The Fun Fallacy in Game Design
Why should games ever be "fun?"
Game design is already an esoteric and incomplete discipline with no universal understanding of what it is and how it should be executed, and yet since the creation of video games, programming has become essential to understanding the process of game design, all while negating the historical significance and non-programming creation of card and board games since recorded history.
David Parlett and Michael Dummett undertook an intense study of the history of card, board, and tarot games, and how the designs were conceived. Dummett once wrote about the public’s ignorance of tarot cards, “The Tarot pack is the subject of the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful.”1 The occult nature surrounding tarot is a misnomer because the supposed “magic” was only an interpretation of what the cards could do in games played with them. The tarot created card games that didn’t rely on numbers or ranking and relied on the player’s construct of what an arcana can do in the play environment, hence the beginning of game design.
Parlett’s A History of Card Games and The Oxford History of Board Games are classics in the study of games and game design. His website, “Pagat.com,” is a rich resource of every possible variant of the card game known to man.
In addition, chess scholar D.B. Pritchard wrote in his book, The Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, that chess variants occurred through player interpretation, cultural traditions, and the independent artistic expression of designing a new game by using the medium of the chess set. Pritchard recorded over 1,000 variants of chess that could be understood as new games in themselves. The creation of these variants is like the creation of the occult tarot and how tarot could be understood as a designer’s toolkit or a medium where many games can be played in one.
The 20th century saw a modernist understanding of game design that could be compared to architecture or engineering. The game market exploded in popularity, and with the help of games like Monpoly or Risk, an individual could also design a game and sell it as their art. However, the terms of what is “game,” “toy,” “play,” and even “fun,” are still highly debated terms among game scholars, intellects, and philosophers.
By the turn of the 21st century, games had become a billion-dollar global market, where the Japanese monopolized video games through Nintendo, and American PC games are pumped out every day as toys and useless programs. We are living through a massive video game inflation, where every possible game has been constructed, no player wants to dedicate himself to one game, and rather consumes and plays into the endless sea of consumer capitalist social control.
Dr. Adrian Hon wrote a 2022 study, “You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All,” about how the corporate narrative of “gamification” and the glorification that “games as storytelling devices,” are methods of profit-driven social control, where game design is understood less as an intellectual and artistic discipline and a new “game design” paradigm is now understood as exploitative consumption. “Game design” under this direction is seen as an embarrassment to public intellectuals because of the associates with deluded socially ill escapists, and no one in the industry has an intellectual defense of what is “game design” or how a game is constructed. The entire game industry is motivated by American liberalism and the advocation of passive consumer culture.
Game design, for the last half a century, has been under attack by nefarious forces against the art. It wishes to contain it and explain “game design” in its mystical methods of ignorance. So what are the fallacies behind this new liberal democratic and egalitarian understanding of game design that is now a vessel for white-collar capitalism?
It starts with the single notion that reads like a fairy tale, that somehow, “game design is about fun.” There are many things wrong with this theory, and the statement itself blurs the discipline further.
What is fun? Or, what is pleasure? Fun could be enjoyment or amusement, but not exactly both. Fun could also be a form of pleasure that is seen as childish rather than mature. What is pleasure to someone else isn’t exactly fun either, as pleasure and fun are not the same thing. There is intellectual pleasure and sexual pleasure, and these two things are not the same. Amusement is the act of finding something funny, and I wouldn’t find calculus amusing. If pleasure is the result of entertainment, why then, should we ever be entertained? These philosophical questions challenge the assumptions of what we think the outcomes are and rather ask what the real traits that people are after as a result. If under capitalism, the goal is to gain a profit, then everything else is not a priority. If the purpose of game design is to design or create fun, why should anyone play games when someone could have “fun” doing other things of immediate gratification? Or as I put it, “Why should I play your tabletop RPG when I can get cocaine, hookers, money, and have better fun?”
This “fun” fallacy is rampant in the white-collar spaces of the game industry. In a recent 2023 documentary about the video game Half-Life, Gabe Newell said, “Realism is fun, I go play games to have fun. And so we had to come up with some notion of what fun was.” Newell can’t even describe what is fun, and yet he is determined to make sense of what is fun, even though realism has nothing to do with fun or any theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow.
