What Makes a Game Fun?

Question: What makes a game fun? 

Nicole Lazzaro:  Yeah, so what I was inspired to do is to really dig down into what makes things fun.  You know why do we play games?  So what I did was I looked across games, so I studied everything from Halo to Tetris, people playing at home, school and work, young and old, all the platforms, cross gender and I noticed that there were a lot of similarities between what the favorite… people… player’s favorite moments in games were and so what I did was I collected those moments on videotape and then I used Paul Ekman’s facial action coding, simplified it for games to measure their emotional responses.  So there is seven emotions you can measure in the face, others you can measure in the body and what I did is I took those favorite moments in games and did a cluster analysis and it turns out that they group into you know four roughly categories of emotion and then looking at those emotions I looked at well what were the similarities of the types of decisions players were making.  What kinds of play styles?  What kind of play mechanics were involved?  And that’s how we came up with the four keys to fun.  So that’s our model with essentially that’s basically the research says is that games create engagement in essentially four ways.  There is the hard fun of challenge and mastery, the frustration that leads to what we call fiero, that yes, I won you know where you get the boss monster.  There is this wonderful feeling in the body that’s on personal accomplishment.  You know usability, making things easy to use won’t get you there at that emotion at all and in fact you have to feel frustrated and so frustrated you’re about ready to throw the controller through the window.  If then at that point you win that’s when you get that feeling like yes, we really did it.  Very, very powerful emotion and players will play hours of games, both hardcore and casual gamers will play hours to get that kind of feeling. 

And then we noticed that well it wasn’t just about the points and scoring you know like basketball.  It’s fun to shoot…  You know it’s fun to shoot hoops for score, but it’s also just fun to just shoot hoops right.  You know it wouldn’t be fun if the basketball hoop were like this big you know.  You know it’s nice that it’s that small right and so it makes it… it makes it more challenging, but players also like other things like just dribbling the ball is fun or playing without a score and so there is this easy fun that goes along with the hard fun, so there is the hard fun of challenge and mastery.  The easy fun is more about exploration and role play, storytelling.  We get mechanics involving ambiguity and detail, so in the Sims you know you can put the Sims in your pool and then pull out the ladders to see what happens.  You can drive a racetrack backwards.  In Grand Theft Auto you can go from point A to point B on a mission.  The hard fun of the game, right, but then at any point in time you can actually also they give you like on Improv Theater they give you a plate glass window.  They give you freeway exit ramp, parking meters and it’s up to you as the player to figure out how those interact and so with that kind of mechanic we really…  they’re very different type of…  They’re very different types of interaction that were going.  And what we noticed is that with the four keys is that bestselling games tend to have three out of the four and players wouldn’t do just one.  They tended to also within a 20 minute session have three out of the four that they played and their favorites were three out of…  you know roughly three out of the four.  So that’s hard fun, frustration or fiero.  That’s easy fun with curiosity, wonder and surprise.  Wonder is this great emotion that actually adults feel very rarely, so that’s wonderful that games and movies you know can give it to us, but games especially. 

Then the third one is what we call serious fun, so in easy fun you get a lot of feedback for you know car, plate glass window, see what happens.  In serious fun it’s actually all about the reward.  So how do you feel before, during and after?  So we find players play to blow off frustration at their boss or at their teacher.  They also play though for you know the feeling of getting smarter or of you know creating… you know making a difference in the world.  There is people playing again Brain Age to lose weight, Dance, Dance Revolution to you know…  I’m sorry, Brain Age to get smarter and Dance, Dance Revolution to lose weight, but we also see stuff that really represents who they are, so there is a lot of…  There is about to be a real surge in eco games, which we are actually making one, which we can talk about in a bit that… our game Tilt and that allow players to express their values in the world, so it’s not just about playing games as a separate, but actually how it reflects on them and what they value, what their motives are, what they like about and want to see happen.  So that’s serious fun.  That’s excitement and relaxation, a lot of other emotions, repetition, rhythm.  You know music can get into that.  We’re using the fun of games to do real work often.  Serious gaming where you’re doing a fire fighting simulator or a nuclear you know power plant simulator to learn.  That’s all part of serious fun.  

