[March 11th update: OK, I was guessing. I have now read Barry Atkins’ paper, and I did misinterpret a few things. So please read the text below as 1) me going at great lengths to prove that I care about fun, 2) some general comments about why some people shy away from talking about rules in games. The comments below do not strictly relate to Atkin’s paper, his paper just made me think about a few things.
Apparently a few people have interpreted the discussion here, here, here as being very hostile or problematic, but this is not my experience at all.
It’s all in the area of the open exchange of ideas, even if some people (myself being a good example) are a bit more jumpy than need be. Just keep it going, everybody!]
Nick Montfort has posted his notes from the Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism conference at Princeton University this Saturday. I can see I should have gone, but instead I’ll just comment a bit on what I guess from Nick’s notes.
Apparently Barry Atkins had some objections to my Utrecht talk about The Game, the Player, the World, because my definition of games (the classic game model) does not include pleasure.
I can see why he is making the point, but I also feel that you can’t talk about everything all the time – fun simply wasn’t the primary focus of the talk. I have written quite a lot on fun/pleasure in games, so it’s very strange to be criticized for ignoring it!
My early 1998 DAC paper work discusses fun.
My 2000 paper on the importance of studying games discusses fun.
I’ve discussed fun in the relation to the experience of time.
At the 2002 Manchester conference I presented a paper on gameplay and fun.
And recently I’ve written a general essay about theorizing fun and the issue of focusing too much on games as being challenges.
Incidentally, the last one criticizes the notion of game quality as hinging on “interesting choices” and challenges. It’s always a weird experience, being criticized for not discussing something that you have discussed, and being criticized for ignoring an argument that you have already proposed in great detail.
But all game definitions have grappled with this problem – it would be really nice to have a point #7 in my model, stating that “games are fun” – but the problem is that not all games are fun; some games are dull; different people enjoy different games or even the same games but for different reasons. You could easily end up with a strange situation where something would flicker between being a game and being a non-game during the course of a game session, etc… The grand point of my game definition obviously is that the negotiable consequences of a game (i.e. the game activity is predominantly harmless) means that it is possible to design a game and play a game for the fun of it.
Atkin’s paper made me think about a general problem I often encounter, an import from literary theory that just turns out not to apply very well to games. Whenever I give talks about games, discuss game definitions or simply mention the fact that games have rules, part of the audience always looks like all the alarms are going off inside their heads. The alarms are going off mostly because much structuralism (say, Propp, Greimas, Levi-Strauss) assumed that all texts really consisted of objective formal structures. The goal of the theorist was then simply to prove that a specific text also had the kind of formal structure that the theory predicted. This of course ignored the small matter of interpretation as well as the pleasures of the reader, and made for some pretty far-fetched readings of literature and film. Very broadly speaking, literary deconstruction and poststructuralism was then a reaction against this, emphasizing the act of reading, the act of interpretation, reader experiences, and the instability of texts.
This is the history that makes a lot of people automatically assume that if anybody talks about rules, structure, or definitions, they must be ignoring the experiences of the user. But the problem is that while this to a large extent is true with literature or film – if you reduce a novel to a semiotic square, almost everything interesting is lost – it is completely wrong when it comes to games.
Games are pleasurable because they are rule-based, because they are well-defined (and definable). It is the formal nature of games that makes them fun. In this case, games are complete reversals of what you may expect if you come from literary theory. If you ignore the rule-based nature of games, their well-definedness, or the kind of formal challenging systems that they are, you will be at loss to understand why games are fun, and you will be completely ignoring the experiences of the player. As I’ve said elsewhere: Games are formal systems that provide informal experiences.
Another assumption in the argument seems to be that work is completely distinct from fun, and that to focus on the challenging aspect of games is to ignore the fun aspect. But again, games are fun because they are challenging, games are fun because they are work.