Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


What is "Fun?"

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 4:45 AM



What is “Fun?”

I find video game reviewing intriguing. I’ve dabbled in it myself a few times, but I prefer having a discussion and reflecting on a video game than I do trying to critique it. Still, I wonder about things because that’s kind of what I do and I like to pose questions about the process and explore them. One is such:

If the end of a video game is to be engaging and, in most cases, “fun” then how does one review the means of the “fun?”  In other words, I suppose there are two questions here: Is being “fun” or “not fun” the point of a video game and, if so, how can something so subjective be quantified in the first place to relay to a reader on its quality?

There’s an element of player involvement that seems to be a major hurdle when reviewing a game - that hurdle being one of the bigger things that prevent video games from being looked at beyond just “games” (well, that and the gaming community not quite matured to a level of needing to be looked at in such a way). You can review a book or a movie and so on, those are passive, but the interaction is something that’s hard to capsulize in a critical analysis kind of way.

I don’t care a lot about the technical aspects of a video game, I care about the interactivity of the game's intended purpose. What does that even mean? I guess I can only say "fun" or "enjoyment" but even I'm not sure.

Then, from that, how does one determine the quality of interactivity? How is something that is like “watching a movie” better or worse than something that has a ton of button combos and things you can pick up in the game world? How can we parallel authorial intent of a movie with authorial intent of a video game where a video game isn’t restricted to one particular style or structure? Some games are highly interactive, others have you pushing weird buttons to open a door, others just have two or three basic functions on the entire controller. Then, how does all that contribute to the “fun” of the game?

We Must Go Deeper

Now here’s a more heady thing…what determines “fun” and is “fun” or even “enjoyment" all that matters in a game? I mean, I found Gone Home very fun. It’s not a “cool” kind of fun, but I damn sure enjoyed it. It’s not “fun” in the traditional sense, but I think anything engaging is making you have fun with it, in its own way. It was entertaining, enlightening, and I got a lot of joy out of that. Perhaps “fun” is the wrong word…or at least the wrong kind of word when applied to a video game. Then again, “fun” is so subjective as I said, and maybe in some cases, like Gone Home, it’s not meant to fun at all - it’s there to grip you for those few hours. Yet I find being gripped fun.

How does all that relate to how a reviewer approaches a game? One of the reasons I liked Adam Sessler, a former game reviewer going back a good decade and a half or so, was because he approached critiquing games in these very unique ways. A lot of reviewers focus entirely upon the tech elements: the things you can measure and see. Resolutions. Frames per seconds. How many enemies on the screen. Effects. Hours played. Sessler didn’t do that, and good criticism shouldn’t do that. His approach was less narrow than that.

Sometimes, I read a review or watch and just wonder what exactly they're trying to evaluate. Unclear messages in a pretty young medium makes trying to figure that out frustrating, and sometimes that frustration leads to simply not caring.

I like thinking outside the box. I like being tested. I like having a review that approaches a game and asks questions rather than simply go down a checklist of some sort of criteria without really knowing if the criteria was even intentional or not. I’m starting to rethink how one reviews games because, quite honestly, reviewers rarely say anything insightful or interesting and, not only that, at the heart of it I know that “fun” isn’t something that can really be determined in the first place by anyone other than myself. I don’t believe the consensus on games as much as I used to and feel there’s more individuality at play, similar to how I view music criticism, and that what one finds appealing, another may not and vice-versa.

It’s not about a matter of taste - it’s the fact that video game critiquing isn’t really all that evolved to the point where I honestly think that people know what they’re talking about on a level above those who simply just play the games. I legitimately have no regard to what another person thinks of a new game coming out, because I know they’re probably not critiquing it in the best of ways. I like to listen to opinions, sure, but in terms of determining “quality” or even discuss video games as art, I haven’t seen anything from the world of game journalism, enthusiast press or the gaming community that tells me anything I don’t already know.

