Fun is Fine
Toward a Philosophy of
Game Design

David Ethan Kennerly, 22 June 2003.

 

This is by no means the philosophy of game design, but these notions may help an aspiring game designer before he begins his work and in reviewing not just his work but the fitness of his goals.

 

Toward a Philosophy of  Game Design

What is the Sound of One Hand Designing?

A Unique Medium

From the Point of View of Fun

An Upward Spiral

Playing the Human Condition

Acknowledgements

Endnotes

 

 

 

What is the Sound of One Hand Designing?

 

"[Do not] mistake yourself for an 'artist.'  Our goal is to create newer and more fun games. Art is not our goal." Tetsuya Nomura, Final Fantasy character designer[1]

 

The Entertainment versus Art debate flares perennially. These participants may be having fun, but the dichotomy is uniquely inappropriate to games.  For example among MMORPGs, to Jessica Mulligan, fun subsumes art[2]; whereas, to Raph Koster, art subsumes entertainment.[3]  I will challenge the dichotomy itself. Crafting fun is the art of the game.

 

To paraphrase Stephen King: Put your game design desk in the corner to remind yourself every day that Art supports Life, not the other way around.[4]  By the end of this article, we may disentangle the faulty dichotomy. After reconsidering what we think we know about a game, fun, and art we may come to discover that Nomura and Costikyan are correct:

 

“If you were to write a Seven Lively Arts for the 21st century, the form you'd have to mention first is clearly games.” Greg Costikyan[5]

 

To begin disentangling, we need to come to terms with the game as a unique medium. 

 

 

 

A Unique Medium

 

 “Unfortunately, as similar as the two media are, the differences are real and compelling and the superficial similarities can actually make people LESS effective in new, game-oriented roles.” Warren Spector[6]

 

Games are not like other forms of art. To define a game: if it uses points, has players and rules, it's a game.  Of course a game may be part of a service or a world or a community, too.  To keep a game, as I use the term here, from being confused with all the disciplines that game theory has been applied to (economics, psychology, politics, empirical analysis), call it "a parlor game," if the reader must.  But Joe and Jane at the checkout counter call it a game.

 

As the sound designer for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers video game wrote:

 

“It is unproductive to think of games as ‘interactive movies,’ although many people tend to think of games in those terms. Let's be clear: games and films are different media. The techniques, processes, and skills involved in the creation of each are unique and not interchangeable. The metrics by which each is judged are also different, meaning that many of the properties that make for a good film would lead to a lousy game, and vice versa.”[7]

 

Narratives, which includes most films, and games differ dramatically, because games don’t tell stories, players tell stories.  A narrative is a passive experience.  One watches and feels but does not do.  The audience is not the actor.  In a game, the audience is at once the actor, also.  Herein is a conflict of purpose.  The author of a narrative must control the lives of the actors. Whereas, the designer of a game must abdicate control.  To paraphrase Will Wright's first advice for a budding game designer: Games are about players having fun; not about writers solving the narrative problems they want to solve.[8]

 

Part of the problem is that an intellectual property rarely links a fine narrative to a fine game.  Dungeons & Dragons is not J.R.R. Tolkien-in-the-medium-of-a-game.  American McGee's Alice is not an adaptation of Lewis Carroll-in-the-medium-of-a-game.  Go or Eleusis, which are puzzling, logical, and playfully deep, offers better comparison to Lewis Carroll.  Reiner Knizia came closer with his cooperative board game of "Lord of the Rings," which retains the spirit of the novel. But still "Lord of the Rings" is more of a novelty than a fine game. 

 

Many game-movie crossovers, such as Wing Commander or Mario Brothers, failed and so did movie-games, such as Atari’s E.T.[9] or Braveheart.  Their lesson: satisfy an audience for a movie, a player for a game.  A bleak road lies before one who seeks a movie experience in a game or vice versa.  Although the fine game invokes something powerful inside the willing player, don't look for J.R.R. Tolkien or Lewis Carroll in a game.  He's not there.  Equally, there’s no Reiner Knizia, Sid Sackson, or Harold S. Vanderbilt of narratives.

