Games For Fun: Does a Game Have to Be Fun to Be Good?

Should games try and be something other than fun?

Video games are a relatively emerging medium, and in order for them to grow and mature, it’s important that we recognize the problems the medium currently faces.

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Maybe you believe that games should be considered art, or maybe you like when a game is simple and fun. Either way, there are improvements that can be made so that gaming is better overall.

To begin with, let’s focus on fun.

Or more accurately, whether fun is necessary for a game to be considered good. To discuss this, we’ll have to simplify the term “good,” an abnormally superlative word, to mean ‘critically acclaimed.’ Fun is the sort of underlying joy you can get from a game, whether from achieving something that at first seemed complicated (think Portal) or from blowing up the most bad guys with epic head shots (think most shooters). A hard game can be fun and frustration eventually leads its way to success.

Can a game be good if it isn’t fun?

This might seem like a strange question. After all, isn’t the point of games for them to be fun? We square away games solely into the realm of entertainment, and because of that we limit the medium as a whole.

Think about other mediums; say… literature and film. In movies, there are plenty of examples of really great films, films that express a myriad of emotions, that are also incredibly difficult to watch and that you would never consider fun. For example, Schindler’s List. It’s a great film that expresses a point in history that needs to be heard, but you wouldn’t call watching Schindler’s List a “fun” experience.  There are films that are meant to be more mass market and enjoyable, where you can simply lay back and watch shit blow up, but you’re not limited to those experiences. 

Similarly, you can have “beach reads” in books, but reading the Road is not pleasant entertainment. There is no other medium that simply limits itself to so few emotions—joy and victory. Why then, do we hold games to the same standards as we would beach reads and summer blockbusters?

There are a couple of reasons we don’t allow video games to mature in this way.

For one, games are considered “play.” We create a system where they only exist to entertain, and don’t have an open dialogue about how a game can do more than just be enjoyable. As an industry, we don’t expect to learn anything new, experience emotional reactions or not enjoy ourselves when we pick up a controller or sit down at a desk. For this reason, we get the same emotional depth as most big action blockbusters.  

I’m not saying that every game has to be “not fun.” There is a place for all the games of today that we love, from the sky-hook-cinematic joy of Bioshock Infinite to the joy of discovery you find in Portal. There just simply need to be games that present another side of the human experience. Even when dealing with horrific violence in games like Bioshock Infinite, you would still consider the game fun. Moral choice systems in most games function as band aids to the problem, and to be honest, was the original Bioshock any less fun if you chose to kill the Little Sisters rather than save them?

There are a few examples of “good” games that are not fun.

But these games exist primarily in the indie scene, and are just small examples of where the medium could go.

There is the visual poetry of games like Dear Esther and a Slow Year, which are good games but not fun. Or there’s a game like the Marriage, which expresses how a marriage feels in terms of gameplay. The developer writes that The Marriage is “certainly meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the traditional sense most games are.” You can play it for free online, and it correctly expresses how difficult a marriage can be. It becomes a deeply personal conversation you’re having with the developer. It shows the way that games can express feelings and be “not fun,” and still may be good.

Gaming is an emerging and potentially great medium that has limited itself to something banal and temporary.

I’m not going to go the route of Jonathan Blow and tell you that gaming is “going to be huge,” and that it will become the necessary to express the human experience. Maybe it will. But what is important now is that gaming recognize the rest of  human emotion, and discuss it in an adult way. 


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Author
Amanda Wallace
Former rugby player, social media person, and occasional writer.