If I said that I played a game last weekend which wasn’t fun, you’d probably think I spent my time playing Truck Simulator or something. If I said I played a game which wasn’t fun, but I spent an entire weekend stuck to my computer trying to finish it, you’d probably think I didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘fun’.
However, fun – whilst commonly a defining factor of the gaming experience – is not universal to all games. Let me take a step back and say that the game I played last weekend was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And now you’re probably starting to understand what I mean when I said I didn’t have fun playing it. Instead, we can describe the experience as ‘engaging’. Engaging, but not fun.
This engagement is produced by the emotional thrill factor that the horror genre can elicit; from jump scares to a lingering sense of dread, we’re high on the adrenaline pumping through our system when it comes to horror games. But the experience is not ‘fun’, in the traditional sense. Which is why we describe it as ‘engaging’.
You might think this distinction is persnickety and artsy and, well, a bit stupid. And you’d be right, for the most part – I am being fussy about my definitions, and let me tell you why. Thinking that ‘fun’ is the only defining factor of video games is damaging the medium. Why do you think there’s been a decline in horror games in recent years? Because developers, particularly Triple A’s attempting to recoup billions of dollars (I’ve written about this previously, and if the editor can link to it here that’d be amazing), think that games HAVE to be fun. And horror, among other genres, is just not fun. Engaging, but not fun.
But what about games that aren’t horror? We can find examples of this engaging-but-not-fun in all kinds of genres, including classics such as ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’ (a fantastic adventure game based on the story of the same name), and modern war shooters like ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ (incidentally also based on a book, ‘Heart of Darkness’, same book ‘Apocalypse Now’ is based on). We are beginning to mature as a medium, realising that sometimes, things should just not be fun. But we’re not quite mature yet. Like a fine cheese, it’ll take time, and care, and a whole lot of mould before we figure out how to mature as developers and, more importantly, as gamers.
Maturity and Fun
Now, don’t get me wrong, not every game should be dark and gritty – for example, if I want to play a game where I roll around as a giant ball of some kind (think Kirby), I don’t want to be presented with the horrors of human existence. But it’s that ability to explore the darkness of human nature that will help us to mature as a medium – knowing when we should make things fun and when we shouldn’t. It’s a tough divide, surely, but achieving that balance is so much better than swinging wildly between extremes.
It’s not about being ALL fun or ALL serious, but about knowing when fun is appropriate. I am, for the most part, against modern war shooters. There are a multitude of reasons to be against them, just as there are multiple reasons to like them, and I’m not about to crap on anyone’s opinion. I’m just saying that I don’t like them because they’re fun when I feel they shouldn’t be. War is not fun. War is horrific. We should not be glorifying it (same goes for how I feel about war films). And, as a medium, it’s about accepting that perhaps we have been a little childish about some things, and about changing our perceptions in order to gain more meaningful experiences rather than just ‘woo yay shooty fun’ from games.
And, to reiterate, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with ‘woo yay shooty fun’. For example, ‘Borderlands’ wouldn’t work if it had the same tone as ‘Amnesia’. It’s about knowing which is which and when which is appropriate; it’ll be a hard change to make, but one we must make if we’re to be taken seriously by other mass media.
Games are fun. There’s no getting away from that, and to be honest, we shouldn’t be striving to distance ourselves from that sense of fun which embodies certain genres. However, maturity is about knowing when it’s okay to have fun with an experience and when it’s not okay, and we can use our unique advantage as an interactive medium to enrich lives and bring deeper experiences to the people who play. So no, games should not be universally fun, and we as players should recognise and reward more enriching experiences, whilst accepting that sometimes, all we want to do is blow stuff up in a spectacular fashion.