Feedback Loop: Games Aren't Fun

Step back. Preachers wail in the wind and call us to arms; accept the failures of men, but learn from them. Jesus, on the mount, rewards those not so invested in competition, but in resolution and timidity. Perhaps those of us who might sit back and enjoy the sheer cliffs and miasmas of Bethlehem.

Turns out those people are getting the crap end of the stick. In an essay entitled “Blessed Are the Geek,” Richard Clark of Kill Screen writes that enjoyment is exclusive of success in video games. He says that systems of reward, which track success, interfere with fun.

“Many [players] began to obsess over achievements, seeking out games that provided easy opportunities for tons of achievement points, and even I found them changing the way I approached my time playing video games… rather than playing them [games] for fun, I found myself miserably marching through the steps it took to… unlock the corresponding achievement.”

This is not a new obsession. Achievements are, by and large, considered cheap mechanics for extending play and cheap advertising for friend lists. Some consider them the bringer of light, metaphorically the good stuff, and others the incarnation of Lucifer. Clark goes on.

“Failure is an inevitable and necessary part of fulfilling play. In game or out, perfection is much too high a watermark for me. Rather than a laundry list of goals that assume success, I need a standard set of goals that assume failure.”

Not sure how you would craft such a thing. Failure, as a goal, is still a goal and these goals can still be achieved. So there’s a measure of success in any case. It doesn’t matter though. Games like Proteus and Dear Esther assume nothing of the player and that’s as close as we’ll get to Clark’s ideal.

As far as I can tell, the only thing achievable with Clark’s ideal is to grow lax on player expectation. But that’s caused, in and of itself, an uproar among hardcore enthusiasts who decry modern games, in general, as “easy pieces of shit.” The conflict that Clark talks about isn’t in framing the scope of the game in player success, but in rewarding the player needlessly with needless tasks. He suggests that players shouldn’t have to unlock achievements or to win to be successful. They need only have fun.

There is nothing about this that is exclusive to video games. Ultimately, in all sports, in all tabletops and card games, in all board games or in any organized play it comes down to the personalities of the individuals playing the game. Those who don’t mind the loss will have fun and those who bank on the win to enjoy their experiences will not have fun.

But fun is so vague and it means something different to so many different people. First, fun can’t be measured as it’s subjective. Until we can shove some metric in our brains, this is impossible. Second, games aren’t, across the board, defined as how fun they are. Games can be solely challenging and rewarding in that regard. Clark, the last thing I’m sure most of us want is for every game to be an Epic Yarn clone with an achievement for moving to the right.

How are we supposed to legislate how people have fun? How are developers supposed to enforce standards of fun? Is it time already for institutions of religion, with their letters of scripture dictating the terms of success, to find a home in virtual worlds?

Clark’s article, I suspect, is meant to be a personal plea to every gamer, but it comes off as a brash sentiment to that overarching and overused theme of “games have so much potential, yet something is off.” They sure do have potential. They’re brimming with the stuff. But the gamer is the one empowered, not whoever Clark imagines sits in the holy throne. Gamers define what’s fun for themselves and they define what’s successful and how strong the interplay between fun and success is.

Step forward (+100 Gamerscore). I can see it now, Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount, the event wherein the failures of the world are given hope for the future. Now the mount isn’t so much an actual place than it is a virtual stump. And, surrounded by gamers gone off the beaten path, virtua-Jesus says “Blessed are the meek, for they shall have fun.”

Clark’s in the front row and poor, timid him, he’s too bashful to stand up and clap so he waits for someone else to start. But everyone else waits and no one begins. They all sit there in silence. And Jesus feels real awkward.