I once destroyed a PS2 controller. I’m not violent by nature but after several impotent hours of boss fights, I crossed a threshold. What followed was a moment of joy. I raised the controller above my head in fury and within a breath had enough time to consider my next move.
Put the controller down, walk into another room and count to 10 or, smash the controller on the floor. A choice between many happy hours of gaming over the coming months or a few seconds of euphoria. Free Radical Design’s designers had done well. I chose the latter option.
In games publishing (my day job) conversations about the importance of fun are routine. I prefer the term joy. If I laugh out loud at something unexpected or unpredictable. If I mutter to myself ‘aaaahhhhh’. If I spew frustrated expletives at the screen. If I threaten violence at the device I’m playing on. These are all emotional reactions. In the context of playing games, these reactions are usually expressions of joy.
Horror movies terrorize our nerves. Rollercoasters taunt our need for physical safety. A good drama can make you feel sad or angry. The emotional reactions these activities elicit are tourism. A visit to a zoo of domesticated mental states. They don’t cause us to live in terror, thrill or melancholy. They provide both the window on these emotions and the cathartic joy of having the blind shut on them again.
So it is with games. Roaring in rage at a loss snatched from the jaws of victory is joyful. It’s joyful because the loss is trivial in the context of my life. The vicarious thrill of petting a caged frustration.
The problem with fun is it is subjective. I find World of Warcraft tedious. Millions of others don’t. A subjective assessment of fun does little to confirm a game’s entertainment value.
The other problem with fun is that it can be a late bloomer in a game’s development. Qualifying fun early usually requires a leap of faith. The complex interdependence of game features is often what constitutes the fun. But what of those constituent parts? In game development, they tend to arrive piecemeal. If a game’s parts aren’t fun in isolation, how do we evaluate them?
There are a few rules about joy in the context of game development. The first is, you know it when you see it. There isn’t a checklist for joy. Nintendo can make menu navigation a source of smiles. Other games have to work harder. It can embody the most trivial to the most crucial and complex areas of a game.
The second rule is you can’t teach joy. If a developer’s game fails to elicit any emotional reaction, nobody that can fix that. A publisher can’t teach joy to a developer any more than an audience can teach a stand-up comedian to be funny.
The third rule is, joy is fragile. This is a crucial thing for games publishers to understand. You can’t teach it, but you can kill it so be careful if you think you have found it.
The last and most important rule is, joy is universal. Unlike fun, if an early kernel of a game can elicit emotional responses, that’s a good sign. If you are lucky, it’s a sign of broad appeal. Maybe the game will even make some happy soul destroy their only controller in a fit of joy one day.