In this blog post I’m going to articulate a theory of what “fun” is. I’m using the word theory in the scientific sense of the word, in that I intend for it to be a useful abstract model grounded in empiricism which makes falsifiable predictions. My hope is that it is also a practical theory, one that we can leverage in game design. All theories are provisional so I make no promises that it’s fully baked, but I believe it conforms to my observations about games and life so far, and I’m not aware of any counterexamples. This blog post isn’t a polemic or manifesto to convince you to buy into this theory, it’s meant to be as full and clear an articulation of it as I can manage as a step to either finding counter-evidence or extrapolating from the theory to find ways to make more and better games.

Here’s the claim:

Fun is when you experience something that feels meaningful from one perspective but is balanced by another perspective where it doesn’t feel meaningful.

Let’s break that down a bit. First, it’s a theory about fun. Not all pleasant experiences that happen during a game are necessarily fun, and fun is not restricted to only games. But fun is the archetypal subjective experience we strongly associate with playing games. Fun is the thing that’s conspicuously absent from a boring game, such as when an adult attempts to play Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Second, this claim clearly hinges on what meaningful means. I’ll elaborate more below, but for the purposes of this theory I’m claiming that “meaningful” is the name we give to the sensation that we associate with things like “doing meaningful work” or “achieving a meaningful goal”.

The most straightforward example of this formulation in action is children “playing house”, wherein they go through the actions of household chores but, since they do it within the confines of a magic circle of play, it becomes fun. Household chores are necessary and meaningful (although they’re normally un-fun work), but the “magic circle” perspective allows those tasks to be seen as meaningless inside it, so they become fun. Many adults perform similar alchemy of transforming work into fun when they set up businesses inside the virtual world of a MMORPG. Fun occurs in non-game contexts, too: It’s common to experience solving your own personal problems as weighty and difficult, but working on other peoples’ problems (either as a nosy busybody or a charitable soul) can often be fun; the effort matters but you’re not on the hook for the consequences.

What is meaningful?

This theory uses “meaningfulness” to label a low-level psychological perception, in the same category as things like pain, anger, or saltiness. It’s an inwardly focused meta-sensation, in the same category as the feeling of confidence we use to gauge how well we know something, or the kinsesthetic sense that tells us how our body is positioned. As an allegedly foundational concept it can’t be further defined in terms of other things, but we can attempt to characterize the conditions under which it occurs, just like we would use “that feeling you get when…” style formulations to describe something like anger or pain. Much of the work of refining this theory will likely involve figuring out how to reliably produce or avoid feelings of meaningfulness, but I think we have a few good candidates:

  • Goals: Moving toward or achieving goals feels meaningful. Goals are concrete and measurable. “Winning” is the most obvious goal used in games, but things like getting the ball over the net in volleyball, getting to the end of a racecourse, or forming a valid word from your available tiles in Scrabble are all goals. They’re discrete, identifiable chunks that have recognized value to all participants.
  • Self expression: Signaling value judgments about multiple non-aligned dimensions feels meaningful. Choosing whether to hit or stand in Blackjack tells the table things about your stance on risk vs. reward. Choosing to play one class over another in a roleplaying games tells the table things about what sort of activities you want to engage in during play. Choosing a “sounds like…” vs. “act it out” approach to charades signals what you think the best way of communicating a particular idea. Sometimes the dimensions can be clear and discrete, such as how much Science, Food, and Production you assign your city to generate in Civilization, sometimes they’re more abstract, such as the decision between the importance of getting what you want vs. moral complicity in violence when choosing whether to escalate in a Dogs in the Vineyard conflict. Playing a particular card in Cards Against Humanity sends signals about what you think is funny, what you think the judge will find funny, what you think is within the bounds of humor, and what you think the group will find within bounds.
  • Morally relevant: Moral psychology is still a developing field, but it may be the case that humans find things related to moral judgments to be intrinsically meaningful, thus accounting for our consistent interest in gossip about moral transgressions and crime stories being a perennial touchstone in popular fiction. One interesting development in moral psychology to keep an eye on is Moral Foundations Theory, which posits that there are some universal moral “taste buds” that different people might different sensitivities to. It’s also possible that this is merely a special case of the already-described factors, since signaling moral values is important and we may spontaneously generate goals to respond to moral infractions.
  • A social component?: There may be a social component to meaningfulness, especially with regard to sending signals. Having a human observer might justify expressing things even when they don’t have direct consequences, as with an artist’s relationship with an audience. Some boardgames that have a “roleplaying element” to them sometimes play very differently when played solo or in a group, even if the same mechanics apply, since it’s easy to bypass things like “creative description” when playing alone. Humans are social animals, so the perceptions of our peers may be as important as physical reality when it comes to determining how “real” or “meaningful” something is to us.

What isn’t meaningful?

