Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Games Are Not Supposed To Be Fun

Woody Allen said yesterday, on the recent death of Ingmar Bergman (paraphrased): He (Ingmar) was a director of high art who didn't care about the commercial aspects of his films.

It hit me like a thunderbolt.

When I advocate that game designers make games with more substantial tactics and strategy, and that gamers choose to play games that add to their life and are not simply gambling or passing time, someone always comes back with "Games are supposed to be fun."

I've always said, yeah, games are supposed to be fun, but it's better to use that same time while having fun to also build character. But I get tired of saying it, because that isn't the "primary" point of games, right? Games are, after all, first and foremost supposed to be fun. If they're not, they don't get played.

Well here's a spoke in your sacred cow: Games are NOT supposed to be fun.

Games are not supposed to be anything. Games are a medium, like movies, books, and painting. The problem with games, and the game industry, and gamers, is that no one has ever thought about games as other than a) how fun they are, and b) how many people play them. Everyone believes that a better game is one that sells more or that more people play.



Paintings are made to communicate artistic ideas, and they may also be made to have commercial value. These two ideas are not exclusive in any way. However, nor are they related in any way.

If you say paintings "have to be decorative", you're a few centuries behind the times. An artistic painting might be neither commercial nor decorative, but still be great art. Or it might be great art and pleasant to look at, too. Or pleasant, but not great art. Or neither, of course.

The vast majority of painters in the world judge their work by how commercially successful they are. That doesn't mean that paintings are "supposed to sell well" or are "supposed to be pleasing". It just means that most painters are not creating art.


Hollywood churns out movie after movie trying to make money. From Hollywood's point of view, movies are "supposed to be entertaining". Maybe that's your point of view, too.

People who use movies as media to create art have another purpose in mind. Their movies may be made to be commercially successful, or not. They may be made to entertain or not. This is orthogonal to the idea that movies can be art.

Movies are not "supposed to be" anything. Movies are a medium. If you want to use it to be commercially successful and popular you have one goal in mind, and if you want to use it to make art, you have another goal in mind.


And so we come to games.

Every yokel and their friend knows that games are "supposed to be fun". But it just ain't true.

Game production is caught in the same overbearing industry grapples as every other medium. The companies controlling their production want to make money. In order to do this, games have to be commercially successful. In order to get people to play them, they have to be fun.

Does that sound like a way to make great art? Of course not. Some designers may succeed in adding elements of great art into their games, but it is surely under difficult positions.

If you throw out the idea that games have to be commercially successful, and if you throw out the idea that games have to be appealing or fun, you end up with a medium like any other.

Games can be created that are not appealing and that no one would buy for entertainment. But interacting with them can communicate the artist's vision, just like would a painting or a movie.

Are there any artists using games as their medium? The answer is extremely disappointing. That's because until now, even artists have tried to make their games fun and successful, in order to attract people to play with them. Because, until now, everyone has been hampered by the idea that games have to be "fun".

It just ain't so.


Updated Dec, 2007: Six months after I wrote this the discussion picked up again.

I have to clarify this post now. It has become obvious that it failed to communicate what I wanted to say. It begins with a defense of things that I did not say:

I don't think the industry that makes games should change. I think any game made to sell MUST be fun, and that fun is more important than elegance, mechanics, or anything else.

Nothing I wrote was meant to argue with any of this.

What I wrote was about the definition of the word "game". That's it.

It's a theoretical discussion which was meant to have implications only for artists, not for game players, designers, or publishers!

No company should ever try to sell a game for entertainment that is not fun. Nobody should ever, in the context of their house, family, or game group, ever play a game for entertainment that is not fun, for whatever your definition of fun is. Fun is paramount to games when played for entertainment.

My point, which again I'll agree was made badly both because I'm not a great writer nor any kind of artist, is that the "game format" should be usable as an art form as well, like any other interactive art format.

And my point, ditto, was that this has not seriously happened until now because the word "game" is currently only associated with corporations, homes, entertainment, and game groups. [I stand corrected about this.]

I'm NOT saying that corporations, homes, entertainment, or game groups should change! I'm saying that other people in other industries could make some interesting experiments out of the game like process, experiments that are not purely sales-driven, fun-driven, and entertainment-based.

That's it.

Oh, one more thing. I also never said that for something to be artistic it has to not be fun. There is no relation between them. Something could be both, either, or neither.

Hope that helps.

The phrase "Games are NOT supposed to be fun" caused a lot of brou-ha-ha, and makes sense only in the context of the article, which is a reply to the statement "games are supposed to be fun". MY definition of "game" doesn't include fun in it. My definition of commercial game or game which anyone would bother to play for entertainment includes having to be fun. My definition of game is rules, goals, and abstracted.

Furthermore, I I said that if your definition of the word "game" includes "must try to be fun", then of course I can't argue with you. In that case, take an activity that is the same as a game but does not have to be fun and use that word instead. That activity would make an interesting art form.

And lastly, I was wrong to say "Everyone believes that a better game is one that sells more or that more people play."

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