Definitions of Fun



That link at the end of my last post got me thinking. Wait, no. Trying to manhandle a snot monster 500 times while the fixed camera blocked my view of it, only to finally play really well and succeed, and have the game grade me a “D” and dock points because I had played well in the wrong way. Then barking at my own furniture for 20 minutes over this. THAT got me thinking.  

I blame Japan.

Because come to think of it, a few months ago I went and bought a bunch of classics on Ebay, to replay when I couldn’t sleep. At first I was reminded of what great things designers used to do with limited hardware. Genuinely good storytelling, strategy and fun can all exist in a product accessable to kids, but programmed, scored and scripted by adults. Some things are a “waste of time” only if you consider reading fiction a waste of time. Or playing chess. Both.

Then I got to The Coliseum.

(doesn’t snow muffle itself?)



See, the time wasting argument isn’t just vulnerable to stupid games with bad stories or lonely boy indulgence or violence as a posture. It’s undermined by Smart Games played to 100% completion by the best gamers. There’s an element of weeding out here.  You have at least two ideas of what “complex” and “challenging” mean. Devil May Cry is the best example of one of them.

The DMC games are famously hard. The controls are awkward and sensitive, the enemies are very strong, and you die very fast. The payoff for feeling like you suck at first is, once you get good at it, it’s really fun. Throwing one guy up in the air, jumping backwards off his flailing body keeping yourself afloat by firing guns downward into him, reversing momentum off a wall, landing a sword combo off a completely different guy before you hit the ground and ending that 2 seconds of your time with a pelvis shattering downward kick because you changed weapons and set yourself on fire while you were at it becomes completely normal. Very rewarding too, because you know if you fuck up even a hair, you’ll be back to an empty life bar and bukkaed by lizards.

Frozen deadly lizard spunk: do not want.

What we have so far is a game. You set your mind to mastering a closed system, bat it like a toy mouse for a while, and then resume your life a little more let off. You know, play.

Then a jack springs out of the design box, and goes right for your inner child’s balls.

This should have warned us, really.  

See …  

The game grades you (S,A,B,C,D) each time you finish a level. So you can win more winnishly or less winnishly, a tradition going back to the flag poles at the end of Mario levels, and a lot like how Bills fans look back on super bowls as how badly we lost them.


Only, the game rewards you with progress by this score. So if you get lots of C and D’s on levels, your character will be slower to level up. So the game will get harder and you will do even worse. The whole thing really encourages you to nail it. Fair enough. I check the Internet. A high score requires you:  

1) finish a level quickly

2) find all hidden items and rooms

3) take little damage

4) kill all enemies with as many close-range combos as possible

Starting to get the picture? It gets worse. You’re also docked points for going in and out of a room more than once. And docked if you use special items.

So what you’re being asked to do, is explore everywhere but don’t backtrack, get into every fight but don’t waste time, find new powers but never use them. Play slowly and carefully, but fast and efficiently. Figure out every hidden goal, but complete them so fast they’re like a practiced routine.

Or else we make the game harder.

Is this a goddamned arcade? Does it expect me to pay Sony by the minute? Don’t they know making me play over and over and over again like I’m memorizing Deuteronomy while a Rabbi whips my bare naked ass is not a selling point?  

My God … they don’t.

As far as I know, Japan is not populated by angry gay Jews, so I’m left to conclude they thought “mandatory replay” was what we wanted. You know how some games are addictive, how they have a certain quality that makes you want to sink hours into them? Usually for me, that’s because they’re fun. The time sink is a side effect of pleasure. But what if it were the point? What if you wanted to lose those hours yelling at your TV, just to prove you could? What if more than fun, or skill, or creativity, the main thing the game demands is time you’re willing to feed it, to show how much you’re a person who will feed his life to video games?

It’s not just Japanese culture at work here. It’s a division of nerd culture seen at every gaming table. Who’s playing the wargame to win, and who to paint figures? Who’s trying to tell a story about their warlock, and who’s trying to max out all their stats and collect more platinum? Who “wins?” Who’s the best at the game? Someone who has mastered every rule and has won the most points or someone who is having the most fun?


One thing that’s for sure: the internet and the success of video games has brought this dialogue out from moldy basements. And major media products can take sides.



What makes you want to play the fun out of something? To take something creative and light and make it into a grind toward perfection? Can’t you eat your jelly beans without taking them in and out of the jar 100 times until they’re stacked from bottom to top by density and left to right by color?

You could go off on a tangent here about Autism, Aspberger’s, the “spectrum,” and how nerd culture is or is not shared self-medication. That’s not interesting to me because I think you could call that “all of life.” If you want to tell me Candice Bushnell is less of an obsessive than Bill Gates or Peter Molinieux, just save the air.  

If Cormac McCarthy and Tom Robbins had a child … and fed it crystal meth …

That said, there is something disturbing about selling a time-suck as a time-suck. You understand how people get into an addiction cycle with crack, gambling, or Civilization III. It feels good. Your brain or body feel more alive. It’s human to lose a sense of balance.


The devil usually asks for blood or your name or something, but I like the stories where he asks for years. That comes closer to the point. When you’re afraid you can’t use talent, charm, appeal, or skill to fit somewhere in life, there’s always time. Somewhere, someone will take your time.

[Fight Club Groups]

And sorry if any of you play it, but that’s kind of how I see World of Warcraft. And how I see speed run videos and the right end of the Bell Curve on leaderboards. At some point, you stopped showing that you liked to play games and were skilled at them, and started showing how much of your life they’d taken up. 

So do I like Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy and X-Com? Of course. Is gaming a hobby of mine? Am I a nerd? Sure. But like healthy friendship, hobbies should be something free. And when they look like a trap designed to make you Prove Yourself in order to Deserve Them, it’s time to walk away. 

Finishing something, like being The Best or being Worthy of Someone, is a false and stupid goal. 

And there are better Lovecraft homages around.