get right. One game that clearly comes to mind is Ultima VII: The Black Gate. The villain of that game was always in your face, laughing, mocking, and seemed to be having a lot of fun doing it. At times it felt more abusive than stimulating (though there is something to be said for the villain you love to hate). The Civ games also come to mind; the competition often feels quite petty, and I'd like to see a bit more reaction when they're doing well. There are people out there you can play chess with, and even if they win every time, it's still fun to play with them. The key, I think, is that they seem to be having a lot of fun playing with you, and seem to have that twinkle in their eyes even when they're kicking your ass. It can also be fun to play with people who think they're going to win and seem shocked beyond belief when you do something right. It's always fun beating someone who was dismissive of you. But it doesn't have to be mean-spirited. A villain could say, "I'm going to enjoy killing you, maggot," or "I'm going to enjoy matching wits with someone of your reputation. May the best man win." There's just something more appealing about the second choice, though. A villain who respects and perhaps even fears you is often more fun to play against. The most important thing, of course, is that the villain really wants to win and is having a seriously good time trying to get there. Another point to consider here is what it takes for that great chess player to get you to play even though you know he's likely to win. They may have to charm you by stroking your ego or praising your persistence--and I ask you how many game villains have been charming.

3. Multiplayer. Pretty much a no-brainer here. Whether online, hotseat, split/screen or whatever, this is easy enough to implement nowadays. However, there is still room for innovation. I was impressed with Super Mario Bros. Wii's option to let you honk, squeak, or play drums if your character was dead and the other players were still kicking. It gave me a fun way to interact even when I was dead! Now that was genius. In games like WoW, there could be many more opportunities to affect other players in fun and harmless ways. Players already take full advantage of what's available--such as turning people into pirates or making them break out into laughter. Even something as simple as a "high-five" mechanism could add a lot and would be easy to program in. No doubt part of what makes games like Farmville fun is the idea that other people (in that case your real friends) are engaged in the same fun activities greatly heightens the fun.

4. Fun-loving avatar. A lot of avatars are "blank slate" types. The few exceptions (Duke Nuke'm comes to mind), get everyone excited. There are far, far too many games in which the dreadfully serious avatar is faced with some terrible challenge that no one would ever consider fun. I think this tone was set by The Lord of the Rings and has remained in many games--bleak, great hardships, big prices to pay, etc. That's all well and good, but there's something to be said for a character who honestly enjoys carnage (Max from Sam & Max) or danger (Lara Croft). It's also fun to see displays of happiness when the avatar wins or does something good (such as the dancing in Forbidden Forest or Final Fantasy, or the self-congratulating the characters do in Super Mario Bros. Wii). In short, it's more fun to be a fun-loving Lucifer than a soul-saving Jesus.

So, in short, perhaps the key to making games fun is to heighten the sense of being around people who are greatly enjoying playing the game. These could be real people (in the case of multiplayer), or characters designed to give off those vibes. Their interactions with the player could be friendly or aversive, but the goal should be to make it convincing. I could imagine an RPG where one character liked to compare his or her kills to yours, "My, my, you're slipping, brother, I killed four more orcs than you that time" (delivered in a humorous way). Or it could just be a "woohoo!" from your fellow soldiers when you pull of a great stunt. Or it could just be your character shouting "I love being a turtle!" In the end, fun is less about rules or simplistic formula and more about social contexts.


Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
Joined: 08/31/2008
My response

Hey Matt -

I really appreciate you taking the time to write this, and you deserve a response. I finally got some time to sit down and write. Allow me to share my thoughts.

First, I have to say that I agree with your point about marketing - packaging can certainly help sell a game. Sometimes it is a sneak attack by marketing (only show cutscene screenshots rather than gameplay screenshots), but sometimes the box, manual, or included swag just look great & get you emotionally pumped. I remember buying the VGA remake to Quest for Glory I while I was on vacation in another city! I couldn't run the software, and I just poured over the manual and got myself pumped up to install it once I got back home. I suppose you are a gamer no matter where you are and regardless of if you have some sort of hardware available or not!

But let us look at your focus here - social contexts.

I can't tell you the number of times when my fun on the elementary school playground was based on make believe. This was done with friends, too! This oftentimes is stereotyped as something that creates conflict among those playing, "my gun/car/whatever is better than yours!" ..."Nuh uhh!" In my case, we all worked together with whatever it was we were pretending. It was oftentimes based on a TV show, movie, or whatever. We would break from the pretend situation to talk a bit about our favorite episode of some show. That conversation would then inevitably evolve into the next iteration of whatever we were pretending. It was pure fun for the imaginative minds of eight-year-olds!

