Game Analysis for Game Designers

12 Kinds of Fun

In the previous chapter, we discovered that “fun” is really just another word for “learning” and that putting players in a flow state is where this elusive “fun” comes from. We currently have an idea of what is fun, but it would help to know why these things are fun. What if there are new kinds of fun waiting to be discovered?

In their article MDA Framework, LeBlanc, et al. listed 8 kinds of fun. These are:

  • Sensation. Games can engage the senses directly. Consider the audio and video “eye candy” of video games; the tactile feel of the wooden roads and houses in Settlers of Catan; or the physical movement involved in playing sports, Dance Dance Revolution, or any game on the Nintendo Wii.
  • Fantasy. Games can provide a make-believe world (some might cynically call it “escapism”) that is more interesting than the real world.
  • Narrative. Games can involve stories, either of the embedded kind that designers put there, or the emergent kind that are created through player action.
  • Challenge. Some games, particularly retro-arcade games, professional sports, and some highly competitive board games like Chess and Go, derive their fun largely from the thrill of competition. Even single-player games like Minesweeper or activities like mountain climbing are fun mainly from overcoming a difficult challenge.
  • Fellowship. Many games have a highly social component to them. This alone is likely the reason that many American board games like Monopoly continue to sell many copies per year, in spite of the uninteresting decisions and dull mechanics. It is not the game, but the social interaction with family, that people remember fondly from their childhood.
  • Discovery. This is rare in board games, but can be found in exploration-type games like Tikal and Entdecker. It is more commonly found in adventure and role-playing video games, particularly games in the Zelda and Metroid series.
  • Expression. By this, the MDA authors mean the ability to express yourself through gameplay. Examples include games like Charades or Poker where the way that you act is at least as important as what other actions you take within a game; Dungeons & Dragons where the character you create is largely an expression of your own personal idea; or open-world and sim video games like The Sims or Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion or Fable, which are largely concerned with giving the player the tools needed to create their own custom experience.
  • Submission. This kind of fun captures the idea of games as an ongoing hobby rather than an isolated event. Consider the metagame and the tournament scene in Magic: the Gathering, the demands of a guild to show up at regular meetings in World of Warcraft, or even the ritualized play of games at a weekly boardgame or tabletop-roleplaying group.

These are not all-or-nothing propositions. Games can contain several kinds of fun, in varying quantities.

Why not just create a game that has all eight kinds of fun? Wouldn’t that be the holy grail of games, the game that’s fun for everyone? Unfortunately, no. Just because these are different kinds of fun does not mean that everyone finds all eight of these things fun at all. Not only do different games provide different combinations and relative quantities of the various kinds of fun, but different players find different combinations more or less fun than others. For example, some people think that Chess is fun while many others do not; the “fun” Aesthetic arises not from the game alone, but the combination of game and player.

Are these eight the only kinds of fun? No; even the authors admit the above list is incomplete. There are many classification schemes out there to identify different kinds of fun, including Nicole Lazzaro’s four fun keys, or Pierre-Alexandre Garneau’s fourteen forms of fun. Even the 8 kinds of fun from the MDA paper are debatable. Is it meaningful to separate Fantasy and Narrative, or are they just two ways of looking at the same kind of fun? Is submission really a kind of fun, or is it what happens when you have a game compelling enough to earn the status of “hobby” – is it a cause or an effect? What, exactly, counts as “expression” and what does not?

And where does the whole “fun is learning, learning is fun” thing from the last chapter come into this discussion?

Evolution (sans Pokemon)

In Natural Funativity, Noah Falstein answers the question by taking a trip back to early pre-history, when humans were at their hunter-gatherer stage. Primitive humans had to learn many skills in order to survive and reproduce. If we found it fun to learn certain skills, we would be more likely to practice them, and thus more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on our genes to the next generation. Over time, those things that made us most likely to survive ended up being the things that we find “fun” today. Not all primitive hunter-gatherer skills are necessarily useful today, mind you, but our genetics haven’t had time to catch up with our technology yet.

In short: if a caveman found it useful, you’ll find it fun.

Falstein proposes three kinds of fun: “physical fun” (useful for any physical feats that allow us to fight or escape danger), “mental fun” (the problem-solving part of our brain that gave us such useful things as the wheel and fire), and “social fun” (the benefits of banding together in groups for mutual survival… and, of course, reproduction).

We can apply this evolutionary thought process to any “kinds of fun.” Let’s look at some of the MDA’s 8 kinds of fun in this context:

  • Sensation includes physical movement (good for building muscle) and looking at and hearing things that are interesting (good for detecting opportunities or dangers).
  • Fantasy allows the kind of “what-if” scenario part of our brain to get stronger, allowing us to come up with novel ideas.
  • Narrative is useful for passing on vital information and experience to others in your group, increasing the chance that all of you will survive.
  • Challenge is a convenient way for different humans to show dominance over one another in a relatively safe way – “I can throw this rock further than you” is more useful than “let’s fight to the death” if you’re trying to build a colony.
  • Fellowship opens up the possibility of new food sources (a single one of us might get killed hunting a large beast, but a group of us together can take it down). It’s also rather hard to pass on your genetic material to the next generation if you’re alone.
  • Discovery is what makes us want to explore our nearby territory. The more territory we know, the more potential places for us to find food and shelter.
  • Expression probably comes from the same part of us that is hardwired to communicate through language. Language, and communication in general, are pretty useful.
  • Submission is in many cases a kind of social fun because we engage in these game hobbies with others. But some cases don’t fall into this category. Maybe submission really is an effect of fun rather than the cause.

Discovering New Kinds of Fun

We can do this in reverse. Instead of taking something that’s fun and tracing it back to the reptilian parts of our brain, we can isolate skills that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have needed to survive, and then use that to figure out what we would find fun. For example, here are some activities that are often found in games:

  • Collection. This is the “gathering” part of hunting-and-gathering, so you would expect it to be fun. And it is. Before video games became ubiquitous, the world’s most popular hobby was stamp collecting. In many board games you collect resources or tokens. Trading Card Game players collect cards. In the video game world, we’ve been collecting things since Mario first started collecting coins.
  • Spatial Reasoning. Primitive humans needed to figure out spatial relationships in order to build useful tools (for example, if you want to find a big stick to make a crude ladder or bridge, you need to be able to estimate length; if you want to stick two pieces of wood together, you need to be able to figure out how to make them fit). Many games make use of spatial relationships, from Tetris to Pente.
  • Advancement. This is kind of a meta-skill, the skill of learning new skills, which is obviously useful to a primitive human that needs to learn a lot of skills. We see this formalized in games all the time, from the overt Experience Points and Levels to finding new items or buying new weapons that give us better stats or new capabilities.
  • Finding Shortcuts. Finding novel, undiscovered ways to work around problems in ways that take less effort than normal helped primitive humans to conserve their energy; in that sense, laziness can be a virtue. Ironically, in games, this often takes the form of deliberate rule-breaking and cheating.
  • Griefing. Like other forms of competition, putting other people down is a way to show dominance and superiority over your peers. (Yes, some of us find it annoying and immature, but cavemen are not exactly known for their emotional sensitivity.)

This chapter was adapted from Level 8 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course.


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Creating Games Copyright © 2020 by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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