Getting it

Ian Bogost’s newest Persuasive Games column up on Gamasutra discusses the phenomenon of game industry folk (press especially, it seems) placing the demand on educational or editorial games to “err on the side of more fun” when choosing between fun and educational.

To quote a quote from the column:

There is a maxim I hear frequently in the serious games circles, most recently repeated by Tim Holt in a discussion of the Slate article on Raph Koster’s website. Says Holt:

If you have to make a mistake in the fun versus educational balance, it’s better to be a bit too fun and a bit less educational than the other way around.

It’s a sentiment that seems hard to argue with, if you assume the goal of games is simply education, or fun, or both. If we rephrase this value statement by replacing “educational” with “editorial,” in the case of newsgames for example, it becomes far less persuasive. Education, fun, or other possible experiences might season an editorial game, but who would deny that the latter is its primary goal?


First of all, while I know that both Bogost, Holt and others are generally speaking about which is more prominent in a game design’s mixture of “fun” and “educational / editorial”, it’s hard to respond to this in a way which doesn’t emphasize the this-vs-that nature of the entire discussion. Let me get this out of the way first – fun and educational are not always at odds with each other! There are always design tradeoffs and choices to be made between any number of elements in a game, but let’s not sign up for the “FUN vs. THOUGHT” cage match on next week’s pay-per-view.

That said, what is the role of fun in a primarily educational or editorial game? Not that fun isn’t a self-justifying goal, but it might be worth noting that fun serves a very specific purpose in a teaching or expressive game. Basically, it keeps people playing long enough to get the point. Let’s try expressing that as a nice little theoretical statement:

An expressive game should aim to be fun enough for the player to stay engaged long enough to get the message. (For games which instill player engagement through some means that may not fit your definition of “fun”, substitute “interesting” or “engaging” or what have you.)

Hmm, maybe I should just drop the f-word altogether:

An expressive game should attempt to keep the player engaged in the act of playing at least long enough to get the message.

Hey, now we don’t need to have this “fun” vs “thinking” cage match at all!

So if someone gets bored and quits before they actually receive what you were trying to communicate, then perhaps the game could’ve used some work to make it more engaging. Making it more fun would be the most familiar way to do so.

Of course it’s useful to note that if the point of your game was to communicate that something is incredibly boring and frustrating, then the expressive game doesn’t really need to keep the player around for long. Although I suppose if they want to include a message of drudgery and monotony in there, they could use promised-fun techniques – you know, the ones that keep you playing MMORPGs through the slow grinds. “Keep going, Mr. Kinko’s employee, and maybe someday you’ll be a lvl70 Manager!”

So when someone reviews or critiques an expressive game and faults it for not being fun enough, my question is this: did they get it? If they did, then what obligation is the game under to continue being fun? Or is the real problem that those who review and report on games think themselves obliged to continue playing the game for some arbitrary standard length of time to give a “proper viewpoint” on the game, leading them to continue being bored long after the average player has decided to take what they’ve learned and move on to other fun things?


One thought on “Getting it

  1. Pingback: Getting it « faithgames

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