  • Inconsequential: When things are ignored, or can be ignored, they generally don’t feel meaningful. For example, when children play pretend-games like Cops and Robbers they can easily degenerate into “I shot you / no you didn’t” disputes, i.e. what one child is pretending may end up having no consequence on what the other child is pretending. More broadly, the concept of the magic circle keeps the events of a game from impacting the world outside of it and is therefore an important element in making games fun.
  • Not salient: In order for the self-expression meaningfulness described above to work, the relevant dimensions need to be salient. When a person kills an orc in a roleplaying game, if they see the orc as tantamount to a piñata filled with loot then they aren’t sending any signals about their or their character’s values with respect to cruelty or harm, while a person treating the orc as a kind of person might be sending those signals. There are many ways of making things salient, such as by explicitly flagging the relevant factors (such as by associating a game statistic with it) or evoking pre-existing associations in players’ minds.
  • Overdetermined Signals: When there are multiple salient factors but some are overwhelmed by others it feels less meaningful. If there’s a nigh-universally regarded “better choice” then the choice doesn’t seem real or meaningful. Similarly, if factors aren’t sufficiently independent it may be difficult to signal tradeoffs between them, they can collapse together into a single dimension. In playing a party-based roleplaying game with niche protection, sometimes people feel they have “no choice” but to do what their role requires, such as a cleric who uses all of their actions to heal other characters. Several psychology studies have demonstrated that financial incentives can have the effect of crowding out other motivations.

The “balanced by” element of the theory

The theory doesn’t call for maximizing meaningfulness in order to make something fun, it calls for balanced meaningful/meaningless perspectives. Games can become unfun if they’re not meaningful enough, but also if aspects of them are too meaningful. If people expect winning or losing to haunt them for a long time a competitive game may not be fun. Some people find it impossible to engage with Dogs in the Vineyard because they have such intense egalitarian convictions that the gender roles in the setting are repugnant to them. Some people find some of the subject matter in Cards Against Humanity to be beyond the realm of things it’s OK to joke about. The roleplaying game Novanta Minuti/Ninety Minutes deals with the prospect of having or missing a final conversation with a dying parent, and such high emotional stakes could easily be so weighty that it doesn’t register as “fun”. In roleplaying games that have a player associate with a single character for multiple sessions, “character death” is often a tricky issue. Light beer-and-pretzels strategy games tend to focus on just engaging with the game’s mechanics while more hardcore strategic games tend to require a playing-the-player approach, which could extend to making judgments about people that go beyond the game, such as the legends of Dimplomacy ruining friendships.

An avenue for exploration: Minimal Games

One way to explore the predictions of this theory is through the development of games which use as few factors as possible so that we can use an “is it fun?” metric with as few confounding factors as possible. For example, my game Four Panels was constructed with the intention of demonstrating that a purely procedural game with self-expression and consequentiality was enough to produce gamelike fun and that things like an “object of play” or win/loss conditions aren’t necessary. The web game Cookie Clicker is a surprisingly fun game built on little more than a score that increments in response to player action (combined, to a degree, with goal-setting in the form of purchasable power-ups). Simple push-your-luck dice games seem to be reliably fun games where valuing risk and reward seem central to the experience.

We can leverage psychology about non-game topics

By using a definition of meaningfulness that can apply to both work and play we may be able to leverage psychology findings that are focused on work and motivation. For example, in this video Dan Ariely describes several experiments that he associates with work and meaningfulness. Compare the results of the experiment described from 9:55 to 12:40 to this observation by game designer Vincent Baker about the “Okay Cycle” in roleplaying games — it seems to me that they’re both observing something about the impact of social acknowledgment on a feeling of meaningful contribution.

Appendix: Some possible objections
Isn't 'fun' completely subjective? It's all just personal taste!
We all agree that tastes can be subjective, but we can also all agree that “sweetness” is a real phenomenon that humans can perceive via the common sensory receptors we share. Each of us might differ on whether some particular food is “too sweet” or “not sweet enough” due to a variety of factors like differing sensitivity to sweetness or whether the particular combination of sweet and other flavors is pleasing to our idiosyncratic preferences, but we can safely say that there are real-world things like the presence of sugar that are causally connected to the perception of sweetness. Cooking a pleasing dessert may be an art, but knowing that sugar is sweet is science. The subjectivity of experience is a real thing, but not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to understanding how humans work.
 
But aren't the things you're calling 'meaningful' just you projecting your own tastes?
Maybe! Introspection has definitely been part of this theory, but so has observation of others playing, accounting for clusters of opinions and “folk wisdom” in commentary about games, experience and observation of people in work situations, folk wisdom from management advice, and trying to synthesize ideas from several psychology papers I’ve read.
 
There are things I like about games that aren't accounted for in this theory!
First, this theory doesn’t claim to account for every pleasing sensation associated with games. For example, some video games feature beautiful cutscenes that might be pleasing to watch but aren’t necessarily “fun” to watch. That said, if there are things people find fun in games that this theory would put in a box labeled “not fun” then that is evidence that there are issues with the theory, and I’d like to discuss them. Part of the scientific method is that theories should make falsifiable claims so that we can test how well the theory maps to the real world. In science all theories are provisional.
 
Are you sure meaningfulness works like a basic sense?
Nope! That’s part of the conjecture. Maybe there’s something more basic. Maybe there’s something else that frequently occurs along with meaningfulness and I’ve conflated them.
 

