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Game Design In Theory

Different Kinds of Fun

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It exists. Supposedly. People argue quite a lot about what it is. What counts as fun? What makes one game more fun than the other? Is any game ‘fun’, or is that just a thing people say when they can’t come up with a reason the game is good?

I propose that the question we’re asking is inherently wrong. Fun is not a scalar value. It’s not a binary, fun or not-fun. It’s not a thing that can actually be captured in a scale from 1 to 10.

Rather, there are many kinds of fun. Some of them are present at the same time as others. Sometimes a game focuses on one kind of fun, but has several; other times a game combines many kinds of fun seamlessly. I’m going to sort these into a sort of ’taxonomy of fun’, because fun is serious business.

These aren’t a be-all end-all, despite all of my pretentious yammering. I’m still working out exactly how many types there are, and there’s definitely overlap between different categories. The goal here is not to be able to pigeonhole a game into any one kind of fun, but rather to explain why someone who loves rhythm games might not play many character-action games.


Before anything else, there’s movement.

Kinesthetic fun is the fun of simply interacting with the game, usually in the form of satisfying controls and movement. Obviously, this is a core part of Mario’s history; it’s been said that Shigeru Miyamoto would start each game’s development with an empty box, and polish Mario’s movement until simply moving around in an empty room is enjoyable. This kind of fun applies to a lot of other platformers as well, for obvious reasons. There’s a certain amount of kinesthetic fun in any game where doing things feels satisfying, though–Titanfall 2’s guns look, sound, and feel fantastic to use, as well as (again) the movement mechanics. Any kind of timing or input-related mechanic can fall under kinesthetic fun. Kinesthetic fun tends to be a bigger element of real-time games, but turn-based games can still have kinesthetic appeal with well-designed animations and UI. IRL, you might get this from solo exercise, running or weight training–anything where the act of moving feels good.


I was tempted to call this one "A sense of pride and accomplishment", but subtlety is dead.

Since the early days of arcades, competition has been a big part of gaming–but there’s a specific part of competition that drives the fun: The Challenge, and–part and parcel of it–Overcoming The Challenge. Personal improvement has always felt satisfying, and it’s been a part of games ever since the concept of a high score was introduced. PVP games–especially the kind called competitive, or the kind built for esports–are all about the challenge of other players. Single-player games have been challenging players to complete incredible tasks for decades, whether with an infinitely-scaling difficulty like Tetris, a dedicated challenge difficulty like Doom (“Are you sure? This skill level isn’t even remotely fair.”), or that one game that every game design writer is obligated to mention at least once (you know which one). It’s common to say that these games are fun because they’re difficult, but the key here isn’t the difficulty, it’s the feeling you get when you overcome that difficulty. There’s also challenge runs, randomizers, and speedruns, which add even more challenge-fun to a game that might not otherwise have it. IRL, this can be found in many sports, but it’s most prominent in solo sports and especially in racing.


Have you ever wondered why people play World of Warcraft for months on end?

There’s a very real satisfaction in theorizing about something, setting goals, putting together a plan of action, and watching it all come together. You might do extensive research, conduct tests, do a frankly concerning amount of math–all to optimize your damage output just a bit more than the guy you’re fighting. There’s obviously elements of Challenge here, but there’s also something else–the kind of fun that leads people to spend their time making build plans or coming up with new strats for a particular boss. The act of planning itself can be fun. Mastery of a system, to the point of being able to predict it, is satisfying in a subtly different way from mastery of the self. IRL, this exists mostly in team sports or long-term projects, although you could argue that this kind of experimentation happens at the highest level of any competition.


My favorite part of Minecraft has almost nothing to do with Minecraft as a game.

Sure, I technically have to play Minecraft to get to it, but frankly Minecraft gets in the way of this more often than not (more on this in a future post). What hooked me on Minecraft in the first place wasn’t the combat–god no–nor was it the crafting, or the concept of a survival game. What hooked me on Minecraft was the promise of infinite worlds. From the first time I saw a mountain and decided to make a castle growing out the side of it, I loved Minecraft’s world, and what I loved about it was the thought of exploring a brand-new landscape that nobody else had seen before. Of course, Minecraft isn’t the only game that can surprise me–there’s obviously a ton of roguelikes, but there’s also games where the mechanics interact in interesting ways–like how fire and lightning in Breath of the Wild follow sensible, simple rules that lead to strategies like throwing a metal weapon near an enemy during a thunderstorm. If you’re clever, you can design your game to make all of the mechanics feel like new discoveries–but this walks a fine line between joy and frustration. IRL, the easiest way to get this kind of fun is to wander around in a place you’ve never been to.

Okay But Why Though

Take the example of rhythm games versus character-action games above. Both the Guitar Hero series and the Devil May Cry series expect you to memorize very precise timing–which I’ve filed under Kinesthetic Fun here. And there’s plenty of room for Challenge in both series as well. However, where DMC leans more heavily on Challenge, Guitar Hero tends to reward Planning more–each song in Guitar Hero has the same notes every time, in precisely the same places; meanwhile, no matter how well you memorize enemy placement in Devil May Cry, you’re going to need to play reactively. In addition, Guitar Hero doesn’t exactly have a lot of room for Discovery–there’s only so many ways to play a note, even accounting for advanced tech. DMC doesn’t have the Discovery potential of a roguelike, but it does have a much larger list of options, and–especially in DMCV–there’s still a lot more room for optimization than in Guitar Hero. In other words, Guitar Hero is more about learning how to best play a specific song, but Devil May Cry is more about learning how to adapt and react to a complex scenario. This isn’t meant to judge either game, mind you; it just explains why a given player might play a ton of rhythm games specifically, but not other games that are focused on precise timing. We could also use this to guess at what other kinds of games a player might enjoy.

By developing language for talking about what kind of fun you’re working with, we can better describe what makes a given game fun, or what makes a given mechanic work well. It’s hard to talk if you don’t have words, after all.

Update: 2021-06-05

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