The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.6
Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 11:02PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

Before I conclude this series, I wanted to highlight a part of our gaming discourse that exposes a failing in how we think of fun. As we've learned, fun is a simple outcome that results from many disparate overlapping facets of personhood. As long as a gamer continues to play a game, he/she is having fun. But like I said in part 1 of this series, how much fun is a different question altogether. Gamers talk all the time about what's fun and what's not fun. They also talk about how much more fun one game is compared to another. They also comment on how quickly a game gets fun or how much more fun they could be having in the same amount of time with another game. From this point it's natural for these gamers to construct a value system that combines fun, time, and price. And it's here where the entire concept of fun is impossible to convert. 



It's hard not to be a critic. All you need is an opinion. You don't even have to say it out loud or blog about it. To have distinguishing tastes, you only need to be aware of what you like and dislike. I've somewhat jokingly stated that opinions are the most abundant substance in the universe. We make them all the time without even being conscious of it. See? You just formed an opinion on my humorous claim. You just did it again in regards to whether or not you found it to actually be humorous. I could go on and on. The point is opinions and feelings are only so useful. They're great at directing our moment to moment decisions. But they do not help us find common ground, speak objectively, and communicating in general. My claim is no matter what kinds of games you like or how you value them, you'll never resolve a value scale of fun that looks for quality and quantity. Now that we thoroughly understand fun, we should be able to sort out the issue of fun and value. 


To start, consider how we could value a game if fun was binary; if there were no degrees to fun. As long as you're playing a game you're having a maximum level of fun. As soon as you refuse to play you're no longer having fun. While you're having fun you may have a wide range of experiences. And though you may value some types of experiences more than others, you cannot have more fun playing the game you love compared to another game you like or a game that you hope will get better. 

If we look at fun like this, then the fun value of a game is equivalent to how long it keeps us interested or playing. Practically speaking, even with this value scale there's still a big issue of figuring out how to measure gameplay time. Do we pick the average play length? Do we factor in unlimited multiplayer time? Do we consider how long it takes to complete a game 100%? Or is it really not a matter of content at all? Even if we solely factor time played, it's difficult to factor the time that we may add to a game in the future? As long as you own a game, you can play it as much as you want off and on for years.

The point of this thought experiment is to understand that a game's fun value can be thought of as its play time, which is potentially endless. Just look at how much time Steve Wiebe has committed to Donkey Kong. That's value. It may seem odd to conflate fun and time, but if you value all kinds of fun experiences equally, even by your own preferences, it makes sense. If you're skeptical about the premise that fun has no degrees then consider the following thought experiment. 


What if fun has a range that runs from 0 to your favorite gaming experience of all time? What if we measure a game's fun value by how many times it delivers the interactive experiences we like most? With this view, play time is not an factor. We're counting fun experiences. As long as a game has our favorite features, set pieces, mechanics, story, etc. we'll value it higher than games with fewer of our favorite elements and over games with less fun elements. There are two reasons why this view isn't feasible. 

First, it assumes that we have a ranked list of our own preferences. While forming an opinion is almost effortless, ranking our opinions is much more difficult. Would you rather have a piece of your favorite candy, or an equivalent amount of your second and third favorite candy. In other words, do you take quality over quantity? Did you answer that question easily enough? If so, would you rather have two pieces of your favorite candy or would you rather have one piece of your #2 candy and four pieces of your #10? Not so easy huh? 

You can mix and match the numbers all you want or change the subject if you like. The results should be about the same. Eventually the value scale that you use to make decisions will fail because the scenarios are so complex. Considering how humans are typically pretty bad at actively thinking about numbers (especially anything beyond 7+2 values) you'll never develop a clear list of priorities that can govern relatively complex scenarios no matter how long you think about it. The same reasoning is behind the popular idiom that states you cannot compare apples and oranges. This idiom is really about value scales and criteria. Apples and oranges don't baffle human comprehension. The comparison is difficult because unless you have a very simple value scale the more you think about the different ways you can value these fruits, the more incomprehensibly complex the web of comparisons becomes. And as you seek to refine your criteria, you'll ultimately devalue one fruit for simply not being like the other. Apples are great at being apples. Oranges are great as oranges. So, perhaps the various types of fun experiences one appreciates are good in their own ways as well, making the idea of ranking them somewhat... fruitless. Put another way, if your value scale changes on a whim, then what good is it?


The second reason why using "degrees of fun" as a metric isn't feasible is that many have a bias for complex games. Just like with stories, there's a greater range of possible content with complex games as opposed to simple or minimalist games. In other words, when you have more games rules, elements, levels, or other content, you generally have more room to work with to present ideas and concepts that would not be possible with much fewer resources. In the same way that people generally don't suggest simple stories when asked for examples of their favorite stories, gamers tend to be biased against short, high quality gaming experiences. 

Yes, complex games can be great in ways that simple games cannot. However, too many complexities in a game can clutter the communication of its game ideas. This clutter can really work against fun by reducing the clarity of feedback, which affects both goal-setting and the intrinsic motivator of curiosity. Also, the more complex a game, the harder it is to pull off at a high quality. So, if quality fun experiences are what we're measuring in this thought experiment, then shorter, well-executed, concentrated experiences should be valued most. This seems to be the opposite conclusion compared to the results of the first thought experiment. If this is true, then such contrary values are the reason why any value scale with fun cannot be resolved. 


While I understand why we value complex games so much, I don't understand why we value the complex games that fall short over better executed, smaller games. Perhaps this bias stems from the apples-and-oranges quandary explained above. If you're the kind of person who ranks great commercials right up there with your favorite TV shows and movies, then consider yourself an exception; another kind of funomoly. As for me, if you look at my GOTY lists for the past few years it's clear that I value quality over quantity (of play time and gameplay content). I value polished, well executed ideas over ambitious, complex messes. This is how games like RO9 and Puji have make the list while many AAA budget games have not. 

When you really think about it there's nothing logical, measurable, or clear about fun. We take it as it comes as we are guided by feelings, which include our snap judgements and long established opinions/biases. As I've explained above, just trying to clear up the issue of fun value scales reveals a poorly defined, endless web of comparisons. And though I didn't discuss it here, when you add price to the discussion, what little logic and clarity left is erased. I intend on exploring the subject of fun, value, and pricing outside of this series.


In the 7th and final part, we'll recap and conclude.

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