 

A game designer can borrow inspiration from another medium but not techniques or values.  For example, being inspired by the pace in a movie is far from learning how to pace a game from studying pace in a movie.  When I've successfully borrowed from other art forms, it was only the inspiration.  To fail to understand this may create a scenario where:

 

"[G]ame development is turning into a circus, costs are skyrocketing, users get bored faster than ever before, and the development of truly new games — new ways of having fun — has all but stopped." Mr. Yamauchi, President of Nintendo[10]

 

A fine game does not resemble any other medium's fine art. To give an extreme example: What fine movie resembles ChuChu Rocket?  It defies the qualities of other arts.  It lacks story, depth, and eye candy.  Yet it is still a fine game.  Fun comes in different flavors: Chess, Kungfu Chess, ChuChu Rocket, Bust-a-Grove, Bomberman, Pacman, Lost Cities, or more.  Each is an active, controlled, enjoyed experience.  The player makes things happen.

 

Understanding these varieties of fun expands the scope of a fine game.  As we shall see, the game designer should subordinate other qualities of the game to the quality of fun itself.

 

 

 

From the Point of View of Fun

 

“From the point of view of fun, the type of all the arts is the art of the game designer.” Paraphrase of Oscar Wilde[11]

 

When discussing the art of game design, fun is the yardstick—not realism, not novelty, not narration, not philosophy, not impressive technology, nor visual quality. 

 

Let’s define the term. Fun, like many common words, is overloaded with various meanings.  In Korean, the same word describes having fun, being entertained, and being interested. Americans often combine some of these words, too.  Bear with me if mine varies from the conventional.  I mean not the fun of watching an explosion on screen, as in a movie, but the fun of creating an explosion on the screen, as in a game.  I mean active, controlled fun, as Patricia Marks Greenfield wrote: "They were unanimous in preferring the games to television. They were also unanimous about the reason: active control."[12] So fun, for here and now, is enjoyment where you directly impact the outcome at every move. 

 

I use the term fun as Sid Meier, Will Wright, Tetsuyu Nomura, and Yamauchi do, which excludes non-interactive experiences. In a painting, song, movie, book, or TV episode, the audience does not, within the course of the episode, alter the outcome of the episode.  In a fine game, the player alters the outcome with every move.

 

Many game designers have broad interests.  Yet while musing on realism, virtual this-and-that, multi-protagonist storytelling, is fun for system architects, the art of game design is to produce what is fun for the player.  Sid Meier cleverly put it in several interviews since at least mid-1990s, if not earlier.  For example, an interview with Richard Rouse III:

 

"We have, amongst our rules of game design, the three categories of games.  There are games where the designer's having all the fun, games where the computer is having all the fun, and games where the player is having all the fun.  And we think we ought to write games where the player is having all the fun."[13]

 

A professional game designer, who sells games to a player, ought to follow Sid Meier's lead and attempt to design games of the third kind. Diverse industry professionals agree.  From story consultant, Brad Kane:

 

“Last, but not least - games must be fun. No amount of emotional depth will save a game that is boring.”[14]

 

To online world designer, Starr Long:

 

“Fun should always win over realism. These are games after all.”[15]

 

To indie developer, Perry Board:

 

“Don't forget fun for the player. Your overall objective is to provide enjoyment. Everything you do should somehow be centered on that goal. [16]

 

To pencil and paper designers, Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams:

 

"[They are] all powerful motivators. So, of course, is fun. Never forget that last one."[17]

 

To board game designer, Reiner Knizia:

 

“[The game] is just a platform for the people’s enjoyment.”[18]

 

Invoking fun does not require a fine game, but a fine game does necessarily invoke fun. 

 

 

 

An Upward Spiral

 

 “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” Tom Robbins[19]

 

It would not do well to exclude fun, at least a few of its well-mannered incarnations, from sacred experiences. Fun, we shall see, is a precious instinct.

 

Game playing has roots older than the human species.  Young mammals play.  They don't have specific rules, so they're not games. But mammalian play behavior shares more in common with human game behavior than movie watching shares with playing a game.  Play behavior may even be connected to the evolution of intelligence.  Darwin's early description of evolution resembles a game.[20]  We generally recognize our instinct to play as a feeling of fun. 

