Carlos's Corner

October 11, 2009

On Fun

Filed under: Uncategorized — Carlos Hernandez @ 10:12 am

This is going to be a short post that perhaps, as I tease out the idea, will become a longer post — or heck, maybe an academic article, eventually.

Over at Offworld, that spin-off of Boing Boing that concentrats on happenings in the game and video game world, Jim Rossignol has posted about the evolution of games beyond the realm of mere fun. The article itself is certainly worth reading, but I’d like to point your attention to the comments to the post. To the point that Rossignol asserts that “Games don’t necessarily have to be fun to be engaging,” poster Bobby Smiles replies:

Reread that sentence until you see what’s wrong with it.

Tired of people who hate games writing about them as if they cared at all about them.

The response from Rossignol is:

“Fun” is a crappy, vacuous word, and attempts to boil gaming down to it are equally crappy and vacuous.

This exchange struck me as the heart of the problem that comes with current discussions about serious games. The problem is vocabulary.

If “fun” means “light, unimportant amusement that distracts us from life but carries no real weight,” as it is sometimes used (e.g. the phrase “just for fun”), then Rossignol is right. But if it can mean more than that very limited definition, as it of course can, then chastising games for being “fun” is like chastising a painting for being aesthetically pleasing.

I’m using the phrase “aesthetically pleasing” on purpose. Art is, by definition, “just for fun.” It is its own justification for its existence; else, it is failed art. There is no “need” that Mozart’s The Magic Flute fulfills, in an a priori sense, other than Mozart’s desire to create it and an audience’s desire to be pleased by it. Perhaps in more practical arts, like engineering or agriculture, necessity is the mother of invention. But in art, oftentimes the opposite is true: how often do we remember art that was created for a specific occasion, versus art that artists make because its what they want to make? (P.S. I know that many instances of successful “occasional” art exist. But in terms of art that has entered the canon, I’m asserting that it makes up a smaller percentage than art that came primarily from an artist’s vision. Am I wrong?)

Sir Philip Sidney saw poetry as the perfect marriage between philosophy and music: the perfect blend of the useful and the delightful. Delight to inspire us to get more use out of the useful; moreover, delight in itself is useful, as it buoys the imagination and human spirit. How? Well, again, according to Sidney, art always holds mirror up to reality; since we are a part of nature, it is impossible for us to do anything outside of nature. Furthermore, we as humans want as one of our fundamental to better understand nature in all its infinite complexity.

If we can’t do anything outside of nature, then everything we do, whether good art or bad, gives us some information about what it is to be alive. The question then becomes, “What do we favor? What do we believe? What do we dismiss as less useful? How do we judge?”

These are all classic questions of aesthetics. And the answers to those questions, as delineated by some of our best minds from the past, should be brought to bear to the question of the value of games. Perhaps then, we wouldn’t get these knee-jerk jeremiads against “fun.”

I remember some time back hearing that Jonathan Swift hated the word “fun.” If so (I’d be grateful to anyone who can find a citation or verify that), Rossignol’s in good company. And even if that claim about Swift is apocryphal, he can think whatever he wants about the word “fun.” What he should not do is use his unfairly strict definition of the word to characterize games, to then try and prove that games can be “more than fun.” If we use a fairer definition of “fun,” one that includes the ability to generate engagement, sustain interest, and critique our assumptions about rules (through challenging the game’s win-conditions, for instance, as every child who’s ever been on a playground has done), then we see that fun is just another word for aesthetics. And that’s where we should be moving the discussion of games in our culture. That way, we can employ all of the world’s best minds that have already given us much in the way of theory and critique to advanced our thinking.

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