What constitutes “fun?” Some games are made with the deliberate intention to create “fun,” and they are soon forgotten, or total bombs in the market. No one in their right mind would call a complex Eurogame “fun” by any means, because of its high integrity that the player must love accounting and math.
And what about a game like Russian Roulette? Someone dies. That isn’t “fun” whatsoever. And what about the Korean drama Squid Game? Everyone dies, and only one can survive! No one in that show wanted to play those games. And a decade ago, there was “Depression Quest” by Zoë Quinn. Was that even a game? Or, it was a really good game loved by critics, but there was no “fun” in it. Depression Quest would ironically debunk the fun fallacy as it’s only “a great game” because it pushes an ideology for the liberal elite against all gamer subcultures and hobbies.
One such card game, Skitgubbe, celebrates a single loser while everyone else wins. If it’s not about the winning or losing condition, what is “fun” is a subjective experience of play. This is also highlighted in Jeffrey Neil Bellinger’s Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, where the winner is determined by the luck of the draw. Players only care about the process of playing, and it is futile to ever determine a winner because of its final random outcome. What is “fun” if play only matters? This is what Gabe Newell does not understand.
Everything seems to be regulated under a narrative construct, aesthetics or art direction, or “fun” because competition is a natural outcome and a violent rebuttal. They confuse games with “fun” because they think the action of play is that manifestation. Play is what games are about, but not the thesis either. What one takes pleasure in cannot be reduced to an egalitarian standard. What one can play can also be very serious and even critical. (I don’t recommend “Critical Play: Radical Game Design” by Mary Flanagan, because her conclusions are no different than the fun fallacy). Competition is what makes games good, not “depression.” And competition requires many skill sets and intelligence that a lazy and ugly player could not handle.
The second fallacy to address is that “Games are storytelling devices.”
No, they are not.
A game is not a story, and vice versa. It should be that simple to understand. If someone wanted to tell a story, they would do so and not rely on the medium of games to do it. In that way, games are further downplayed as tools for the storyteller and not the gamer who wants to play. Games cannot tell stories. If someone wins a boxing match, there is no narrative about a Hegelian conclusion. Why should such details matter to someone interested in a story? The player of the game should read the moves in chess as different expressions, strategies, and experiences in the game, like debate, logic, and argument. A game log serves as a historical record of the past, of an argument from the opponent, and how the expression is explained. There is no story (or narrative) in Chess algebraic notation. Also, is there ever competition in the story? No, because a story has only one end and no uncertain outcomes.
There are two different schools in game design; Ludology and Narratology. The Ludologist is someone who sees the analytical, logical system behind all the superficial aesthetics and product marketing. Narratology, however, believes games are vessels or machines for novel storytelling. The school of Narratology has a poor understanding of the game, as they are invested in narratives rather than player interaction (the only “interaction” they want is a computer with humans, not human-to-human). They only care about narratives because they want to socially control people and enforce stupidity within game design. Narratology is a cancer among game design because it can’t understand science and why games exist independently from ideology.
The influence of these fallacies on the public is horrendous. The ignorant and naive “game designer” with an ambition to make the next board game learns everything from these sources. If the market demands more stuffy Eurogames, then the young designer has to consider what mechanics are “fun” or related to “storytelling,” even though the Eurogame is a cold and calculating puzzle. Some even go far as to say, “I want to make a worker placement game about black lesbians.” Would the mechanic of worker placement enjoy the company of black lesbians? I don’t think so.
Unfortunately, games are celebrated by their name than by the designer who made them. Instead of of saying “I like games by Michael Kiesling,” they say “I like Azul,” without referring to why Azul was brought into existence, or any characteristic of the game that is related to the designer. This I believe has to do with the fun fallacy nature that softly advocates that games are not serious and that the designer does not existence, unless the game is a one hit-wonder and everyone has to worship this “designer” like a literary genius. The “designer” here is worshipped for all the wrong reasons.
There’s even more stupidity from where that came from.
