Most games are developed with the intent of inducing feelings of “fun” in players. In my opinion, which is at least partially influenced by my read of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, this approach is irresponsible at best. The theory presented by the book is that the feeling we call “having fun” is our brains giving us chemical rewards for learning new patterns and/or recognizing old ones.
The human brain is designed for pattern recognition. It’s very good at that, and not much else. Our brains are not wired to understand things like probabilities very well; the reason gambling is addictive is because the brain attempts to learn its randomness like a pattern, and rewards the player with chemicals whenever there is a win or even a situation perceived as almost a win, whether or not there is any choice involved on the part of the player (besides whether to continue or to stop playing). This is not a flaw in the human brain, per se, just the way its learning mechanism works; successes and near-successes are rewarded, strengthening those parts of the brain which were responsible so that those outcomes are more likely in the future. For situations that have predictable causes and effects, such as most of those we have encountered throughout our species’ existence, it works rather well.
What keeps people interested in games is a sense of learning–“fun”–created by overcoming “challenges,” or failing by a small margin. Speaking of games as formal abstract systems and leaving aside the parts which consist of other media (music, visuals, story, etc.) since they teach different lessons than the game mechanics anyway, even to the point of being in direct conflict with the game mechanics, as in most current games–see Clint Hocking’s explanation of the term “ludonarrative dissonance”–making “fun” a game’s main design goal means its primary purpose is to provide players a sense of challenge and accomplishment. Further, and more harrowing, it means that the ideal is to create a game which teaches nothing of value, but tricks the human brain into believing it is improving. “Press Button for Reward” is the holy grail of this design philosophy, as long as pressing the button is made to look like a challenge (just found that link while writing this, incidentally, and it is fascinating; apparently there is a chemical difference in the human brain between wanting and liking… I would posit that the “fun” most game designers set as their goal is the former).
There’s nothing wrong with a game being fun. I enjoy games, I have fun playing them. But making them fun shouldn’t be the goal in and of itself. “Fun” is our learning mechanism, and setting it as the design objective means we are completely ignoring what it is our games actually teach. No, they’re not teaching us to be violent (the mechanics themselves aren’t, at least… the stories may be, to some extent). Mostly they are teaching us to play them more, which doesn’t really benefit us much outside of the games themselves. This is what Jonathan Blow meant when he said that MMOs like World of Warcraft are exploitative (read at least from “Why do they want to play?” on). Fun in games is fine, and it can and will still happen without it being the primary purpose of the game. It doesn’t even have to mean that the game doesn’t sell as well. For a good example of this, look at Wii Fit.
Wii Fit was designed with the primary purpose of making people aware of their health. Making it fun was secondary (still intentional, but not the primary goal).
I think it’s important to make discoveries like this about yourself. I forgot to mention something important earlier: I don’t think Wii Fit’s purpose is to make you fit; what it’s actually aiming to do is make you aware of your body.
– Shigeru Miyamoto, in an interview with Satoru Iwata on Wii.com
For people who actually use it, it fulfills this purpose admirably, and yet it is still fun. As of May 8th 2009, it’s still selling pretty well, too.
Not every game should have the same purpose as Wii Fit. But we need to start making the lessons our games teach intentional. They are affecting us. They are teaching us, whether we intend them to or not. So the alternative is to not be aware of what we’re really being taught until it’s too late. Most games should be fun. But they should be fun in order to teach us something worthwhile.