Are Games “Fun” Even When They’re Not? And Is That a Bad Thing?

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief

No one likes going 1-15 in a Call of Duty match.  No one likes the endless grind from 1 to max level in an MMO.  No one likes getting pummeled by a boss in Dark Souls fifty straight times.  But these moments, these tests of will, do they mean that the game is no longer fun?

For me, the answer is: Yep, pretty much.

I’m obviously only speaking for myself here, but when it comes to what I do as a hobby, in my free time, I tend to avoid things I don’t like doing. People seem to complain about the things listed above and things of that type, yet continue to voluntarily do them in. Our lives are already full of monotonous things we are obliged to do as responsible adults that we don’t necessarily like. So when I carve out a chunk of my day–which isn’t always easy–to devote to a video game or whatever other leisurely activity I choose to engage in, the last thing I want to spend that time doing is something I don’t actually like doing. This is exactly why I don’t play grindy games like MMOs or Dark Souls or games of that ilk, because I don’t like grinding. It’s a pretty easy decision for me: Don’t like it, so I don’t do it.

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To be clear, it’s not a matter of me requiring that every second of every game I play be an explosion of fun. There are plenty of games I play that the word “fun” wouldn’t accurately describe, just like there are a lot of movies and TV shows I enjoy that aren’t “fun” either. But the difference is, I still do enjoy and like them. Breaking Bad stopped being anything approaching fun about four episodes in, but I certainly was enthralled by it all the way to the end. Nobody’s review of 12 Years A Slave called it a fun movie, but it was still heavily praised. Heavy Rain was an emotionally taxing game to play and left me feeling mentally exhausted after long stretches of playing it, but I still “liked” it, even the dark and depressing parts. It was never a matter of, “Well, I don’t actually like playing this game, but I want to overcome that so I can get to the end and see the resolution.”

There’s no disagreeing with the sentiment that harder-fought journeys feel more satisfying to complete than easy ones. Acing a tricky part in a game or taking down a difficult boss is one of the biggest joys a gamer can have. However, the adversity that you are required to overcome in order to achieve those goals should still be enjoyable. I want a boss to be difficult in the way that a boss is difficult in a Zelda or Metal Gear game, trying to figure out their patterns, their tactics, what does and doesn’t work against them, and so on, and applying all that on the fly to take them down. Yes, sometimes a few retries are required, but the best boss fights are still doable without having to see fifty game over screens before you are victorious. Finally overcoming a boss because you spent hours killing grunts until you got to some arbitrary experience or skill level that the game designers predetermined you more or less required to reach in order to beat it is just not as satisfying to me, and it certainly isn’t satisfying in the same way. It requires spending too much time doing something I don’t like and don’t have fun doing in order to advance in the game, which takes me out of the experience and makes me not even stick around long enough to fight the boss in the first place.

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To bring it back to Zelda again, the only “experience” you need to earn in order to have the tools needed to defeat a boss is earned simply through finishing the dungeon that houses said boss and the dungeons before that. Just following the flow and the forward progress of the game is all you need to do in order to be equipped to fight a boss or overcome a challenge right when you first encounter it. Again, this is just my personal preference here, but spending two hours solving puzzles and navigating a tricky dungeon is vastly more enjoyable and fun then two hours wandering a field in a circle hacking monsters and padding my stats. It was still challenging, and I still had moments of failure, and I still feel like my journey was challenging enough to make my victory feel satisfying and well-earned. I just happened to actually like that journey.

Actually, one of the best and simplest examples I can come up with to prove all of this is Shadow of the Colossus. That game contained some of my most satisfying boss fights of my entire video game career, and that game is literally just a series of boss fights. You beat a boss, you go to the next one, and the battle begins. That’s it. All there is to do is figure it out. And each and every colossus I toppled was incredibly satisfying and felt extremely well earned. The only “journey” between the bosses was traveling a.across a vast, enemy-free empty landscape to the next one, and as anyone who has played the game can attest to, that journey was no less rewarding than any game filled with dozens of hours of enemies and challenges. None of that stuff is required in order to feel a sense of true accomplishment.

As far as sports and competitive gaming, yes, sometimes you lose. And losing sucks and never feels great. But you are still doing something fun in the process. People play a sport because it’s fun to play, and even when they are losing they are still losing at a fun activity. It doesn’t quite feel like a fair way to prove that its worth it to do things we don’t like because it can result in a feeling of accomplishment by using the example of how badly it feels to lose. Unless you are just awful at a sport or a game, there is generally a balance between winning and losing. You lose a few rounds, it sucks, then you win a few rounds, and it doesn’t suck anymore. That’s just the ebb and flow of it. It’s no different than saying it sucks when you die in any game, then it feels good when you do that part again and you pass it. I wouldn’t say “I don’t like playing Mario” because in those moments when I’m dying I am frustrated. Dying once or twice in a game or losing a few rounds of a competitive activity isn’t comparable to games that actually require unlikeable activities like grinding. I guess a more apt comparison would be the grinding in an MMO or Dark Souls-type game to having to practice a sport or run drills or whatever. Obviously nobody thinks those things are fun to do, but they are required in order to excel at a sport. Well, since I don’t like practicing, that’s a big part of why I don’t play sports in any capacity but to have fun and goof around.

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Maybe that transfers over to my disdain towards “practicing” in a video game. It still doesn’t change the fact that practicing isn’t fun and no one likes it, just like grinding isn’t fun and no one likes it (not even the people who play and enjoy grind-y games). Whether or not it’s required in order to be good at those things is irrelevant. Especially because, as far as games go, there are alternatives, different types of games, different ways games are designed, so that you don’t have to have that repetitive slog in order to have a challenging journey that leads to a satisfying victory. So if you can have both, a journey that’s challenging and fun, why wouldn’t you? And does that really make the victory any less fulfilling?

For me, the answer is: Nope, not at all.

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3 thoughts on “Are Games “Fun” Even When They’re Not? And Is That a Bad Thing?

  1. I think that grindy games can be meditative. Similar to someone playing Solitaire to unwind after a long day, or reading a thousand page fantasy epic novel. You experience the ups and the downs and that replicates normal life to some degree, and it’s relaxing because of its simplicity. It’s a bit like escapism. Drink some beer, mellow out, and chill with an RPG is something that I do often. I don’t do it as frequently with TV, but sometimes YouTube playlists can have the same meditative effects on me.

    The thrill and sensation that comes from a climactic game like The Last of Us is super enjoyable, and I love when I come across a game that is innovative and dynamic. But I also like relaxing experiences that offer more mind-numbing features so I can just zone out.

    Like

  2. Nicely written article. I fully agree with your evaluation and I especially liked your comments on how in Zelda games all you need to do to be able to defeat a boss is progress through the dungeon/game. The fact that many RPGs do not work like that is what keeps me away from many of the genre’s classics, which is a shame.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thought-provoking article. I have to say though, that I like grinding when I want to do it, not when I need to do it. I love raising Pokemon and leveling them up. Even though RNG sucks for some games, I like the thrill of doing something again just to get that part I needed a la Monster Hunter. I think it boils down to whether or not you like a part of the game. I’m not the biggest fan of multiplayer or practicing for multiplayer just because I’m more goal-oriented and prefer to beat the game, not beat others in a sport. I like when you can get to do more in games like Zelda or SotC without having to grind, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a game that I like where I can do something monotonous to relax. It’s all on a game-by-game basis, of course, which is why I can’t say that there’s an exact science to it. I enjoy what I enjoy is the simplest response.

    Liked by 2 people

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