 

If so, then fun is not low.  It evolves sophisticated strategies.  The old adage of a fine game, a minute to learn, a lifetime to master, is true because strategy begins simple and becomes complex.  This same instinct is a compelling force toward science and art.  Fun is a root of creativity.  Einstein began math only after his uncle introduced him to it as a game of an investigator capturing a wily thief, wherein the solution was the capture.  Discovering the nature of light in a gravitational field is not a simple pleasure, yet fun may have been its original fuel.  Feynman won the Nobel Prize when he was pursuing a thesis that he described as the sort he enjoyed—he had fun at.[21] 

 

In the fine game, fun intersects fine art.  By fine art, I mean basically great art: fine art is the final art, or the most perfect of the arts.[22]  There is a quotation: "The more I study the smarter Aristotle gets." In a fine game, the more the player studies the deeper the game gets.  Once a player knows the perfect strategy in a game, such as tic-tac-toe, no amount of play will reveal a better strategy.  When the game ceases to teach the player a new lesson, the game stops being fun.  The mind engages in a process of learning, in an education about a special system when playing a game.  When perfected, there is nothing new to learn.  Whereas, in Lost Cities, Go, or any fine game, each iteration teaches a new lesson.  New strategies unfold.  Weaknesses in old strategies appear. This is a kind of wonder that precedes discovery.  This shares the impetus of science and art. 

 

So fun is the art of the game.  It is a high goal.  It is noble.  It is not necessarily base.  It is not necessarily a simple pleasure.  Whosoever plays earnestly at a fine game ascends an upward spiral of intelligence.  Even the strategies for choosing playing strategies evolve.  The enabling goals within the span of the game themselves change.  And once so involved, one is learning, “To be able to be caught up into the world of thought—that is to be educated.”[23]

 

 

 

Playing the Human Condition

 

 “He deals the cards to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden law of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance” Sting[24]

 

Paul Schwanz was looking for something finer than the experiences he's had in some games: “What does interactive entertainment have to offer that can be compared to something like Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Coppola's The Godfather, or Shakespeare's Hamlet?”[25] Raph Koster, a MMORPG creative director, held a similar opinion:

 

“If we want to go on a crusade to fix something, how about we fix the fact that your average cartoon does a better job at portraying the human condition than our games do?”[26]

 

A fine game does portray the human condition. Here are three examples:

 

1.      Spades.

2.      Seven-card stud poker.

3.      Chess.

 

1. Like Steinbeck’s classic, “Of Mice and Men”, Spades is a two-player struggle of the lower-class worker invented around the Depression Era in the US.[27] It's been enjoyed for many decades by working-class men in situations much like many of Steinbeck's characters.  In the game, the partners bid on what points they can make, not unlike such plights of the Depression—and post-industrial labor in general.  I don't think it was a coincidence that my Army mates, at multiple duty stations, played Spades during downtime.  A good Spades player learns a lot about the condition of the post-industrial service-oriented laborer.  He learns that self-evaluation and teamwork trump individual excellence.

 

2. Seven-card stud poker is the penultimate game of American Business. Poker teaches the art of statistical speculation and bluffing.  The movie Pirates of the Silicon Valley was fond of depicting Bill Gates as a good poker player in college as foreshadow to his business success.

 

3. Hamlet and Chess share equal footing.  In playing Chess one realizes much about the state of feudal and post-feudal politics.  Human life exists in freedom of movement. Each player gradually negotiates, with each move, for freedom of movement of their Principal.  Bishops are bound to devour members of their own dogma (be it black or white), while the plight of the majority, the Pawn, is that he has the least freedom of movement of them all.

 

The musician Sting hinted at a perspective on a game from which to gain insight into the human condition. One who goes beyond the narrative media's mindset may watch "[t]he numbers lead a dance."  Sessions of Civilization (Sid Meier), Chess, Go, Settlers of Catan, and Diplomacy have included holocaust, murder, power addiction, territorial threats, and economic depression.  To those inclined to perceive, the fine game reveals, "The hidden law of a probable outcome."

 

A fine game gives insight into the human condition, if you believe: The world resembles a game, and all of us are players—our moves finite, our consequences irreversible.

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Paul Schwanz and Raph Koster for their provocative discussions on the MUD-Dev mailing list in April 2002. And to my patient editor Jonathan Goodwin. 

 

 

 

About the Author

David Ethan Kennerly contributed to five of Nexon's massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) in the US and Korea.  He has held titles of producer, game designer, community relations, and technical writer at Nexon, one of the largest MMOG developers.  Before joining Nexon, he designed The X-Files Trivia Game for 20th Century Fox.  Since 1997 he has been innovating MMORPGs.  He designed and scripted player-driven religions, politics, events, multiplayer quests, arenas, creative contests, fairs, and other features.

 

He also edited an online library of player literature, philosophy, history, and art.

