Should All Games Be Fun?


So from the overly-prescriptive generalization and Betteridge's law of headlines, you may have already figured out my thesis. I don't think all games need to be fun, and games that focus on things other than "being a neat toy" are useful and valuable. In this post, I'll try to explain why.

Does anyone actually believe this?

First we should probably establish that yes, this is an actual opinion that real people have, and not just some strawman I made up to argue with. While it may not be as strongly-worded as "all games should be fun," there is often an unspoken assumption that "fun" is what a game should be aiming for. Advice on how to prototype games typically emphasizes finding a core idea which is fun, then building the game around that. A game that has "stopped being fun" is one that isn't worth playing anymore. Even Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé says:

Good question, Reggie.

What's wrong with it?

Shouldn't all games be fun? All else being equal, isn't a fun game better than an unfun one? It's not like fun is bad. Fun means it makes you happier, pretty much by definition. Why do I want players to be sad?

Okay, I don't really want that. I do think fun is good. But I think that focusing exclusively on fun, and treating it as equivalent to a game's value, is misguided, and leads to missing out on a lot of games' potential as an artform.

Fun isn't universal

First of all, what is fun to one person may not be fun to another. The Dark Souls games are intense, punishing, and offer a great sense of accomplishment once you beat them, but they just don't click for some people. On the other end of the spectrum, Kirby Star Allies is easy enough to be accessible to almost every gamer; unfortunately, that means that many of those gamers quickly get bored with it. What makes a game fun to one person can make it dull to someone else.

Kirby Star Allies (2018)

Maybe the toughest disconnect is between game developers and game players. When you've got an idea that you think is an absolute blast, but everyone you show it to hates it, what do you do? Do their opinions matter more than yours? Is the game fun or not? How can you tell whether or not this game is worth making?

Ultimately there has to be a value judgment. No game is fun for everyone, but games still get made anyway. Whether it's based on expected profit, developers' passion, or whatever else, game creators have to decide that a game is worth making. Fun is part of that decision, but it's not the whole thing.

This also means that you can't just make a game better by making it more fun. More fun for whom? Everyone has their own list of ideas for how to improve their favorite games, but no two people have the exact same list. When you make a game more fun for one player, you might be making it less fun for another. Trying to follow a guideline that games should be as fun as possible will only lead to disappointment.

It limits the artform

All books should have happy endings. Why not, right? It's not like happy endings are bad. If it's not happy it will just bum you out when you read it. Why would you read a book that just makes you sad?

All paintings should be pretty to look at. Why not? Do you want to waste your time looking at ugly paintings? Wouldn't it be better if they were all nice and comfortable?

Alright, you got me, those aren't sincere questions. We understand that art can have deeper value than just being pleasing on the surface. It can make you think, it can challenge your preconceptions, it can guide you through moods in a safe and helpful way. With other forms of art, it's obvious to us that it isn't necessarily bad if it doesn't put a smile on our faces. Some of the best creative works in any genre are the ones that make us look deeper, and ask us to spend time reflecting on the complicated feelings they instill.

Saying that "all games should be fun" is the same sort of mistake. While at first glance, a game that's fun may seem better than a game that's not, there's more to it than that. A game could make us feel regret, to challenge how we think about violence in the genre. A game could make us feel frustration, to make us question what we really want out of the experience. Like any other form of art, games can be a powerful influence with effects much deeper than just having fun.

It's overly moralistic

Hey, who said that games have a moral responsibility to directly increase happiness, anyway? Sometimes you just want to mess around in Unity. Maybe the end product isn't super fun, but who cares? You probably learned something from making it, and it's not like its existence makes the world worse.

"Poseidon's Plunder", an unfun game that taught me how to code networked multiplayer

I personally have learned plenty from playing and creating terrible games that weren't fun in the slightest, even if it was just what not to do. If I was limiting myself to only making games that were guaranteed to be fun, I'd never make any games at all. In a choice of bad game vs. no game, I would pick the bad game every time.

So players shouldn't care about whether a game is fun, then?

That's not what I'm saying! I'm not trying to make anyone change their mind about whether a game is good or bad. That's something you can only do for yourself. If you're playing a game, and it's just an absolute drag, and it might have some deep narrative or whatever but you don't care because the character's movement is so clunky you can't even do basic jumps, it is absolutely fine to dislike it.

If this post has any practical purpose, it's for creators. When you're in the early stages of planning a project, consider what is most valuable to you. What are you trying to achieve with this game? If it's fun, that's fine; that's a perfectly acceptable thing to aim for. But don't take that decision for granted. Remember that there are other things that matter, other emotions that are good to feel every once in a while. If we game developers keep that in mind, and we sometimes make the choice to prioritize something other than fun, maybe our games will be just a little bit better.


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