Appendix: Interesting Asides
Is this theory of any use in analyzing game designs?
I believe so. For example, in this post on Google+ I took a look at the game mechanics of the game Psi*Run based on listening to an Actual Play Podcast recording of a group playing the game. The areas of fun and areas of unease seemed explainable by this theory, at least in my assessment.
 
Self-created goals AKA 'what about Minecraft?'
Any discussion of goals in games will inevitably turn to the discussion of self-authored goals in games like SimCity or Minecraft. I think this is an interesting area of exploration. It’s clear to me that not just any arbitrary goal will do, because otherwise creating trivially-satisfied goals would be lots of fun, but that isn’t lots of fun. Instead I suspect there’s an element of perception and externalizing involved in these “self-created” goals. In an arcade game with scores people are more likely to choose score-goals based on round numbers or existing entries on a leaderboard than they are to pick some random number. Similarly, certain patterns of goals will naturally emerge in SimCity, e.g. recreating real locales, maximizing certain parameters like covering the entire map, etc. I suspect that the goals that are likely to emerge in a given game are a combination of the structure of the play-space and human psychology, analogous to how the negative space in visual art is a combination of the created object and the way human visual perception works.
 
Does this theory have anything to say about the Czege Principle?
The Czege Principle is a conjecture put forward by Paul Czege about roleplaying games where he observed that when the same person generates adversity and the resolution to it the result is boring for them. I recently read a psychology paper, Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals by Masicampo and Baumeister, which appeared to experimentally demonstrate that making a plan to resolve a goal can “deallocate” some cognitive resources that are normally occupied when we have unfulfilled goals. Perhaps we don’t have the subjective “meaningfulness” experience when we accomplish goals that aren’t active in this way. While I’m clearly speculating here I think it’s an interesting avenue to explore.
 

Appendix: What does this theory of fun have to say about some of the other popular theories?
Raph Koster's Theory of Fun
In his book Theory of Fun, Raph Koster frames play in terms of learning, noting that many animals will “play fight” while young as practice for adulthood. While this account is appealing, it doesn’t address games that continue to be fun even when mastered, such as many tabletop RPGs. I think my meaningfulness account is a superset: learning transferable things can be meaningful, but not everything that is meaningful must be a form of learning.
 
Sid Meier's aphorism 'A game is a series of interesting choices'
I think this “meaningful contributions” account is a superset of that aphorism: I think interesting choices and meaningful choices can be trivially exchanged in that statement while preserving the meaning, but “contributions” is a superior framing to “choices” because there are components to some games, such as the moment-to-moment physical actions in a sport, that could demand an especially generous reading of “choices”.
 
Flow and Gamification
The most common teaching of gamification gurus is that games are all about skill and difficulty, and you need to find the not-too-hard not-too-easy sweet spot in order to reach Flow state, which will be fun. This meaningfulness account of fun would frame that observation about some games in terms of psychophysics, the psychological study of human senses like vision or hearing, where we often expect our senses to work via environmental contrasts. If something is “too hard for your skill level” then your small contribution will be below your threshold of noticability in terms of progressing to your goal and will therefore not register as meaningful. If the “challenge” is similarly not large enough to register then accomplishing it will not seem meaningful.
 
The Forge's Big Model / GNS
In terms of the tabletop roleplaying game theories developed at the Forge, a roleplaying group needs a shared Creative Agenda in order to have satisfying coherent play. In this meaningfulness account, confidence that a constellation of shared dimensions of meaningfulness are “in play” is very important: it primes a participant to evaluate their contributions along those dimensions, it primes the participant to be confident that contributions relevant to those dimensions will be valued, and it primes others to notice and socially acknowledge the contributions along those dimensions because they’ve been primed to be vigilant for them. If there’s significant overlap in the set of “relevant dimensions” for each participant then you’ve got a shared creative agenda. If there’s little overlap you don’t and you have un-fun “incoherent” play (for example, in a horror-themed game a person trying to “win” by being as self-protective as possible may be ruining the fun of someone playing to be “true to the genre”, and vice versa).

Human capacity is limited, so it shouldn’t be surprising that humans can’t operate with an infinite number of salient dimensions simultaneously. The three “modes” identified by GNS theory can map to several sets of dimensions that have been discovered to work well in concert. Story Now play requires elements of human drama and morality to be salient. Step on Up play requires the difficulty of overcoming legitimate challenges to be salient. Right to Dream play requires certain expectations (e.g. genre, iconic characterisation, “realism”) to be salient.

 
The Forge's Big Model / Currency
In the tabletop RPG theory ideas of The Forge, Currency is the confusingly-named concept that various elements of a game get transformed into other elements. The canonical definition limits it to “things on a character sheet”, although it also incorporates Positioning which might include the notion of “Position” which many games share (both position-in-space as in “where on the soccer field are you standing right now?” and position-on-the-team as in “are you the goalkeeper?” have direct analogs to the RPG-specific things like “fictional positioning”). If we treat Currency as trading off various dimensions of position-in-the-game-state then I believe it’s very similar to the values-signaling meaningfulness account presented above.