 

Additional writing on game design can be found online at: http://finegamedesign.com 

He welcomes your feedback about this article.

 

 

 

Endnotes



[1] Game Design: Secrets of the Sages. Ed. Marc Saltzman. BradyGames, 2000. 204.

[2] Mulligan, Jessica. "Just Give Me a Game, Please." 14 August 2001. <http://www.skotos.net/articles/BTH_07.html> 9 April 2002.

[3] Koster, Raph. "RE: [MUD-Dev] Art vs. Fun". 12 Dec 2001. <http://www.kanga.nu/archives/MUD-Dev-L/2001Q4/msg00835.php> 9 April 2002.

[4] King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.

[5] Costikyan, Greg. “Games * Design * Art * Culture” 11 January 2003. <http://www.costik.com/weblog/2003_01_01_blogchive.html> 1 April 2003.

[6] Spector, Warren. “Gaming University: Volume I.” GameSpy. 31 January 2003 <http://www.gamespy.com/qna/january03/spector> 10 June 2003.

[7] Boyd, Andrew. “When Worlds Collide: Sound and Music in Film and Games” 4 February 2003. <http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20030204/boyd_01.shtml> 8 February 2003.

[8] Game Design: Secrets of the Sages, 2nd Edition. Ed. Marc Saltzman. BradyGames, 2000. 78.

[9] GameSpy Staff. “#21: Atari takes a bath on E.T.” <http://www.gamespy.com/articles/june03/dumbestmoments/index4.shtml> in “25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming.” GameSpy.com, June 2003. <http://www.gamespy.com/articles/june03/dumbestmoments/> 18 June 2003.

[10] Yamauchi. "Yamauchi Puts the Industry in Its Place".  Video Senki, 27 February 2001 <http://www.video-senki.com/feat/yama21.html> 9 April 2002.

[11] Kennerly, David. “Preface to The Design of a Game.” 9 March 2003. <http://finegamedesign.com/preface.html> 14 June 2003. Paraphrased from:
Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Dorian Gray. 1891. Preface. “From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.  From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.”

[12] Greenfield, 1984, p.91. qtd. Patrick Mount.  "Gameplay: The Elements of Interaction." April 3, 2002. <http://www.gamasutra.com/education/theses/20020403/mount_01.htm> 9 April 2002.

[13] Rouse, Richard, III. Game Design: Theory & Practice. Wordware, 2001. 40.

[14] Kane, Brad. “Postcard from GDC 2003: 34 Ways to Put Emotions Into Games” 8 March 2003. <http://www.gamasutra.com/gdc2003/features/20030308/kane_emotion_01.htm> 10 April 2003.

[15] Long, Starr. “Interview with Richard Garriott and Starr Long” 11 October 2002. <http://www.stratics.com/content/interviews/ncsoft/ncsoft101102.php> 10 June 2003.

[16] Board, Perry. “Starter Kit for Independent Game Developers: Part 1 - Game Design“ The Adrenaline Vault. 6 June 2003. 7. <http://www.avault.com/developer/getarticle.asp?name=starterkit&page=7> 10 June 2003.

[17] Cook, Monte, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams. Dungeon Master's Guide: Core Rulebook II (Dungeons & Dragons) 3 ed. Wizards of the Coast, 2000.

[18] Knizia, Reiner. “Seminar on Game Design.” KublaCon. 25 May 2003.

[19] Robbins, Tom qtd. Maddock, Richard C. Motigraphics: The Analysis and Measurement of Human Motivations in Marketing. Quorum Books, 2000. 197.

[20] Walker, Paul. “A Chronology of Game Theory” May 2001. <http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/hist.htm> 10 June 2003.

[21] Feynman, Richard P. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. Bantam, 1990.

[22] Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. 1930.

[23] Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. 1930.

[24] Sting. "Shape Of My Heart." Ten Summoners Tales. 1993.

[25] Schwanz, Paul. "Fun in Games." 9 April 2002. <http://www.kanga.nu/archives/MUD-Dev-L/2002Q2/msg00132.php> 9 April 2002.

[26] Koster, Raph. 27 Oct 2001 <http://www.kanga.nu/archives/MUD-Dev-L/2001Q4/msg00441.php>

[27] Andrews, Joe. "Spades History and Evolution" 16 March 2000. <http://www.msoworld.com/mindzine/news/card/andrews2s.html> 9 April 2002.