I think that videogames can facilitate this desire to pretend, and it does it for all ages - not just young kids. Whether you are with someone else or not, the possibility of being someone like a soldier via a videogame can give you an adrenaline rush similiar (as close as non-soldiers can imagine) of being in that real life situation (minus the danger and plus the air conditioning). I don't mean to say playing the videogame is anything like the true feeling you get as a soldier in combat, but I think you get my point.

Sharing this experience with others helps with the immersion. I honestly don't really like head-to-head games. I prefer co-op. Co-op is not as common as it used to be, but having to help out a buddy (and succeeding) can really add to an enjoyment of a game! There are several games where I might struggle a bit or even die/lose, but having a friend alongside playing that same game might help you get over a hump. So you died in this round? Your friend finishes the round and you come back in the second round - and now you are further than you ever have been in a game. An "in your face" version of this trait is the savior feature in a game like Rock Band. Maybe you can't nail that solo, but your friend on vocals can sing right through it in multiplayer mode and "save" you by bringing you back into the game where you normally would have just lost everything you had done.

Turning to give your friend a high five after excellent work in a videogame is quite a bit of fun, I must say.

Creating co-op games is another topic. I believe I have written about this specific example of co-op invention once before on Armchair Arcade. A friend of mine would "ensign" me (as we called it) on X-Wing. I would fly the spacecraft, and he would change weapons, donate power to shields, order allies to attack, etc. It was a blast!

Playing X-Wing is fun no matter what, in my opinion. That said, having a buddy next to you at which you can yell, "more power to shields!" and having him echo back "She canna take it anymore, Captain!!" while you are in the middle of an intense space battle just amps up the fun that much more. (Disclaimer: My friend and I are both Star Wars and Star Trek fans, so we can combine the two at will quite easily.)

Let's look at your numbered list, Matt.

1: Character creation is a VERY important part of several games. The number one genre that comes to my mind is the RPG genre. Your party members (and even NPCs) can make or break a game. If you end up hating a created character, your gaming experience can be ruined. If you love all of your characters, you don't want to see anything happen to them - especially death. That is a very story-based aspect to a game. You can continue playing the game, finish it, etc, and the loss of that character (despite the character's inevitable death as it was designed by the developers) will still cause you a small degree of sorrow - just as if you were reading a book, watching a movie, etc. I would argue that perhaps videogames are the genre where you feel that death the most because of your virtual interactivity with that character. A couple of the recent Matt Chats with Chris Avellone have me wondering about the characters in Planescape Torment. I may have to spin that up some day.

2: My primary point about a good villain touches specifically on RPGs and is highly tied into number one above. I think one stereotype of character development in an RPG is that the developers focus on the maturity and character development of the party members while providing a heavily stereotyped and paper thin villain character. Make a good villain! The player knows he is supposed to defeat the enemy, but go further - develop a good villain and *make* him want to defeat that enemy. Or better still - make him *not* want to defeat the enemy! I fully accept tragedy as an acceptable genre!

3: Multiplayer - No arguments here. I obviously am going to agree. Key point - multiplayer needs to continue to evolve.

4: As far as avatars, I think many of the characters created and used in LucasArts and Sierra adventure games help create my group of favorites. While you play a role in these games, the playable character still has a lot of personality to him/her. Experiencing their reactions (and...even deaths) to things can be entertaining. Sometimes you feel for them, but most of the time you find yourself laughing.

So despite all that I have written, I have to say that there are many times when you just want to play solitaire. Haha.

Thanks for this one, Matt!

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Thanks, Chris. It is amazing

Thanks, Chris. It is amazing how few games really seem designed for co-op play. The few that are out there tend to be quite popular. One of the big "surprises" you're going to hear in the 2nd part of my interview with Sean Cooper is that Syndicate was designed as a 4-player game. That's right--four players on a closed network going at it. Then for obvious reasons it was re-packaged for a single player.

I think there's always an expectation from developers that gamers won't buy a game that *requires* multiplayer, unless of course you're talking about networked play. Except for a few party games, almost everything is intended for a single player, with co-op grafted on as an after thought. I can't think of hardly any games (outside of networked ones) that require two or more players, except of course for player vs. player games. I guess it just got much easier with network options, but I just don't like playing with strangers and people I will never meet. Half the fun is being able to see and hear your partners--being in the same room or even on the same couch. Having them thousands of miles away behind a crummy headset (if that) just doesn't cut it.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.