The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.7
Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 10:38PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

To close this series, I will recap all the most important points from this series and hint to future articles. 


I hope you enjoyed the zero-images I created for each article. I tried to keep the theme of "zeros in video games" going as long as I could after the first Mario image. 


  1. Fun is a widely used and widely misunderstood concept. It's not a subjective defense that validates or invalidates design decisions. It's not unchallengeable. It's a concept that encompasses an incredibly wide set of experiences yet it's not necessarily vague. 
  2. Time, engagement, and volition are the 3 necessary components of fun. You must spend time with a game to have fun playing it. This is to say that fun isn't an instant long lasting effect. Fun must engage the mind or our skills. And fun must be free of coercion. 
  3. My definition of fun is practical, simple, and clear: fun is whatever you are willing to do or subject yourself to free of coercion. With this view you don't have to worry about degrees of fun, or how much fun it takes to really having fun. Even if a person or gamer appears to be upset, as long as they aren't coerced or forced to participate by some external force, they're having fun. 
  4. Fun is not a zero-sum game; a tug-of-war between rewarding and punishing consequences. Getting rid of the outcomes, effects, and consequences that one dislikes in a game doesn't necessarily increase the amount of fun one can have. Variation, ups and downs, struggles, and "bad" experiences within the context of safe, fun environments do not have the same negative effects as the same experiences in real-life or with real punishments. In the wide range of experiences video games can create, feeling happy, powerful, or smart is just as fun as being scared, morally challenge, and being enraged.   
  5. All play is fun. But not all fun is play. The difference is play requires being intrinsically motivated. 
  6. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is powered by the interest and enjoyment of the activity itself. Intrinsically motivation individuals have a strong correlation with developing a sense of agency, a better understanding of the power of practice, and a desire for mastery. These are important qualities to have in school, and they are also important to have with video games because games are learning systems. 
  7. There are many theories that seek to explain or pinpoint the source of intrinsic motivation. I think that Steven Reiss's theory works well for our purposes. From his list of 16 basic desires at the core of intrinsic motivation power, curiosity, vengeance, saving, and independence are the 5 most prevalent types that video games inherently and most easily stress. 
  8. Goal-setting theory is another important concept that helps us understand video game fun because games require goals. Linking this theory to Steven Reiss' criteria, goal-setting theory appeals to our needs of curiosity (the need to learn) and power (the need to influence will). The three features of goal-setting theory are proximity, difficulty, and specificity. 
  9. Goal-setting theory also aligns with many previously established design rules and theories. Specificity (clearly defined goals) resonates with clean game design. Difficulty aligns with Chen's Flow in Games thesis. And proximity meshes with our understanding of the human mind and its limited memory capacity. 
  10. Following the guidelines of goal-setting theory to make "good goals" isn't entirely necessary for video games. Not designing "good goals" doesn't necessarily detract from a game's ability to be fun or to foster play. The very idea of adventuring, as I defined it, relies on not knowing the exact steps it takes to reach a goal that may or may not be explicitly defined. 
  11. The intrinsic motivators of power and curiosity are at odds with each other. The more you are motivated by curiosity, the stronger the desire to test your new understanding becomes. And against increasingly difficult challenges, the more you fail, the more motivated you become to switch over to an learning playstyle to build your skills up. As this pendulum of motivation swings back and forth, it can be very stressful and dangerous to fun if the user is significantly restricted from freely moving between these motivations. Being forced to learn when one expects to flex or being prevented from learning when one desires to understand can cause players to lose motivation and therefore lose play and fun.  
  12. As far as difficulty goes, being able to adjust the difficulty of a gameplay challenge to stay in one's flow zone is very important for various aspects of fun including goal-setting theory and power. Making and following external rules (or house rules) can work to increase or even decrease a game's challenge, but we cannot count these external conditions as part of a game's design. However, pursing in-game options that adjust the level of difficulty are completely legitimate ways to adjust difficulty that we can attribute to a game's design.  
  13. Extrinsic motivatiors are very dangerous. They can be great at motivating simple, repetitive tasks. But for anything that requires a small amount of cognitive work or more, they can easily do more harm than good. This is known as the overjustification effect. 
  14. There are many definitions of the terms rewards and punishments. While the common definition of rewards works fine, it's necessary that we adopt the definitions from the world of psychology. People or gamers are not reinforced or punished. Rather, behavior is. If the consequences makes a behavior less likely to happen, we call such a consequence a punishment. Different consequences have different effects on different people. But for the most part, video game rewards, reinforcements, and punishments affect us the same way. 
  15. For any game where there are more ways to fail than win, there will always be more punishments than rewards and reinforcements. All of the fail state possibilities is what makes winning, difficulty, goal-setting, and the intrinsic motivator of power work. 
  16. How we feel about various rewards, reinforcements, and punishments is a different matter altogether, which is only somewhat related to fun. Sometimes we lose and feel like winners and visa versa. Yes, a game's main goal is usually a priority, but not always. Sometimes external or optional goals are what we shoot for. 
  17. The concepts of extinction, immediacy, consistency, and size help us understand different gamer behavior like why loot drops are so appealing and why ?-blocks in Super Mario Bros. are still exciting to explore. 
  18. For most people, creating value scales for fun is complicated because we're forced to quantify, compare, and relate disparate experiences. Because there are so many facets that can make up one's personal criteria and so many examples to cross compare, the web of comparisons makes the whole ordeal practically impossible to sort out. Just trying to pin fun down to hours of play, intensity of the experience, or even by dollars will leave you exhausted and confused by the shear number of exceptions and potential exceptions.  


It's been a long journey investigating fun. There's still much more to explore and examine though. By reaching the end of this series I know you had fun. After all, if you gave up before this you wouldn't be reading this now. And by the same logic you know that I had fun writing this article series as well. See how well my definition of fun works?

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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