Today, I'm going back to the most fundamental question of game design: What is fun?
This post is necessarily long, but I've tried to keep this as short and orderly as possible. I'm not completely satisfied with the following argument, but I believe it's stronger than others I've read.
Fun is a subset of entertainment. This can be verified by asking yourself two questions: Is all fun entertaining? Is all entertainment fun? The answer to the former is yes; to the latter, no. Fun is entertainment in which the audience actively participates. I'll go so far as to say that the degree of fun is related to degree of participation, though I don't believe the two are directly bound to one another. I'll get into this a bit more later.
Reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire can be entertaining, but few would call it fun. Reading Jurassic Park, however, can be fun for many. That's because most people are trained to merely absorb history, rather than to question, imagine, and explore it. Readers are more apt to participate in fiction by picturing the story, imagining themselves as the characters, questioning the story's themes, and so on.
Now I'm going to dig a little deeper. My premises here are debatable, but an avid game designer should have an alternative theory if he or she disagrees with what I propose. Game design fundamentally involves anticipation and manipulation of emotions, and one is better able to do that with a conscious understanding of what emotions are and how they operate. One can design a great game from intuition, as I'm sure many do, but deliberate understanding undoubtedly helps.
Entertainment is a subset of joy. All that is entertaining is enjoyable, but not all that is enjoyable is entertaining. Joy, or happiness, is emotional harmony. The less disparity that exists between seeking and having, wanting and being, perception and actuality, the happier we are.
Consider all the unpleasant things we enjoy. We voluntarily listen to sad and angry music, and enjoy it. We can enjoy sadness and anger because those emotions are right/accurate responses to some situations. Orderly sadness and anger (emotions can be disorderly, inappropriate) are responses to disharmony. Sadness is a response to separation (from desired companions, but also from desired situations). Anger is a response to injustice. Anyway, the point is that happiness can be found even amid disharmony when our response disharmony is correct (harmonious with reality).
Joy/Happiness --> Entertainment --> Fun
Now it seems I must modify an old point. You see, I'm not as stubborn as you think!
I've said before that games do not have to be fun, only entertaining. But if fun is a result of participation, then an interactive art must necessarily involve fun. So a more accurate statement would be: games can be focused on entertainment, rather than fun. Story-focused adventure games, particularly ones with a lot of cinematics, could be said to represent this maxim. The focus of some such games is not on interaction, but on reception of scripted experiences.
If a product's focus is predominantly on entertainment, rather than fun, then I would say it is more film or literature than game. The mediums are not cleanly distinct. There can be overlap (video games, in particular, regularly incorporate other mediums, such as art).
We tend to think of fun as being more purely joyful and entertainment as possibly including a wide variety of emotions, but non-joyful emotions can be integral to fun activities. For example, one might not only listen but sing along to a sad song. One might pretend a role of anger or sadness, as children often do. There is still a joy, a harmony involved, but that is not the only emotion at work. Emotions are rarely isolated in experience.
Developers I respect often say that play (engaging in fun) is about learning new skills. That's incorrect, but perhaps only because of the obsession with skills. Fun necessarily involves action, but skills are not the limit of action, nor the limit of learning.
Perhaps the joy we find in fun comes from learning and applying skills, knowledge, and wisdom (when, where, why, and how to apply knowledge and skills).
Wisdom is similar to a skill, but is not a skill. Critical thinking is a skill, but not wisdom. Wisdom is a consequence of good logic and accurate, and/or copious, knowledge. It's a form of knowledge; an object of information, rather than an action. So perhaps it should be lumped in with knowledge, but I'm not sure.
Fun from learning and application of knowledge can be seen in trivia games. Many popular trivia games, like Trivial Pursuit, offer no strategy (beyond picking teammates, if you're playing with enough people). All you do is roll the dice and answer a question. There's no skill involved, only knowledge and luck. It's the competitive application of knowledge, social interaction, and the thrill of chance which makes that game fun. Even without competing players, people sometimes enjoy reading the question cards to challenge themselves.
Speaking of which... How can the thrill of chance fit into a definition focused on learning? Dice, slot machines, lotteries... these activities feel entertaining and, many would say, fun. Which is it? Entertainment or fun? Perhaps it is the instinctual desire to find or create order in our world from which we find engaging. If so, what are we learning? After the hundredth or thousandth time of rolling the dice, surely the player is beyond learning that not all elements of experience are within our control. So what is the player learning?
Then, of course, there's the question of how boredom and learning can coincide. Learning is not always fun, so how can fun be the result of any and all learning? If learning is the source of enjoyment, then there must exist some qualifier that separates fun learning from not-fun learning.
I give up! At least for now. I haven't found a definition of fun I like yet, and there are certainly holes in this argument, but I feel a little closer. This is not a question to try to answer in a single afternoon! I won't post again until the weekend or Monday, so you can take your time with this.
Complaints? Questions? Where am I off?
By the way, I haven't yet read Raph's A Theory of Fun. My exposure to theories of fun is purely from reading comments of his and others' on blogs and industry sites. It's quite possible that most or all of this long musing is nothing new. Some developers have probably already provided answers to the questions I pose.
Don't worry, Raph! I'll buy your book eventually. :)