Why do you play video games?

No, that’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seriously asking: why do you play video games? If you were to blurt out a response immediately, it would probably be something along the lines of “Because they’re fun.” But if you thought about it a little harder, you might think about what makes the games you play “fun” or whether they were even “fun” at all.

James Portnow and co. made a similar point in last week’s Extra Credits, entitled “Beyond Fun,” which discusses many of the same topics as an Errant Signal episode from a few months ago, “An Aimless Diatribe on Fun.” Both Portnow and Chris Franklin of Errant Signal claim that thinking of video games purely in terms of “fun” is limiting; instead, we should be discussing them in terms of the wide range of feelings that they can inspire in us. It’s a worthy goal, and one that I support to an extent. But I don’t think that talking about “fun” is as limiting as it may seem, provided we use a wider definition of “fun” than Portnow suggests. The problem here is one of semantics, not of fundamental design philosophy.

Extra Credits uses the following definition of “fun” in their video: “light-hearted pleasure or amusement.” It brings to mind images of riding roller coasters or watching reruns of Frasier, which many would describe as “fun,” but it’s a narrow definition, and I think Portnow has set up a bit of a strawman here. Would anyone describe “fragging n00bs” in Call of Duty as “light-hearted?” I think not. Yet, people still think of Call of Duty’s multiplayer as “fun.”

I contend that when people say that video games are “fun,” they really mean that video games are “engaging.” Of course, this doesn’t address Franklin’s main complaint with the word “fun,” which is that it’s such a vague and nebulous term that it almost has no meaning. Replacing it with an equally vague and nebulous term doesn’t solve the problem. Thus, we need to come up with a definition of “engagement,” and to ensure broad applicability, it shouldn’t be specific to any one medium.

According to dictionary.com, to “engage” means “to occupy the attention or efforts of.” This is a good start, but it’s too broad. By that definition, doing my taxes would be engaging, seeing as it occupies both my attention and my efforts once a year. When we say that a creative work is “engaging,” we usually mean it as a compliment, that the work was something we wanted to experience. We need to capture the inherent subjectivity in describing something as “engaging.” This points to another narrower definition, which is that an “engaging” work is one that when experienced, engenders the desire to continue experiencing it. To wit, “engagement” is the idea that “experience reinforces experience.”

A couple of clarifications are in order. One, this doesn’t preclude works that break up into logical chunks, such as TV shows (with episodes) or video games (with levels or quests). After completing a chunk, a viewer or player may not want to consume the next chunk immediately, but if he or she is engaged with the the work, then he or she will want to consume the next chunk at a later time or date. Two, this doesn’t necessarily preclude experiences that purposely aim to make people not want to experience them. Arguably, turning away from the work itself is part of the intended experience in that case. I recognize, however, that this is somewhat problematic. At that point, how does one differentiate between engagement and disengagement? Moreover, how does one distinguish disengagement that the creator intended as part of the experience from disengagement that the creator didn’t intend? However, these questions are beyond the scope of this piece, and for now, our simple definition will do.

In video games, experience comes primarily, but not solely, through interaction. Non-interactive segments like cutscenes abound, and they can also be engaging, but I’d like to zero in on interaction because it’s specific to the medium of video games. Think of a video game as a system. When we interact with that system, it gives us feedback. This can be something as simple as my moving my mouse to the right causing my character to look to the right or something as complicated as my chaining together a sweet-ass combo being rewarded with cool sound effects and flashing numbers. The key thing is that the feedback from the system should make me want to continue interacting with it, thereby creating a loop. If moving my mouse to the right caused my character to jump up and down, I might quit in frustration, and if my sweet-ass combo were met with nary a response from the game, I might stop making an effort. In an engaging video game, the feedback the player gets from interaction makes him or her want to continue interacting with the game.

When people describe a video game as “fun,” this is what they subconsciously mean: playing the game made them want to continue playing the game, or put simply, experience reinforces experience. Thus, describing a game as “fun” isn’t limiting per se, but it is confusing. If one group of people defines “fun” as “engagement” and the other describes it as “light-hearted pleasure or amusement,” then it’s no wonder that Portnow and co. think it’s time to go “beyond fun.” The problem here is one of semantics. In fact, both Extra Credits and Errant Signal mention gaming experiences that are engaging but that don’t fit into the narrow, traditional definition of “fun.” To give a couple of my own examples, for many people, grinding in an RPG doesn’t provide any “light-hearted pleasure,” but it does put them in a sort of zoned-out zen state that can engage them for a couple of hours. Or consider this year’s Spec Ops: The Line, which wasn’t in any way “light-hearted,” but instead engaged players with a twisty narrative and feedback mechanisms that reflected the increasing franticness and desperation of the characters’ situation. If we equate “fun” with “engaging,” then describing either of those experiences as “fun” isn’t a huge loss. What is a huge loss is failing to elaborate further, and this is where I agree wholeheartedly with Portnow and Franklin. Merely saying a game is “fun” or “engaging” isn’t enough, especially for a game reviewer. We need to know why the game was engaging.

Now, to be fair to game reviewers, on most mainstream game sites, the reviews are generally detailed and well-written, explaining exactly why games succeed or fail at engagement. So why is there a blacklash from the more thoughtful corners of the Web when reviewers misuse the word “fun” when they really mean “engagement?” At the risk of indulging in amateur psychology, I think it has something to do with how we want others to perceive the medium. Many gamers want non-gamers to take video games seriously, and a monosyllabic word with connotations of juvenility can make the medium seem immature to outsiders. A medium that is solely focused on generating “light-hearted pleasure” isn’t one that could ever reach the transcendent plane of “high art.”

But designers are already thinking beyond “light-hearted pleasure,” as should be clear from Spec Ops: The Line or even a more successful game like BioShock. Ken Levine probably didn’t have “light-hearted pleasure” in mind when he set out to make an interactive deconstruction of objectivism. Designers are willing to create experiences that revolve around more varied emotions than just light-heartedness, as evidenced by Rockstar’s recent L.A. Noire or Naughty Dog’s upcoming The Last of Us. All of these games were well-received and more importantly, much-discussed, which shows that game journalists are willing to engage with games that aren’t “fun” in the traditional sense that Portnow and co. describe. Gaming has already gone “beyond fun,” and if this trend continues, it will continue to do so.

What we have here isn’t an issue with the medium itself, but rather an abuse of the English language. All too often, we misuse the word “fun” to describe things that are engaging in a broader sense, thereby causing confusion for those who use the word “fun” in a more traditional sense. But “fun” is only as limiting as the definition employed. People aren’t discounting experiences that don’t provide light-hearted pleasure; they’re merely speaking of them in the wrong terms. The solution isn’t to get them to reconsider their conception of gaming. Instead, we need to sit them with a dictionary for a couple of hours.