Fun is a Bad Word (or: Is Meth “Fun”?)

Mar 2, 2010

What Does “Interesting” Mean?

My 11th grade English teacher was overqualified for her job. Brilliant woman, had no trouble seeing and speaking straight through the BS around her (whether from students or her coworkers), and won over her share of admiring students that liked to be challenged and appreciated being corrected.

On one unfortunate Fall afternoon, she overheard a few too many students offering one another the feedback, “Your paper is interesting….”

On the spot, our teacher fired the word “interesting” right in front of us. We had never seen such a thing as this before. Took its badge and gun and told it that it could no longer serve on the force. This gave us pause – after all, English teachers are supposed to like words – and we did our best to soak up what she said next.

She went into a rant on how inarticulate, dangerous, and useless of a word “interesting” is. What does it mean, anyway? It can mean many things – the most common of which are either contradictory or equally vague. It is extremely unlikely that the listener hearing the word will apply the exact same meaning to it as the person speaking it. If anything it only introduces room for misunderstanding or overextension that otherwise would not be assumed. In other words: saying the word was potentially going to do more harm than saying nothing at all.

She offered a workaround: if someone tempted to use the offending word were asked “what do you mean by interesting?” – that answer is what someone ought to be saying instead of the word interesting. At the very least, it might lead to another word that’s more specific, since nearly every word is more specific. In the best scenario, it can lead to an explanation so specific to the case at hand that no single word could sum up, at which it’s no longer just a label tossed out, but an articulated thought about the speaker’s relationship to the work in question. Effort, in the form of words. In contrast to “interesting”, which is laziness in the form of a word.

“Fun” is kind of like that. The main difference is that when we were lazy by using the word “interesting” in English class, doing so had no chance of contributing to the creative, artistic, and intellectual collapse of a huge industry that was otherwise showing incredible growth.

Fun Might Mean…

Challenging, empowering, thrilling, puzzling, beautiful, facilitating cooperation, leading to self-discovery, revealing forgotten curiosity, almost like knowing a set of real people that are consistently responsive and appreciative, producing many of the same mental sensations and snap considerations that are experienced while playing a sport minus the physical exertion and exhaustion, the deeply satisfying giddy sort of warmth and confusion that wells up inside the first time in life that we discover someone we’re attracted to has mutual feelings, the fascination of being dropped into a world so alien and intangible that it seems as though none of our real-world assumptions about time or space will be applicable…

Your mom probably finds different things fun than you do. Your dad probably finds different things fun, too. Everyone that you know probably finds a different set of things fun – the important realization here though is that they do not feel the same way that you do, just about different things – they feel a very different way about different things. About the only thing their fun has in common with yours is that you both use the word fun to point to its role in life.

To some, fun keeps them in shape. To some, fun keeps them educated. To some, fun grows their social network, keeps them in love, enriches the lives of their pets, helps under privileged children, or makes them gain weight. Your fun is my work, your work is my fun, and so on.

To further illustrate this: think of a half dozen things, videogames or otherwise, that you consider fun. Can you rank them by most fun to least fun? (Or is it mostly a distinction of different kinds of fun?)

The “A” Word

An ingredients chemist for a pet food company once admitted to me that his company’s goal is to make their food as addictive as possible. The intent here is that pets will reject an owner’s attempt to change away from his company’s food, creating the impression on the owner that their product is superior. After all, the animals will seem to prefer it to alternatives. That is not the same thing as tasty. That is not the same thing as enjoyable. That’s manipulative, shady, entrapping, and has absolutely nothing to do with what makes the animal happy or healthy.

The word addictive gets thrown around a lot in the videogame industry, mostly as if it were a good thing. Lately, with subscription (MMO) and lead generation or ad revenue social games (Facebook) exploding in the marketplace, addiction has become a business imperative. It’s not sufficient in these cases that a user get what they can from the experience, at their own pace, then move on – no, the greatest profit for the company is found in finding ways to get users to keep coming back compulsively, daily (or multiple times per day!!$!$!$$) until the Sun dies. Thus addiction has become a very popular word to use as a synonym for fun. Sometimes, it hides behind the word fun.

Are potato chips a better food than fruit? Is a slot machine a more fun mechanical game than a pinball machine?

Addictive suggests that someone is compelled to come back to it. Ok, but why, and to what end? Maybe it’s emotionally fulfilling, maybe it pushes and challenges our problem solving abilities which we find more stimulating than the routine day’s work, or maybe it’s playing cheap psychology tricks on its users and treating people like pigeons.


When a book keeps us coming back to it, most of us would not describe the book as addictive. Perhaps, just to go for some low hanging 1-word descriptors, we might describe it using one or more of these words: exciting, enchanting, mysterious, provocative, impressive, enlightening, deep, powerful, heartbreaking, terrifying, inspirational, curious, stirring, exotic, surreal, refreshing… ? (Some of these words are also applicable to what I enjoy about the best videogames produced over the past several decades. How many of these words can be applied to games that you have seen in the social games space? Regardless of platform: are there ways that we can bring more of these types of experiences into the forefront?)

We are not addicted to going to the restroom. We are not addicted to leaving the house for fresh air. We are not addicted to helping people that we love. We would not describe tennis as addictive, chess as addictive, or education as addictive.

In case anyone forgot: addictive is a pejorative. Cigarettes are addictive. Alcohol is addictive. Gambling is addictive. Meth is addictive. Addiction is something to seek recovery from, something to join a group in search of support to escape, something that messes up families, finances, and futures.

