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What makes games fun? January 7, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in casual games, game design, game mechanics, games, gaming.

Chris Bateman at Only a Game had a series a while ago on the four elements of play according to Caillois, a noted French sociologist. While somewhat academic in nature, it is still a somewhat useful framework. Bateman notes four styles of (non exclusive) play:

Games of competition

Caillois calls this “agon”. This is the most common type of game, whether the competition is against another player (PvP) or against the environment (PvE), and hinges on the emotion of fiero – personal triumph over adversity. Games of this type appeal the most to hard core gamers. Bateman notes that there is significant room for the level of challenge/competition within a game:

The space that the player ends up within in respect of any given game of agon is determined almost entirely by the strength of the player (determined in part by their own abilities, in part by the game parametrics) relative to the strength of the opposition. Games of hard agon are at the very least evenly matched, and more commonly are biased against the player, so that the player must work even harder to win, and thus achieves an even greater payoff in fiero. Conversely, games of easy agon begin when the player’s strength is weighted higher than the opposition – indeed, these games are arguably at their most fun (and by fun in this case we mean the fun of amusement, not the fun of fiero) when the player is ludicrously overpowered with respect to their opponents. This was surely what made Rampage fun to play when it first came to the arcades, and I assume the recent Hulk game shares something of this feel in its early play.

Games of chance

Caillois calls this “alea”. This is what makes so many people enjoy lotteries and other forms of gambling. An element of chance can create dramatic tension – think of the rich emotions generated when your football team is close to scoring, or if you’re waiting for the river card to complete your flush in Texas Hold’em. An element of chance is often important for casual games, as Bateman notes:

Personally, I have found alea most useful in designing card games and boardgames. This is because aleatory elements inherently reduce the dominance of agon – and I find that there are many players who are put off by directly agonistic (competitive) play. Games like Texas Hold ’em which strike a balance between agon and alea have a wider appeal because failure can be chalked up to bad luck (and not to personal inadequacy) – plus, of course, anyone can win. Indeed, the fact that pure alea gives everyone an equal chance of winning is the reason that we frequently encounter alea in games designed for small children, such as the card game Beggar My Neighbour, or Snakes/Chutes and Ladders, or the aleatory elements in Kirby Air Ride (which was certainly designed to cover a very wide age range).

The rituals of alea have such universal appeal because they are absolutely fair. In a game of pure agon, whomever is more skilled will win every time (all things being equal), but in a game of pure alea anyone can win, regardless of who they are, or what their skills might be. The greater the reward in a game of alea, the greater the appeal – hence the appeal of state, national and international lotteries, despite the fact that the jackpot of even a modest-sized lottery will set a person up for life. The size of the stake the player could lose may intensify the experience, but it is what can be won that entices, whether that reward is money, a unique gift, a nice chocolate or temporary ownership of the flow of the narrative. I believe that harnessing alea might be yet another way to potentially expand the appeal of video games to a much wider audience.

Games of simulation

Caillois calls this “mimicry”. Most games have some degree of simulation involved. But games where mimicry is the primary form of play have tended to be successful by drawing in players outside of “hardcore” gamers. Examples include The Sims, Nintendogs and Animal Crossing, all of which have appealed to many more women than have other successful games. Bateman believes that, as a mimicry enhancer, graphics are a key driver for mass market success. He notes:

I strongly believe there is a vast untapped market for games which present mimicry as their core play. …such games can invite the player to play in their own way and at their own pace. They need not place frustrations in the player’s path and force the player to overcome them… The worlds of these games do not need to be as large as a GTA world to support play – instead of large but emotionally empty worlds, they can be smaller but more emotionally invested worldby allowing more player customisation, or by having non-player characters with personality.

…Adult play is simply an extention of child play. …At its core, however, much of play is about imagination, and games of mimicry are tools for enhancing imagination and reducing the degree of suspension of disbelief required. Adults may no longer be able to create spontaneous play out of little plastic figures, but place them in a vivid digital world and suddenly they all become like little children, eager to indulge an imagination often desperate to escape from the confines of the mundane world.

Mimicry is a powerful tool for play, but it is one that until now games have often harnessed only tangentially. When we recognise just how powerful mimicry can be, when we get past merely shackling players to repetitive play by designing addictive play systems, or narrowly defining the world of games as those which supply fiero; when we watch how people play, and what they enjoy, perhaps then we will be ready to allow videogames to be all that they can be.

Imagination is unlimited. Games should be too.

Games of new stimulation

Caillois calls this “ilinx”, or “vertigo”, the momentary destruction of perception. Bateman notes:

It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction – of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.

… destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its many relatives. I contend that one of the reasons the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic… The tone of the games is realistic in a certain sense, and certainly they are drawing upon mimicry, but there is an unreal quality. This is expressed in part by the shrewd choice of a non-photorealistic art style, and also by the presence of ‘game-like’ elements in the game world, such as “power up” tokens. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with this, and the unreal quality of the game facilitates this freedom to misbehave.

The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon… it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible – the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can surrender to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more ilinx in videogames over the coming years as we continue to explore the limitless domain of play.

A lot of the new social games are being built by people who do not have a background in game design. Bateman’s work is a useful framework for these new game designers to “check their work” against as they build apps on the Facebook platform and others.


1. Guy B - January 7, 2008

A great book is “Rules of Play” and I really advise anyone who is about to create a game to read it (at least the chapters summaries).

What makes games fun, for me, is that fine balance of learning and getting better with a certain skill (like killing, building an eco system, waiting tables or matching colors) without making the process too boring or too frustrating. If I can “show off” with my success, even better.

2. David Kaye - January 7, 2008

This isn’t a bad taxonomy, but if you’re looking for success factors, there is another game-specific attribute to consider: game feel. Good piece on it here:

I think this is going to become increasingly important as interfaces for social games get richer.

3. What makes games fun? Part II « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - January 8, 2008

[…] game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming. trackback As a follow up to my post on what makes games fun, another useful framework from Nicole Lazzaro of XEO Design, first presented at GDC in 2004.: 1. […]

4. Making Habbo Hotel a success « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - January 11, 2008

[…] history of Habbo’s evolution and some of his examples of emergent play. (see previous post on what makes games fun, in particular sections on Games of Simulation and Games of New […]

5. Good games for “bad” girls « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - April 1, 2008

[…] to Grand Theft Auto. The appeal of these “game of new stimulation” (one of the four types of fun) is correlated with the “bad” fun of stomping on a sandcastle, as Bateman notes: … […]

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