Deeper Still…

There's been little to no growth in game criticism (admittingly much of it due to the stranglehold game publishers and developers have on what can and can't be said). But the main reason, from what I can gather, is that nobody is really asking those hard questions. No, not the gaming press, if you want to call them that, I mean in approaching game critiquing. You can look at film or literature or other forms of art that are “consumable” and see that growth (over decades mind you). For games, there’s certainly been a better discussion put on the table over the past 20 years, but how can you get over the hurdle if we can’t even approach reviewing them beyond “I had fun with it.” 

Great…and? What is “fun” to you?

In other words, nobody is asking “how is ‘fun’ reviewable” or “how is interactivity its own artistic form by design?” in the first place. Right now, game criticism is entirely emotion-based and it's hard to put a number on something that subjective.

There also needs to be serious discussion about reviewer threshold. You see, movies and stuff…that all comes in small bits. You read a book. You’re done after a few hours or days. Same with a film. Games, though…those go on for hours, weeks, months even, and rarely is it one at a time. Then the next thing you know, there’s ANOTHER game just like it in a few months along with two or three others. A reviewer of games can get damn tired of it, and it makes you wonder if their later reviews are impacted by them reaching a point where they just don’t give a shit.

Case in point: multiplayer. I’ve never found multiplayer “fun.” To me, a game that is heavy on it isn’t a good game. Multiplayer is tiresome, repetitive and usually unininspird as so many games are pretty much the same games when it comes down to it. You have your capture the flag. Your deathmatch and so on. Sure, there are variations, but it’s kind of the same multiplayer stuff I’ve been playing since Unreal Tournament. It’s boring to me, and if I were to review it, would that lack of “fun” not have an impact on the criticism?

But that doesn’t make it bad, now does it? I simply have played too much of it, going back years and years, and simply don’t care anymore. Can I offer a good critique of something that I’m tired and, ultimately, bored with? Especially considering that being “boring” isn’t a critique in the first place?

"But I like to call things 'boring!"' you might say. Sorry, but that's an empty statement.

Yeah…think on that for a moment. How often are game reviews, most reviewed by non-professional and non-studied individuals to begin with, influenced by how much or how little that gamer has played in the past six months? Videogames take a lot of time to play through once, much less multiple times if needed. So right now, we have a lot of overworked people playing way too much and trying to say something that still hasn't found firm footing to base its analysis on outside of "had fun" and "didn't have fun."

It's getting a bit congested, yet we're still not done here...

And Even Deeper….

Then (good god when will this end?) if a reviewer does nothing but play games and have to review, is it even “fun” anymore? Was it even “fun” to begin with? How much attention and focus are they even giving the games they play? I think we can consider whether or not we will like or enjoy a game after a few hours, but can we offer a critique of an entire work without beating it? (Spoiler: if you want to be viewed as “art” then no you can’t, you have to experience the whole).

Man…there’s more questions regarding video game critiquing beyond whether or not it’s “fun," isn't there? Does whether or not a game being fun determine its value in the first place? Much less its artistic merit? If the gaming community wants to be taken seriously, gaming press not looked at as more than just PR mouthpieces and everyone wants video games to be seen as more than just “toys” and “games” then maybe it’s time to stop complaining about locked frame rates and start asking questions.

Why bother calling videogames art if the critiques aren't considered about their artistic qualities (much less able to determine what those are)

Of course, knowing myself pretty well, I could go on and on about this. "Who cares?" you might ask. Well, I think if games ever want to be seen as more than your little playthings, then maybe we all should start building an understanding on how to even talk about them first. Otherwise, the seperation of a downloadable app that will amuse you for five minutes on your iphone will hold the same value as the hours and hours you invested in creative and artistic games with beautifully written characters like in The Last of Us that is held up on pedestals. If we can't figure out how to have the discussion, then those pedestals don't mean shit. It'd be like saying "Citizen Kane" and "Jack and Jill" are the same thing and that sounds like a pretty awful world that isn't fun for anyone.



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