Games are fun


Last updated 3/5/2024 at 9:38am

In a previous article, I explained that games rely on both human and system factors, an observation I take from “Characteristics of Games,” an introduction to games by world-renowned designers Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and Robert Gutschera. However, I left out an important point about the human factor: games are fun.

Despite what I jokingly implied about my Rock, Paper, Scissors game with Wade, I do not have him figured out, and I can’t reliably beat him. While it’s true I have the longest winning streak, he might — might — have more overall streaks of four or more games on me. Also, coffee at the club is not expensive, and merely an excuse to play.

We play for fun.

When a game stops being fun, it stops being a game. But how do we get a working definition of fun? My strategy is to class human interaction into three modes. I call them objective (or logical, scientific), meaningful (or aesthetic), and political (or power-negotiating). These modes align with the writing categories expository, creative, and persuasive.

In any given human interaction, all three modes may be operating, but there’s one that dominates. When you’re playing a game and it gets personal or otherwise serious, power and status dominate. When you’re playing a game to learn about game theory rather than to have fun, learning and objectivity dominate.

Only when you play a game primarily to have fun for its own sake do the activity and the mode align. A game is fun.

A given activity can be a game for some players and not for others. Consider the famous 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, where a jaded aristocrat hunts people for sport on his island. He states, “Life is for the strong.” For him, the hunt is a game, but for the other players, it’s a fight for survival. He and his prey operate in different modes — that is, until the tables are turned.

An entire horror subgenre follows the setup of Connell’s story, which includes “The Hunger Games,” and “Squid Game,” and their precursor “Battle Royale,” in which a teacher tells his student combatants, “Life is a game. So fight for survival and find out if you’re worth it.”

Life is a game, but hopefully not like that!

As a kid, though, I got the message that it probably was. Several of my friends had dads who had been to Vietnam; our family friend Mike had been drafted to serve there after he went to college. My grandfather Kruger fought in World War II. The first group games I played with the neighborhood kids involved mock combat with toy guns, which often devolved into real fistfights to negotiate victory. In grade school and high school, I approached wrestling as a deadly fight, an attitude that made me a decent wrestler, though a miserable one. If I lost a wrestling match, it meant one of two things: I hadn’t tried hard enough; or I had been proven unfit to live. When an opponent twisted the ball of my femur from my hip socket my junior year of high school, I felt I’d taken my million-dollar wound. No one could fault me for not giving it all I had, and then hanging it up.

I approached sports — and even academics — with the cognitive distortion called “fixed mindset,” as opposed to a growth mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you interpret failure as a hard boundary to your potential, whereas to grow, you must experience and overcome failure, not simply avoid it. With a fixed mindset, you also rely on others to affirm your self-worth, rather than steering primarily by your own self-knowledge. A fixed mindset rejects adventure, because adventure takes place on the edge of safety and challenges boundaries. A fixed mindset is situated in the political mode rather than the aesthetic one. It is less “Life as a game,” and more “Life as the most-dangerous game” even when the stakes are low.

I admire those who adopted a growth mindset from a young age. I did not, until I encountered “Dungeons & Dragons,” a game of high adventure in a medieval fantasy setting. One player serves as storyteller and referee, and assumes the role of all the people and creatures the other players interact with. A lot of that interaction amounts to puzzle-solving and combat, which involves making decisions that weight dice rolls and therefore a kind of tactical puzzle-solving. Players cooperate to defeat monsters, loot treasure, and grow in power. There’s no ultimate win condition, just various objectives that occur to the players or are explicitly set out by the Dungeon Master, like to recover a stolen artifact, slay a dragon, or rescue a princess.

Monsters occasionally defeat characters, but that doesn’t make the characters, much less their players, losers or unfit. Monsters, after all, are tough, or they wouldn’t be worthy opponents. You give it your best shot, while supporting your party to do the same, and you build real-life enduring friendships and social skills through your fantasy adventures. I didn’t always succeed as a player or Dungeon Master, but my failures just inspired me to do better, because I loved the activity for its own sake. Come to think of it, this seems the attitude proper to sports, but by high school I’d abandoned team sports in favor of wrestling, cross country, and track. I should ask the local D&D players who also are on sports teams to compare the activities. Unfortunately, the person I’d planned to interview fell sick. Setbacks — they’re part of the game.


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