Social and Family Gaming #3: Fun and being social

I’m not going to try to carve out a whole theory here, but rather I want to try, by critique to point at the open spots for social and family gaming. Really for all I know the psychology of fun is understudied. One can open recent textbooks on social, personality and developmental psychology and not find the words “fun” “enjoyment” in the index or as topic (if you know good texts that do, ones with actually are based on sensibly controlled experiments that is). Luckily serious psychology books are at the same time full of results about social behavior, benefits from having friends etc. We even have results that for many internet and computer game users, the social plays a very important factor.

It’s sort of common wisdom that games are about fun, maybe we call activities games because we do attribute to them fun in some way or another.

The reason why this is so interesting is because what is “fun” or perceived as being fun, defines game design. Certainly there are different views on this around and I already mentioned Dani Bunten Berry in part #2. Her famous quite epitomizes that the social trumps individual achievement and solitude in her mind.

Game designers like Raph Koster talk about fun, and he refers to a model that he credits to Nicole Lazzaro that categorizes fun into 4 groups. “Hard Fun”, “Soft Fun”, “Altered States” (Raph tends to call this “Visceral Fun”) and the “People Factor” (or Raph’s better term “Social Fun”). Really at least the credit for “Hard Fun” should go to Seymore Papert.

I find this categorization fine enough. Two of them deal with the social in some way:

*) “Altered States” according to Lazzaro can be “[..] the enjoyment from their internal experiences in reaction to the visceral, behavior, cognitive, and social properties”. Lazzaro really does not elaborate about those “social properties”.

*) And of course there is “the People Factor”. Here Lazzaro has more to say about the social:

“Many player comments center on the enjoyment from playing with others inside or outside the game. In addition to buying multiplayer games players structure game experiences to enhance player to player interaction. Participants play games they don’t like so they can spend time with their friends. Wisecracks and rivalries run hot as players compete. Teamwork and camaraderie flourish when they pursue shared goals. Dominant emotions include Amusement, Schadenfreude, and Naches. [..]”

That is fair enough. In practice I think there are two main challenges to these theories as they are set up and elaborates.

First one of those is the theory of emotions, another tricky topic in psychology but certainly more developed (that one you will find in virtually any textbook in some form). The sets of emotions most characteristic to a gaming experiences are described by Lazzaro as these:

*) Fear, surprise, disgust, Naches/ Kvell (pride for the accomplishments of others), Fiero (triumph of overcoming hard obstacles), Schadenfreude (gloating at the misfortune of others), wonder

What is curious about these is that only two are inherently about social emotions: Naches and Schadenfreude, and only one, namely Naches is positive. Even more curious is that most of them circle around achievement (certainly both Naches and Schadenfreude do).

A whole set of emotions or socially relevant feelings or states are missing from the list. Belonging, attachment, altruism, empathy, sympathy, support, affection. All are missing as potential states or parts of enjoyment.

Raph Koster cites Lazzaro’s model when discussing social fun he says: “One of the most fun parts of the game is [..] Schadenfreude, which is to say gloating is one of the most fun parts of games.” That’s the only discussion social fun gets. Raph continues: “Games honestly mostly focus on hard fun”.

So not only is the most important social emotion for Raph Koster (hopefully in jest) a negative one, but the most important type of fun is hard fun that doesn’t actually intrinsically talk about social but about individual challenge. But also Lazzaro sees this similarly when she is cited in the following way: “Video games, for example, fall into the category of what Lazzaro calls “hard fun” — fun that’s both frustrating and challenging. Creating video games isn’t about designing a smooth user experience, she says. Indeed, in a good game, players should fail in what they are trying to do 80 percent of the time.”

(I’m not sure if 80 percent of parents would agree that it’s a great idea that their child fails 80 percent of the time. Certainly Raph likes to emphasize the importance of teaching failure – possibly to a fault – by missing to carve out the important boundary between fun and frustration, and the important boundary of motivation by feeling competent enough to master the next challenge (“flow”) to the disillusion of being not capable to reliably achieve success. But this is an aside, that is didactic more than social.)

That is, at least some game designers overlook the social fun, and the visceral aspect of fun that is social. But I think there is more to this as well. Overcoming challenges is only one aspect of what we as people have to learn. We have to learn how to handle our emotions, how to interact with others, and how to meet our social needs.

This is an important aspect of family gaming that doesn’t fit the all to heavy if not pure challenge model of “hard fun” alone. We play social games not just to gloat and be proud of the achievement of our beloved ones. We also play social games to socially interact, learn about each other, foster social skills, form bonds, explore others in a safe context of an artificial game environment, learn to cooperate, learn to give in, learn to support, learn to empathize, learn to see things from someone else’s perspective, learn to argue with grace, learn to be able to accept that multiple points of view are present, learn to cope with interpersonal frustrations, learn to unwind together. And of course learning to not gloat and be a graceful winner as much as a proud and respectful loser.

A lot of social behaviors are about the ability to not win for the sake of someone else, to forgo competition for the sake of preserving a social bond, to seek activities that are cooperative rather than competitive.

The prevailing problem with family and social gaming may be that a lot of game theorists haven’t understood all aspects of fun and focus on one type only. And by focusing on this one type, exclude the types that matter to many social settings.

The theory of social fun in games seems starved. Social fun is not just gloating over another or having pride that another beat a challenge. It’s having a hearty laugh at an odd game situation, it’s supporting others on challenges they cannot master on their own, it’s making effort that is not rewarded by anything but the gratitude of another.

Some games are “fun” for these social components. People sharing their weird sims story with friends or even jointly playing sims despite the lack of immediate challenge. People hopping around MMORPGs without any points scored or ranks gained, emoting and chatting for long periods of time. Groups of people hanging on team-speak for hours cracking jokes or trying to solve a situation together. Some of the games are fun despite not having been aware of the social needs. People made it fun for themselves despite the game design. However many recent successful games are aware of the social and add social support to the game and cooperative activities. But there are pitfalls when the game itself becomes a barrier. Not so oddly, in SOEs study about RMT at Station Exchange one of the most important reasons to buy was for people trying to overcome separation with others they wanted to play together with.

Above all social fun disappears if you simply cannot do things together.

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1 Response to “Social and Family Gaming #3: Fun and being social”



  1. 1 are you having fun yet? « snippets of cloud Trackback on March 9, 2008 at 1:24 am
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