When I sit down to produce a singular piece of writing, I generally do a few things to spark creativity and get the ball rolling. I generally search Google Scholar, Critical Distance and my own library for things that might be related to what I’m writing and skim through whatever turns up. However, when I sat down to write this (actually more like the three or four times I tried to write this), I couldn’t find too much on the subject. I posed questions about fun and its meanings on Twitter in hopes that someone would get me an easy citation, something I could look at and move on from, but there isn’t much out there discussing the explicit definitions of fun. And I’m not going to offer much here as a clear direction either.
We talk about fun a ton, but do we know what fun is and how it works? Jesper Juul maintains that failure can be fun. Miguel Sicart tells us choice and agency are fun things. We might even be able to argue that Bogost lets us extend that fun is persuasive, but I doubt we want to take him that far. Like play, fun is one of those concepts that is difficult to pin down, but there have been fewer attempts to do so than play. It’s nebulous not because we dismiss it, but because we talk around it, just missing it before we circle back around, again skipping by tangentially. Chris Franklin is probably our best resource on this, as will be the case throughout this essay.
It should be noted that I probably am not looking in the best place for the definition of fun. While parts of academia have embraced games as worthwhile objects of study, the role of fun has been diminished, if not outright dismissed. Fun is taught in game design classrooms (as an aim, not a concept) to prepare future developers and used as a reason for the influx of serious and educational games that we have seen in the past few decades. However, that is where academia’s interest with the subject dies out. And even when we look to the use of fun in relation to serious games, it is something that is set up in, at best, conjunction with an outside motive (increased attention or retention) or, at worst, an infantilizing throw-in to boost an endeavor’s rhetoric. Fun is merely enjoyment that can be coerced to productive and positive ends for students, instead of the mindless pleasure they might get from their Sonics and Marios.
This sort of negative position isn’t enough to give us a robust definition of fun and definitely not enough to get serious games off the ground. If we look to the usage of ‘fun’ for insight, we know that it can be used as an adjective or a noun and thus is automatically attached to people, places, objects, or events through different verbs. We ‘have fun’ or some thing/place/person/event ‘is fun.’ At least grammatically, fun doesn’t necessarily function on its own, unable to be ‘pure’ or essential. Instead, it’s meaning is always joined with another.
I think we can agree that fun is inherently subjective and its manifestation flows from individual to individual and context to context. If I weren’t afraid of its current meanings and uses, I might be more forceful in saying that it is emergent – created in moments of play within particular contexts (times, spaces, objects). In relation to time, the things we see as fun change and cycle around: They move from things we do to things we remember to things we have nostalgia for. I might enjoy fishing more than many people because it reminds me of the times my dad would take me to the state park near our house to fish. That memory gets invoked in the act, while also being reinforced in any enjoyment that comes out of present experiences. It is invoked and reinforced at the same time, in the experience of fun. Here it becomes attached to objects, events, actions, and people, where fun is not detached at all, but tied to a web of memory and knowledge.
Memory is one reason that I question the relationship between fun and meaning. Meaning in these situations might be tied to fun in some ways, but it is largely attached to an object, emotion, or feeling. It is the creation of fun that is meaning and not just some free-floating fun. This is where we get to the curious case of pure fun and its possible existence. What would such a fun look like? When I originally tweeted these questions, Lindsey Joyce suggested that the play of children would be something that might be an essential fun. However, not having children, being allergic to their laughter, and having sprouted from Zeus’ head a fully-formed, humanity-destroying robot, I haven’t experienced it personally. Or, at least, I don’t have the memory of it.
If there is some kind of pure fun, what does it offer us? Does it still have meaning? I think it does, but I don’t necessarily now how. Charlotte Hyde argues that this kind of play can be restoring, therapeutic even, and I can agree with that. But I often wonder if this function of fun is for our own self-edification or for our eventual service in the social worlds we inhabit. If we look at Caillois or Huizinga, play (and possibly fun by extension) exists mostly in the negative to labor or work, as that kind of restorative act that alleviates the pressures of everyday life. But, then again, this might just be a socially derived function that we read into fun, not necessarily how it can, should, or does function.
