The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.1
Monday, October 24, 2011 at 10:51PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

"Fun" is one of the most used terms and most misunderstood concept in talk of gaming and game design. It has been my explicit intent not to use the term very much on this blog. It along with words like "good" or "real" tend to create a sort of black box in our statements that we cannot peer into until everything has utterly crashed. Recently, I have used the descriptor "interesting" more frequently as a short hand for the quality of interesting choices/gameplay. I straightened out the word and its definition to mean something very clear and very specific. So after almost four years of blogging, it's finally time to tackle "fun" and the entire cloud of game design topics that surround it.

The best way to start any investigation into the meaning of a term or a word that already exists is to refer to the dictionary. Perhaps the confusion many have stems from the fact that "fun" is a noun, verb, adjective, and part of a few idioms. For our purposes, we'll focus on the noun-adjective meanings. From ...



FUN –noun 1. something that provides mirth or amusement. 2. enjoyment or playfulness.
MIRTH - noun 1. gaiety or jollity, especially when accompanied by laughter. 2. amusement or laughter:
AMUSEMENT -  noun 1. anything that amuses; pastime; entertainment.
AMUSE- verb (used with object) 1. to hold the attention of (someone) pleasantly; entertain or divert in an enjoyable or cheerful manner. 2. to cause mirth, laughter, or the like, in. 3. to cause (time, leisure,etc.) to pass agreeably.
AGREEABLE - adjective 1. to one's liking; pleasing. 2. willing or ready to agree or consent. 
PLAYFULNESS - adjective 1. full of play or fun; sportive; frolicsome.
PLAY - verb (used without object) 45. to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation. 48. to take part or engage in a game.


Notice that the chain of meaning eventually flows down to a few key concepts; time, engagement, and volition. Having fun takes time. And as the definitions imply, this time is fairly continuous. This facet works well with the engagement quality of fun. As we probably know from first hand experience, fun tends to be very engaging. Recall my article Engage, Challenge, Interact for more on engaging game design. And finally, fun is only possible after you choose to allow it to happen. It's not hard to think of a time where you've ruined your own fun with a poor attitude, or your fun was ruined for you because of some external force. In the first case, your attitude prevented other important parts of fun from happening like engagement. And in the second case, if the external force is strong enough to shake you out of your fun, it's probably because of its coercion. Any threat to our real lives and real world concerns tends to kill fun because we're most likely forced to deal with such serious issues. 
Time, engagement, and volition are the essence of what fun is. But allow me to present a much simpler, universal definition: fun is whatever you are willing to do or subject yourself to free of coercion.
With our new definition we can clearly see that fun is a lot more broad than being excited or feeling "good." Simply being an experience that you subject yourself to, fun really can be anything. People like scary, sad, or suspenseful movies not because these experiences feel "good" in themselves, but because they're engaging and safe to experience at the movies. The basic idea behind the traditional story model of build ups, climaxes, and falling actions is that things are going to become dire before they get resolved. The world loves stories with this kind of structure. It's the same for video game experiences. Feeling upset, mad, angry, lost, confused, and challenged all fall well within the range of experiences that typically come before feeling empowered, skillful, lucky, intelligent, etc. Though games are emergent, the experiences gamers bring to the table to relate to the game experiences are much more varied. 
We need to get rid of the notion that punishment and other generally undesired feelings or experiences are not fun. These feelings and experiences not only add variety to the range of possibilities, but they're often a necessary prerequisite to other "positive" feelings/experiences. In a similar way there are various types and intensities of fun that can be used to craft more varied experiences. People are willing to put up with a lot lower levels of fun than many game designers realize. Because the mind can be engaged (an important part of fun) in many different ways, people often adopt the "wait and see" mentality giving games, movies, or anything else a bit of time to develop. The moment players walk away is the moment they cease having fun. After all, by walking away the player proves that he/she is no longer willing to participate. Until that point, we can say that the user is having fun. How much fun is another issue altogether.


Opinion noun 
1. a belief or judgement that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty
2. apersonal view, attitude, or appraisal.
Fun isn't exactly the same as an opinion, or at least fun doesn't start off that way. Yes, everyone is engaged by different stimuli to different degrees. Though the web of what engages us is as individuals is intricate and constantly in flux, that and how we react to stimuli is not a belief, judgement, personal view, or attitude. It's merely how we're wired at a particular moment in time. As far as proving if something is fun for a person, my simplified definition makes that pretty easy. If one subjects himself or herself to an experience uncoerced then that person thinks that experience is fun. Because we can prove what is fun for a person this way, fun is subjective but not impossible to understand. 
As I've expressed here, like our opinions what is fun to us shouldn't be used as a defense or the crux of our argument. Using "fun" works best as a opportunity to explain the preferences and tendencies of an individual or a group of individuals. It's an invitation to provide more detail in a very specific context.
To close part 1, I'll explain the title of this series. You're in luck, I'm not waiting until we're deep in to explain the title like I did with the Coefficient of Clean series


In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. ~wikipeida
Many design their games to be as fun as possible as if game design is a zero-sum scenario measured. The idea is minimizing the un-fun parts of a game is just as efficient or optimal of strategy for maximizing the fun (click here for a clear example). The way I described walking away from a game as being the tell-tell sign that the player has stopped having fun can make "fun game design" seem like an all or nothing type of scenario. You either win the players over completely and they love the game or they walk away never to think of the game again. However, such cases where this is true about fun is a rare funomaly (fun + anomaly). Between what is familiar, what is immediately fun/engaging, and what may be fun with a bit of time investment, fun is so complex and variable that players don't have a clear fun-scale. And we certainly don't consciously measure how much fun we're having moment to moment. We just don't have a large enough STM to do so while playing video games. You can take out all the bugs, punishing elements, and supposed drawbacks out of your game, and you may still fall far short of creating a fun game for your target audience.
The rest of this series will look at various design elements and their implementation to try and get a better grasp of how the elements effect our engagement and our future decisions. Should be quite fun.
Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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