The fun dichotomy
May 30, 2009
Attendees at the Games for Change festival this week wrestled with the F-word. Throughout the two-day event developers, educators, non-profit reps, and journalists repeatedly found themselves asking the same question: what role should "fun" play in so-called serious games? The problem is thornier than it appears because fun, it turns out, is tricky business.
Fun confounds because it opens doors while closing others. Two-time Pulitzer prize winner Nicholas Kristof described the "fun dichotomy" (my phrase, not his) in his opening keynote address: "There is resistance to accepting games as a means of reaching people. Journalists and educators are resistant because games are not seen as serious."
On the other hand, 'serious games' are equally problematic. "A game that smells of being 'earnest' and 'good for you' is probably dead on arrival. It must be fun." If we want to deliver serious content, Kristof believes "we need to be willing to back off" when polemics overwhelm the fun of play.
Not everyone sees it this way, however, and concerns were expressed at several sessions about fun as a self-imposed imperative, constraining the expressiveness of games and their potential as an art form. In the Q&A following Lucy Bradshaw's closing keynote (sprinkled perhaps a bit too liberally with EA promotion), Greg Costikyan took issue with the notion that games must always be "fun" and warned that neither the medium nor the industry will truly progress until we unshackle ourselves from such a limited concept of games. (Randy Smith's recent series of columns in Edge Magazine devoted to "Not Fun Games" is also well worth a read.)
And it's here we run into the inevitable "definition of fun" many have tackled in recent years, including Warren Spector who calls fun "a four-letter word" that's "flabby, ill-defined [and little] help to designers and developers." Worse, it "locks us into a 'games are for kids' mentality" and erects "a ceiling...that separates us from other media, media that are allowed to strive for something other than simple 'fun-ness.'" 
Perhaps games, and the audience for games, would be better served by design that emphasizes values beyond fun, but it's clearly a difficult assignment. A notable undercurrent at this year's festival was a sense that the current crop of games for change aren't reaching their intended audiences. Most of these games are perceived by players as preachy, and even their developers admit they often fail to match the engaging gameplay offered by commercial games. Several people I spoke to think it's time we jettison the "serious games" moniker altogether because it's perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a cod liver oil game genre.
Some would say we simply need to be patient. Today's educators and cultural gatekeepers will eventually be replaced by a generation of gamers predisposed to taking games seriously. This sentiment was espoused by several speakers at the festival, but I have my doubts about its validity. If my own students' opinions about video games are any indication, they may be no more likely to accept the cultural viability of games (beyond their "fun" value) than the preceding generation. I wish I had a dollar for every prospective freshman visiting campus who's asked me with a smirk on his face, "So, do you really teach a course on video games?" In my view, this generation may have grown up on games, but the jury is still out on whether or not they're willing to take them seriously.
What seemed to emerge from this year's festival is a growing awareness that we need developers with commercial sensibilities who can bridge the gap between "fun" games and "serious" games. Clearly, this is an arbitrary separation, challenged by games like Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, and Flower that, in their own ways, contain thematically ambitious content.
But the Games for Change devotees believe we can do better, and in my next few posts I'll try to describe some ideas for achieving that goal, advanced by a community with more than its share of gifted contributors committed to leveraging the power of video games to make a positive difference in the world.