Fun is an important topic in the industry today. Traditionally, games have needed to have a focus in fun because it was the hook that got people interested in the game and kept them coming back to play more. This has always been important because of the interesting relationship that fun and play have when combined into a game. One definition of play is that it is a utility that develops skills that can be translated into the real world, but without appearing like work. Fun is basically that attribute that keeps people interested in developing those skills, without even knowing it. But like film eventually changed from just showing moving pictures into very serious ways of expressing yourself, in recent times game designers have begun to ask the question if whether or not fun is a necessity in games.
Fun is usually described as “an enjoyable experience”. While I don’t particularly like this definition, because of how vague it is, it does essentially represent what “fun” is, a really meaningless and subjective term. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to pin point a potential better definition. I believe that fun is really just a shortened way of saying a “simulated danger”, as in, an activity that would normally put you into some kind of physical, mental, or social danger but without you ever having to actually risk yourself. I think this is why violent games are the ones that are the most critically acclaimed. Games like Call of Duty and Halo put people into the experience of war, whether it be more realistic or more fantastic, allowing them to think and feel the anxieties of being in those situations, but without having to risk anything real. Even in those games multiplayer, the worst that can happen is losing but with no actual costs. Even in a game like, Wii Music, the player can put themselves into an imaginative scenario, where the “loss” of failing is making bad music in front of a crowd. What made people turn away from a game like Wii Music over a game like Rock Band, is in part of what makes fun such a subjective term. The danger in Wii Music was less obvious. It wasn’t a game that punished you by having crowds boo you off stage or making you play the song again, but from failing yourself personally. I think to many people though, that failure isn’t enough to evoke an emotional response, as opposed to Rock Band where failure is met more harshly and become more “real”, even though the crowds aren’t real.
I don’t think this definition of fun is perfect, but essentially boils down to conflict without danger. If you think about all the forms of entertainment you consume, you might realize that they contain some kind of conflict. A review by the Nostalgia Critic of an awful movie called “Junior”, has him go on a rant about how the biggest crime of the film was that it was boring. In that movie, there was a conflict but it wasn’t handled like a conflict. The conflict was ignored and even though the premise was Arnold Schwarzenegger being pregnant, the movie treated it like if just any old woman was pregnant, which is pretty normal and thus pretty boring to watch.
So when discussing fun in video games, can it be removed? David Cage has spoken out about why he thinks video games should stop relying on fun to be meaningful, but in reality, his latest game Heavy Rain relies so much on conflict that even though I hated it from a design perspective, I couldn’t help but have some fun in it. I had fun because at moments, it had several layers of conflicts going on. The scene where Ethan has to run through a routine with his son, there is conflict between the two. More commonly though, the conflict took pace in very violent gun fights, fist fights, reckless acts, etc. Those together made for, if anything, an entertaining story (though pretty incompetently written). Now imagine if the game had removed all conflict. Let’s say that the game was just about Ethan going about his daily life with no danger happening, no risks involves, no conflicts at all. I guarantee nobody would play that game, or at the very least say it was fun, because it would be boring.
The most common mistake I see in the discussion of “do games need to be fun?” is that high adrenaline experiences are considered fun while quite, tense moments aren’t. This is just simply not the case. The best game of all time, Metroid Prime, is a combination of action and atmosphere. There are plenty of quiet moments in the game but it never ceases to stop the feeling of conflict as you traverse from point A to point B. As you’re exploring the world, small dangers are littered throughout and an overarching threat of what awaits the next corner is always present. That is the conflict, as opposed to a game like Xenoblade Chronicles, which has its walking present absolutely no conflict and makes most enemies totally avoidable without any kind of danger.
This boring aspect of Xenoblade is the perfect example of why you cannot remove fun from a game. The most fun I’m having with the game is the rather excellent story, but because the combat is so boring, moving from point to point to complete quests is so boring, that I’ve stopped caring. There’s no conflict in any aspect of the game except the story, which is actually pretty sparse between long segments of just walking. And it’s not the only game where I’ve seen similar stuff happen. Braid wants you to appreciate its story, but its so separate from the game and so uninteresting that most players ignored it and the original Bioshock removed a lot of its conflict through various means while the story carried the only weight which, in the end, hurt the game as a game.
So no, I don’t think the idea of fun can ever be removed from the game, though it is still subjective and thus a game might be fun to one person and not another. But you can never really say “I want this game to not be about fun”, and in fact, you can’t really say anything shouldn’t be about being fun. To do so makes it going through your work, well, work and if it is work, then no one will want to even give it a second’s glance.