Addictive is indicative of a problem – it’s artificially sticky beyond anything more meaningful that a player could call attention to. That problem extends to both the consumers (who have to handle it with caution) and the producers (who potentially face a growing tide of people swearing it off entirely when they start seeing career, grade, and personal goals lost to the time taken by it).

Our Time

Even more so than consumer money, many projects in the social game space are competing for consumer time and attention. Consumer time and attention have never, ever, in the history of humankind, been worth so much. Anyone can now wake up one morning and decide to write, draw, film, or otherwise make something that has a shot at reaching a million people and changing more than that many lives over the following week – anyone can wake up and start working on becoming an expert in something. Companies are shelling out serious money to buy your eye time, because if you’re alive in 2010, you have potential unlike anyone that has lived before. They’re paying to put offers and ads in front of (potentially!) very important people in human history.

Unrealized and under realized potential cheats everyone in the world out of having a better future.

When we craft, construct, and prepare something that is worthy of a thinking person’s time, we do not need to go out of our way to make it addictive. As with my chemist friend working at the pet food company, making something addictive apart from its nutritive value is entirely feasible, not in the greater interest of the consumer being sold to, but often a smart short-term move for business.

Why short-term?

Because we’re not cats. We’re not pigeons. We’re much smarter than that, and when people try tricks on us that work on cats and pigeons, we’re in position to notice and call them out on it. We can’t take back our time once spent, of course, but every second of our future time is still ours until we give it away. And no matter what a spreadsheet may project, no one else has any claim or rights over our future time.

Why This Matters

This is not just splitting hairs. This is not a minor semantic distinction. When people get sloppy with words, it becomes easier for someone to think that they’re getting better at doing something worthwhile (engaging their players, enriching the lives of other players, developing fond memories for their players) when what they’re really doing is switching to doing something much easier and much sleazier (tricking their players, damaging the minds of their players, making their players feel obliged until their play becomes a chore). If all of those things are called “fun”, then it’s easy for an unsuspecting developer to pick up some hot “new” tricks through magazine articles and conferences on how to make their videogames more “fun” – these strategies are then brought back into their development process. Gradually the meaningful, lasting, or deep computer-player or player-player interactions that once hid behind the word fun can then be overrun by the cheaper, easier, forgettable interactions that also hide behind that sloppy, dangerous word.

There’s more to worry about though than increasingly crummy videogames – there is also a risk of doing harm to the human beings that play them.

Chris Hecker gave an excellent talk at Game Developer’s Conference 2010 titled “Achievements Considered Harmful?” (check out the Gamasutra and Destructoid articles on the talk), effectively adapting Daniel Pink’s 2009 TED talk (and book) for a videogame audience. In short: research on psychology, problem solving, and motivation have consistently indicated that conditional extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks, reward and punishment) being used to compel behavior only improves efficiency for menial efforts (think factory labor), while impairing both efficiency and total ability for tasks involving virtually any creative or problem solving ability. The effect lingers, too: providing conditional extrinsic rewards for tasks that might normally or otherwise be intrinsically motivated (paying a person to draw or solve block puzzles) can decrease a person’s future motivation to do the activity when it is no longer tied to reward.

In other words, we might be doing lasting harm to the intrinsic motivation of our players.

Cheap Tricks

Lots of naked bodies and explosions will bring in a lot of film watchers, but most people in the film industry don’t want next year’s film audiences to be even less sophisticated than they already are. Something is lost when those shortcuts are taken, like a comedian overrelying on bathroom humor or pop culture references.

Malcom Gladwell’s Blink includes a story about the Pepsi Challenge, a blind taste test that Pepsi used to administer in malls to prove that more Americans preferred Pepsi over Coca-Cola. While the results of the taste tests proved that Pepsi was indeed favored in taste tests, other tests confirmed that if someone was drinking the full glass or bringing home a case, Coca-Cola was favored – Pepsi’s sweetness was only better for a sip, but came out too sweet for continued drinking. This is a bit like saying that if you only get to watch 20 seconds of something live, 20 seconds of fireworks might be nicer to see than 20 seconds of a play – whereas 90+ minutes of fireworks would be gratuitous. No matter how well something seems to do in focus groups, unless the product is being made only for use by focus groups (and even then), there are other big picture considerations to keep in mind.

Pry Deeper Than “Fun”

Most people that I know who make videogames are, fundamentally, craftsman and artists. There are some people who are just involved in the industry to make a quick buck – they will generally not much care what we they mean by the word “fun”. It’s then up to the craftsman and artists to pull that word apart and dig into its meaning when it comes up. Players are trusting us to make their lives better. They’re trusting us for hours every day alone with their kids (ideally maturing their worldview, exercising their imaginations, and expanding their problem solving abilities, rather than wasting their youth away). They’re trusting us to not hurt them when they come to us offering their money and time in exchange for what we hand over with our implicit stamp of approval as “fun” (we are, after all, supposedly the experts on that word).

I’m not in the narcotics industry. I’m not in the tabloid business. I’m not in the gambling industry. I’m not a part of the lottery system. I’m not working for a company that makes its profits by misleading and scamming people. Few of us see ourselves of being a part of those cesspools, but if we let ourselves hide behind the vague word “fun” we may be a part of those things by honest accident, we may have gotten lost in our earnest efforts to make our game more “fun” without realizing that the type of fun, meaning of fun, the strategy for attraction changed altogether in the process.

Pornography is not the epitome of film making nor photography. If our medium is ever going to gain a shred of respect from outsiders, we’re going to have to establish some values besides claiming that whatever generates the most short-term profit must be more “fun”.

It’s time for us to outgrow the F word.

Originally posted as part of Vol. 12

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