I think we have to treat pure fun as a kind of double-edged sword – something that can aid in our overall well-being and important for moving through every day, but also with a consistent possibility to harm us at the same time. Harm isn’t the best word, but the other words I think of – mystify, distract, numb, etc. – don’t offer the right amount of gravity to the issue.
Pure fun is what I think a lot of gamers want and something that game scholars have consistently fought against. Maybe it is a possibility, but maybe it is also just a dream that is too far out of reach in our socio-economic climate. Pure fun is a bastion of normative culture with walls of uncritical thought and gates of disengagement. It allows us to hide ourselves away in a space, allowed to disregard fun as important in any way. It’s one of the reasons that serious and educational game studies took off – the object had ‘real-world’ implications unlike all the other things that players were dealing with. Here fun begins and ends in the act of play and never carries anything into or out of these experiences.
But at the same time, I recognize the importance of pure fun. I also recognize that my thoughts on education and fun and meaning are all tied up in an educational system that de-emphasizes its possibilities and usefulness. But, being in school for most of my life, and within media studies programs for the past six or seven years, has also taught me that we need reprieves from these places. We need arenas where we can turn off our minds and not care about the underlying issues within every minute of experience in our lives. Some people can do that easily and some can’t do it at all. I’m kind of lucky that I came to games late and am not destroying my own protected space through my work (music has been one of the few things that I’ve sequestered). Pure fun is a necessity and a possibility, but also maybe a retreat into a fantasy that is unsuainable, conservative, and naïve. Playing with that line is something that we will always have to do.
That being said, I think we can say that not only is fun’s definition flowing from context to context, but also its value flows in our various cultures. On a more micro scale, I wonder how we value something like pure fun, possibly as being set aside from the consistent value in games writing of ‘just fun.’ In games criticism, fun doesn’t carry as much weight as it does in the popular presses. It is important, for sure, but when we aren’t rating things on a zero-to-ten scale it doesn’t matter as much. I think we agree that fun is constructed for the sake of sales and hype, certainly not for our own architecture.
Games criticism, if we can take it as a whole, has cared about the influences of games on players and their worldviews, valuing the experiences videogames have provided players. This de-values fun in some ways. But the de-valuing of that fun is important in one of games criticism’s central thrusts: to legitimate games as a medium that does not necessitate fun. That process is a conscious and political act, not necessarily a denial of videogames’ power in creating fun environments.
However, we cannot discount the role of fun within these experiences. Fun can make us overlook parts of experiences, disregard negative aspects of videogame texts, or remember things through rose-colored glasses. It’s a mask that games can wear, directly impacting how we think of what we play and the experiences we have with them. It is a very real effect of gaming. There is another very obvious influence of fun on games criticism, but it is usually on the selection of texts and not necessarily on the reading of those texts. We pick games that are fun, or at least have caused fun, because we know that fun is a value of gamers – a way into their lives. Fun, for both its ability to create popularity and its capacity to disengage, is a strong force in even the most critical of environments.
Taking all of this into account, I think we have to understand fun as a kind of tool. It has politics and values. It has uses and abuses, sometimes within the same game or object. Mark Filipowich discusses jumping back and forth on that line in relation to Saints Row IV, writing, “I think we can believe in the idea of pure fun even while accepting that it doesn’t exist.” I think I agree with Mark on this, with one caveat: we need to understand the practices that keep beliefs from turning into dogmas, or from habits into mindsets. How do we ensure that we can construct a kind of pure fun that is responsible, sustainable, and conscious? Our work must not only try to influence the development of games that foster these kinds of fun, but we also need to teach players how to have different kinds of fun. Pure fun doesn’t exist, but recognizing that its ghost can be just as destructive and limiting as it can be creative and liberating is a step towards unlocking its potential.