The next time you play tiddlywinks, take the time to think to yourself: Am I having fun?
Of course you are. Why else would you be playing tiddlywinks? It's a game, and games are fun. You don't go around a school playground or an old person's home and ask if stuck-in-the-mud or rummy are fun. "Play," "games," and "fun" go hand in hand. They keep your mind active. They pass the time. They distract you from things like war, taxes, and the inevitability of death.
But should a video game be fun in the same way that tiddlywinks is fun? When you sit down to read a book like 1984 or watch a documentary like The Act of Killing, you expect to be gripped, shocked, and shaken; but fire up a PS4 and the word "fun" sways in like a drunk uncle clutching a half-empty bottle of Apple Schnapps. We're told again and again that games are a culturally important medium, so why is there still the idea that video games need to be, more than anything else, fun to play?
"Our medium is still very much seen by the majority of the public as an entertainment medium—using video games as a medium for complex expression or communicating an artist's ideas is still very much in the fringe," says William Pugh, designer of The Stanley Parable, a game that pokes fun at a whole heap of gaming tropes. "I mean, 95 percent of people who buy video games buy them to be entertained, thus if you want to make a living off game development your best bet is to make your game fun to play, and if your artistic vision doesn't allow for that then you'll be fighting an uphill battle from the start."
This assumption that a game needs to be fun to play can be traced back to the roots of the medium. In The Theory of Fun for Game Design, the developer Raph Koster defines games as mental puzzles. According to Koster, the sense of fun we feel when we play a video game comes from learning and mastering systems that need planning and coordination, much like we'd do in Connect 4, Jenga, or tiddlywinks. Aspects such as story and character are just dressing in the same way that knights, kings, and queens are dressing for the mathematical system at the heart of chess. "This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games," says Koster in his book. "They don't see, 'get a blowjob from a hooker, then run her over.' They see a power-up."
Elsewhere in his book Koster makes a defense for the ability of games to portray the human condition, but do comments like this nevertheless highlight a common underestimation of the importance of "ethical implications"? Play Pac-Man and, yes, the characters are pretty much dressing for a system. Play something like Lucas Pope's Papers, Please and, while there's very clearly a game system at play, the "ethical implications" of the system, such as who to let through the border and how to feed your starving family, are arguably the whole reason to experience the game.
11 bit Studios' This War of Mine is another recent game that puts "ethical implications" center stage. Here the player has to survive in a siege loosely based on Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. "Beating" the system involves "beating" grim scenarios such as stealing food from innocent civilians. Can we really dissociate characters from mechanics and boil these experiences down to the type of "fun" Koster says comes from mastering an abstract system, or is there a deeper type of engagement taking place?
"I think the question is actually sharper if you broaden it out to a question about entertainment," says Tom Jubert, writer of games including The Swapper, FTL, and The Talos Principle. "Video games, almost without exception, yearn to be entertaining, even when they're not being fun. There is something active about the way that they seek to engage their audience that we are quite afraid to lose... We need to keep the player's attention, and to do that we often resort to short-term thrills. We fear that if someone has to stop and think for too long they'll just never come back."
With new games coming out every week to tug at player attention-spans, it's understandable that developers who want to tackle serious subjects often feel pressured to walk a tightrope between challenging concepts and entertaining gameplay.
The Talos Principle, for example, explores philosophical ideas of consciousness and artificial intelligence but also has a ton of puzzles to complete. Similarly, Minority's Papo & Yo explores a child's fear of an alcoholic parent in the form of a puzzle-platformer, Anna Anthropy's dys4ia plays like WarioWare but is about gender dysphoria, and Christos Reid's Dear Mother is a 2D action-platformer about the developer's experiences of being kicked out of home after coming out.
All of these games give their players tasks to complete in a more-or-less traditional way but also touch on difficult social and personal issues. Are they trying to have their cake and eat it, or are they using entertainment as a way of sneaking through tough questions about gender, consciousness, and abuse?
" Dear Mother, the open-letter video game I made for my mother after being kicked out of my home for coming out, isn't a fun game," Reid says. "It's sad and it's dark but it's important, because it communicates with people about homophobia and religion. Life isn't a series of grin triggers—it's the entire range of glory to bullshit that we go through that defines us, and it's important to represent that in the games we're making."
The fact Reid believes games can express such a wide range of human experiences is a sign that developers are broadening the scope of their ambitions. If, as Jubert and Pugh suggested, there's currently a pressure on developers to provide straight-up entertainment, perhaps this too will change as audiences grow accustomed to different types of interactions. That Dragon, Cancer, for example, is an upcoming game that traces the developers' memories of raising their son, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months old. It's a game that sets out to grasp the attention of the player and yet calling it "entertainment" seems a bit reductive.
Casual, playful games will and should continue to be made and enjoyed. That isn't being argued. What is being argued is that "fun" is becoming a uselessly broad word to describe the way some video games hold the attention of their players. Fun is good. Fun is great. It is comforting and we all need a little distraction. But with around 360 new games submitted to the App Store every day, maybe the industry is at a stage when developers and audiences can afford to be a little bit more daring. Perhaps we're at a point where there's room for games that are brave enough to deny the player what they want and challenge them in ways that might not be empowering, that might make them feel upset and uncomfortable. Games that say: "Fuck fun. If you want fun, go play tiddlywinks."
Follow Thomas on Twitter.