And then the last form of engagement is people fun and people fun is really, it’s an amazing area.  You’ve got emotion.  The emotion that we can measure is amusement, so laughter, so you can laugh and whenever you see laughter then you know that you’re getting people to engage with each other and with people fun we have a lot of mechanics, sort of social mechanics that create social bonding, that bring people together.  Everyone has got a friend for example that can make you do the roll on the floor laughing thing, right?  And when you can actually then get up and breathe again you actually feel closer to that person and so what is interesting about that is that there is not a disconnect between…  I mean it actually doesn’t separate.  The game doesn’t separate.  It actually pulls people together and what we get there is we get the ability to actually create social bonds.  I really hate the word social capital.  A lot of folks in the social media space talk about, oh, well, we’re building social capital when in fact what you’re really doing is you’re weaving the social fabric between people. 

So some of the factors that go into it are creating social tokens for example, so if you have mechanics in your game that could then be mutated or changed in a certain way and pass from player to player that can actually increase the social bonding that goes on in the game.  So if I give you a health pack I feel generous.  You feel gratitude and then you know someone else might feel… see that action and say oh, elevation, wow, human kindness and then later on in the game you know that situation may be reversed or you might experience schadenfreude, which is you know the pleasure when someone you… when one of your rivals you know experiences misfortune or Naches, which is this pleasure and pride when someone you help succeeds.  So when you mentor someone and they succeed you feel this emotion around them.  So if you think about what we can do just by adding these different verbs, adding new verbs to the games we can actually change what we call an emotion profile, so just like wine or chocolate has this flavor profile.  You know you have a nose and a head and nice long finish.  Games and other entertainment produce a series of sensations in the body that can be intentionally designed.  They already create… and even media products, other media products create… social media for example, creates… sort of have certain emotional signatures in the body if you will and you can actually intentionally design them to create different things that really go with the task at hand. 

So for example, the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter all of them have a number of different verbs that really match this profile of friendship and getting closer.  So for example, the bestselling games on Facebook you know are the ones that are about people, plants and… you know people, plants and pets okay and all those have wonderful social emotions.  You know Mafias.  You’ve got Farmville, gardening and you’ve got you know Pet Society or you know the Animal Crossing kind of clones and all of those really revolve around friendship.  You also have verbs, so the verb in Facebook of poke, so by adding that feature poke, that kind of is like well that’s a poke in the ribs maybe, so that’s friendly, so it creates a little bit of what we call amici..  You know it’s Italian for this friendly kind of feeling, but what we do can is with that is you can then actually by adding these verbs or taking them out you can adjust this emotion profile. 

Same thing with Twitter, so Twitter actually has a very… a big challenge for it right now because it’s got a follow you, follow me kind of game going on, so you have underneath your avatar photo you’ve created a game because by putting that hard fun, that score, how many followers I have underneath my headshot, well that kind of encourages certain behavior because people will behave to maximize that score because that is what a score does, right, so what you do then is friend as many people who then friend you back and so then your score goes up, but then what happens to your feed of your following, if you’re following you know a million people are you really following any of them?  Can you really use it to you know stay up or really touch base with them or is it just you know a lot of people have zero tweets and you know a  thousand followers.  It’s like well what is that all about?  And so in a sense that vibe, putting a score there players actually broke the game.  They broke the game a little bit and so the added addition of lists and obviously you know some other mechanics like re-tweeting and DM-ing and stuff, direct messaging and stuff that all helps bind the…  you know bind the game… the game that is Twitter, bind that social experience together.  So you can see how all these actions create… have a sense of cloud of emotion around them and that’s what makes the experience really fill out.  Just like a film would with story and character we’re actually painting in a sense the UI.  We’re actually painting the experience with emotion and attention and essentially by intentional design you can actually color it any emotion that you choose if you know what verb to use.

Recorded on February 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Based on the seven emotions we can identify in the face, researchers have identified the four factors that make for an addictive game.

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