On July 22nd, 2023, YouTuber “Destiny” (Steven Bonnel) had a skewed “debate” with Slavoj Žižek on the subject, “Is life a game?” Without any explanation on the definition of a game, Bonnel resorted to the Narratology point of view that “everything is game,” and existence; with its set goals, social rules, and “play,” all define what a game is. Žižek was equally confused and only gave a metaphor story about some other theory than sticking to the notion of a game or what games are. The entire “debate” was semantically flawed from the start, where both celebrities acted upon a poor definition of a “game” to push a liberal agenda through an audience that is addicted to video games. Both Bonnel and Žižek represent the idiot white-collar game industry and its intention to use games as a trojan.
If this wasn’t enough, game designer Richard Garfield is helping to start another doomed start-up process called “Popularium.” What is Popularium’s aim? First, they say “Games should be fun and built in concert with the community,” and second, “Games are storytelling devices.”
These fallacious notions are still active even in the most clandestine and obvious spaces of grifting. There are many other examples. Hearing these fallacies in a successive row like it’s a Christian prayer has incredible concern. No one is designing games, and no one cares about what a game is. There are subjective perferences and irrational individualism. There is a market that calls it’s consumer base a “community” and brainwashes it’s subjects to enjoy social control. These kinds of “games” are certainly not chess, basketball, boxing, or billiards, but some latest edible product fad that will be soon forgotten in three years (and on to the next virtual product).
Where did these fallacies come about?
It likely came from Raph Koster’s 2004 book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It’s a poorly written-thesis with a whiney argument. Not only does Koster push the fun fallacy (which I believe is a creation of his), but enforces the Narratology origin that “games are tools to learn new things.” If it was all about learning new things, why would I want to play a game in the first place? I could rather just read a book and study on my own. Koster finally published his first board game in 2020, and before then, he had zero games on his resume. This means the entire argument was written by a fan of games, similar to that of Karl Deckard, and how he fabricated a career being a “professional game designer with over 2,000 board games.” Koster created an entire white-collar market that currently, to this day, exploits stupid Americans with his persuasion that a “metaverse” with be truly egalitarian and “feminist.” The fun fallacy is an advocation of the American state.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb noted this as the “Ludic fallacy” in his 2007 book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” Taleb argues about the misuse of games to model real-life situations, and this would insist that Narratology relies on this thesis. Koster wrote an entire selfish commentary that would soon be debunked three years later by an intellectual Ph.D. How then could we ever take a gaming nerd who advocates virtual egalitarianism seriously against Taleb, a man who predicted the 2008 fall of capitalism?
This isn’t to blame Koster for everything, as games throughout the 20th century were naturally seen as children’s toys (and in some respect, still are). This led to people assuming that the hedonist life is related to that of “playing games” rather than “getting things done.” Again, all with the metaphors. Ludwig Wittgenstein corrupted the definition of the “game” further with his unintelligible definition relating it to language, assuming the same stance that Steven Bonnel believes. This Wittgenstein-Bonnelism (or Ludic fallacy) interprets the works of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois as nothing more than “games as reality,” and that play is the game, and not the construct of the art. A game is not a social construct. The game is a physical entity, with pieces and a limited space where players interact. Interactivity is between other humans, not with a computer. The Wittgenstein-Bonnelism is core to the Narratology error and its assumption that games are movies and books. Games are not movies and books, nor will they ever be.
The average person might say that others only want to have '“fun,” and you should respect their right to do so. But when is the American propaganda, pornography, and junk food enough for the liberal individual? When the liberal cries that you should “let people enjoy things,” a concern arises that the endless consumption of games has always been Malthusian and suicidal.
These so-called “game designers” are in it to create addictive drugs that reap massive profits, no different from cigarette companies. That’s what “fun” is to them.
And the worst part of it all is that the gamers can’t even see their suicide in action, and enforce the narrative of envy, that, “You only wished you want what I have. I am having fun. Stop harming other people’s fun!”
This is the fun fallacy. It not only applies to games but to liberal society as a whole. Along with the belief in a “story” and a “narrative” that people want to escape in, there is no “players” or expression within the game.
You can’t play a story, because the story tells you what to do.