What is Fun?

Response to Ian Bogost’s UX Week 2013 talk “What is Fun?”

I love when people make me question things that have become so natural to me. Ian Bogost points out how “fun” has become quite an empty word. “I had fun” is something we say as long as the experience wasn’t bad. “This is a fun game” is like saying “this is a good book”, which really doesn’t say much at all. Just as “how are you” has become a greeting and “I love you” has become a goodbye, “fun” is a placeholder more than a description.

This is bad news for games, which seem to be solely defined by the word. What makes something a game versus an app? What makes something played versus used? Well, games are “fun”, we say.

But what does “fun” actually mean?

“If there’s anything that I want you to take away from this talk, it’s that we hate Mary Poppins.”

Bogost takes us back to our childhood, citing the great “spoonful of sugar” philosophy by Mary Poppins. It sounds great in theory, but what is the spoonful of sugar really doing? It’s covering up the reality of the situation — taking medicine. It’s kinda like chocolate-covered broccoli… oh you’ve never had it? That’s because it doesn’t work.

“The fool finds something new in a familiar situation and then shares it with us.”

Rather than taking something miserable and covering it in sugar, Bogost proposes a new way to create fun… being foolish. “Foolish” often carries a negative connotation, but fools are really innovators! The fool is committed to making life a little more unique. They ask what else is possible and then strive to make it happen.

“[Fun is] admiration for the absurd arbitrariness of things.”

If games are a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles, then having fun is an appreciation for arbitrariness! If this wasn’t true, the game of golf would simply be picking up the ball and dropping it in the hole. A game is a structure and playing is accepting and respecting that structure. Fun is not an act of diversion. It is an act of immersion into a system and the feeling of operating it, being part of it, understanding it, and ultimately, respecting it.

We say “I’m a fool for you” as a confession of adoration. Tie that in with the fool’s eye for new possibilities, and we have a new definition for fun. Fun is about seeking novelty in something that has likely been established for a long time. This requires a level of respect for it, which means letting it be exactly what it is, no sugar added.

“[Fun is] finding air bubbles of freshness in something that’s suffocatingly familiar.”

Rather than taking something miserable and covering it up with sugar, Bogost encourages us to take the broccoli for what it is, and let the fun emerge. It will probably be accidental. It might be uncomfortable. It might be stupid. It might be arbitrary.

“[Fun is] having respect for something that doesn’t deserve it… and then occasionally catching sign of it blushing, when it opens up to reveal its secrets.”

… broccoli might just be broccoli though.