It may sound like a subject for a brainy day, but when you cover video games for a living you wind up having a lot of conversations about the meaning of "fun." Who talks about stuff like this?
On Monday I sat in on a video game theory class at New York University, and a student talked about her desire to make an emotionally powerful game. Would it be fun? She wasn't sure that fun was a requirement.
The next day, I got into an argument with a fellow game reporter about a scathing review of "God of War II" on the new review site ActionButton.net. The review had generated some fire in the site's comments section, at one point burning through the question of whether the game was too fun for its players' good — a sort of video game cotton candy rather than a video game steak. Sound ludicrous? People were arguing.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with David Simmonds, an executive who works on the massively multiplayer online game "Entropia Universe." He told me about "Entropia" and explained that every object in the sci-fi game has real financial value. A gun costs a certain amount. A pair of boots costs something else. Every time an item is used, the value goes down, making it tougher to resell. This kind of thing doesn't happen in "World of Warcraft," which is enjoyed by millions rather than the thousands who play "Entropia." I wondered if Simmonds' world was as much fun. Who wants to worry that every time they use their sword it loses its worth and will cost real money to restore? He said, naturally, that the "Entropia" way is great. "What people want in life is emotion," he told me. "I want to stand on top of a building and look down and go, 'Whoa.' It's why people parachute out of planes. If you go into any game and shoot a gun a million times each month, so what? In "Entropia Universe," everything you do can affect you financially." Certainly that adds a rush, knowing that one shot you fired today had a dollar riding on it, or that an errant volley cost you cash. Does added risk bring added fun?
Would you play a game that wasn't fun? Could that game even be any good? Musicians make blues songs and sad ballads. Pablo Picasso spent a phase of his career painting somber work — his Blue Period. Other forms of entertainment have taken that break from entertaining. But games? I've asked developers about this, and most tell me that games need to be fun and, at that, not get players down. The only taker on making a downer game so far has been critically acclaimed indie developer Introversion.
"There aren't that many games that give you a feeling of melancholy," Introversion producer Thomas Arundel told MTV News in September (see "Developer Hopes Nuclear-War Game 'Defcon' Leaves Its Mark "). He thought "Defcon" struck that somber chord nicely, thanks to a soft, sad soundtrack and its ice-cold depiction of thermonuclear war. He said the idea of sad games energized his colleagues.
I spent a good portion of the three-hour NYU class trying to think of a game — or even a game moment — that I liked even though it wasn't fun or happy. Near the end, I got one ... I think. The Nintendo DS rhythm games "Elite Beat Agents" and "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan" mostly required players to tap and strum the system's stylus to the beat of peppy music, all in the service of improving the lives of the game's frustrated characters. But one mission in each of the games was set to a sad song and had me tapping and strumming just to help a character cope with the loss of a loved one. You're not helping a guy win the love of a cheerleader or guiding a dog back to its owner. You're helping a little girl deal with spending Christmas without her dad. I wouldn't have described it as fun, however I recommend the moment.
What's fun? You could hold long classes on that question and write books about it, and people do. Sometimes you just know what's fun. For example, I understand that "Halo 3" will include an unfortunately named mode of transport called the "man cannon" that will launch players across a map. And then, in a recent video clip showing this feature, the game's makers at Bungie Studios said opposing players could shoot their cannon jumping friends out of the sky. They said it's great fun. I believe them.
But the question buzzing around me these days seems to be less "What is fun?" than "How important is fun?" If I have time to think about this, I may need more games to play. More fun games?
— Stephen Totilo