I want to talk about this week’s Extra Credits episode, and since I don’t really want to set up shop on their forums just for this, I thought I’d do it here.
The episode is called ‘Beyond Fun’, and it argues that video games should stop being so hung up on being ‘fun’ and embrace other ways of engaging players, including those which are more challenging or less comfortable than just fun. What it is not arguing – and I think it’s important to be clear here – is that games shouldn’t be fun. Nonetheless, I think ‘fun’ was a poor choice of word here, and I’m not sure that I agree with the argument.
First of all, the definition of ‘fun’ is dodgy. They use “light-hearted pleasure or amusement” (noun) and “entertaining and enjoyable” (adj.). By contrast, what they recommend for games is engagement. My first problem is, I find things which are engaging to also be fun in many cases. Not always, sure – the discomfort they described in Spec Ops: The Line does not sound fun. But horror fans generally find it fun to be scared; we laugh at ourselves when a game or a film makes us jump. When I find myself unexpectedly invested in game characters, whether it be anxiety over Shephard’s suicide mission or angst over my Grey Warden’s romantic entanglements, it’s fun. Afterwards, if you asked me, I am sure I would say the game was fun. There’s no reason why fun has to be mindless, trivial, inconsequential fun – I think that’s too narrow a definition of the word.
This relates to discussions I am referencing in my thesis. ‘Fun’ to my mind is intimately connected with ‘play’ as a concept. Playfulness leads to fun, and things which are fun are approached playfully. To my mind, the human propensity to play is what makes games (of any kind) so powerful and full of potential. Thomas Malaby has argued for viewing play as a ‘disposition’ or mode of experience which can be applied to a variety of scenarios, not just those which are identified as ‘games’ and thus sites for play. Malaby rests his definition of play on the idea of the world as contingent, with things being uncertain in their outcomes; life is contingent, which is often distressing, but in play we embrace this uncertainty and find a legitimate space in which to explore and experiment with it. Games, then, let us do things we wouldn’t normally do, and enjoy the experience even if we mess it up (because nothing’s at stake) – I think most video game players would agree with this.
Part of what Malaby argues is that ‘play’ and ‘games’ can and should be separated, that we should “decouple playful experience from a determinate relationship with games, just as scholars of ritual…have recognized ritual as a cultural form irrespective of whether it brings about religious experience. Thus we may say that a game may prompt a playful disposition, but then again, it may not” (20o9:212). This sounds very close to what Extra Credits is advocating for video games; games don’t need to always be aiming to be fun, above all else. As video games develop as an artform (something Extra Credits has always pushed for) they should explore how their technologies and techniques can be used for other effects.
I wonder if the underlying prompt for this episode might have been something which has bothered me as well. I wouldn’t have phrased it as games putting too much emphasis on fun… but many major franchises seem to be dissolving into spectacle and little else. The Assassin’s Creed series is an excellent example. The first game maintained a certain atmosphere, a sense of the setting as dusty, washed-out and antique, a sense of minimalist gameplay which told a story – not just the central story made up of events, but stories of a time, of the assassins as an order, of Altair’s growth, of the underlying sense (so dear to conspiracy thoerists) that there might be something wrong with the world. The most recent game, on the other hand, featured a 16th century assassin parasailing behind a cart before being flung off the cliff and wrestling in mid-air with his enemy before – of course – miraculously surviving to get the girl. Also, there’s aliens or something. Probably, someone decided that tanks and parasailing would make the game more ‘fun’. Next time around they’ve decided naval battles would be fun, and I am extremely interested to see how they justify that for their Mohawk-born assassin.
These things quickly get ridiculous, and I would certainly agree that a little less ‘wacky fun’ and a little more coherency would be good for a number of major game franchises. As I’ve recently said to a number of people, I think games are much better off being what they mean to be, and not bowing to pressure to be something else. It usually just leads to inferior imitations of whatever’s popular (MMO fans will surely know what I mean).
Still, the industry is what it is. Extra Credits makes the comparison to film, which I think is the right one, but I’m not sure they carry the comparison to the extent that they should. The mindless, trivial fun of blockbuster films is equivalent to triple-A gaming, I’m sure we can agree. Some are cleverer than others, but all are essentially aimed at entertainment and little else. Then there are other major cinema releases – and gaming has these too. Even major companies try new things, be a little quirky sometimes, or cater to a niche rather than the mainstream, and there are new companies who break into the big time too. There are the unexpected public hits, like Minecraft or Day Z, which suddenly become store-shelf-worthy. And then, there are the indie films, the avant garde and the intellectual, those pursuing an art not an income and pushing the boundaries of the medium. We have these indie games, and there are people exploring what games can be as art. But let’s be honest – the blockbusters are the big names. They have the biggest budgets, the most marketing, and the highest profits, and as long as the industry’s dominated by a few large companies, it’s likely to stay that way.
This has been a rambling discussion, so let me sum up: I think games that are engaging are fun, by their nature, even if it’s not the kind of fun the word immediately brings to mind. If they weren’t fun, we wouldn’t pursue games that are scary, or punishing, or emotionally draining in our leisure time. I also think that the Extra Credits team are right to say that the game industry is too hung up on being ‘fun’ as if that makes a game better automatically, and the ‘bread and circuses’ gameplay really doesn’t appeal to me. The more we accept spectacle, the more gameplay becomes cheapened by gimmicks. I also agree with what is implied, but never said, in the Extra Credits episode – that games aren’t just for children, they aren’t just for mindless fun; they’re engaging and challenging, but that’s not what people think at the moment. If you want to be taken seriously as a gamer, you should embrace games that have virtues other than fun. If you just want to watch heads explode, don’t be surprised when people call you childish for liking games.
[EDIT]: Massively reports on the Game Developer’s Choice Online Awards, including a talk from the recipient of this year’s Online Game Legend Award, Raph Koster (a true legend famous for his lead roles in Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, both very significant MMOs). Extra Credits are evidently not the only people thinking about the issues discussed above, because Koster expressed them pretty well: as Massively reports him saying, a game as entertainment “plays you – and plays you for money…It’s lazy, and it makes you lazy.”