The Fun Killer

I was prompted with the question “Have I ever felt excluded by the design of a game?” It’s a notion I’d never considered before. I had to think about it for a couple seconds. “Well, I have to take my glasses off to play Steam’s VR…” but after turning to my girlfriend she scoffed and gave me an adamant “No!?” I’ve never been excluded by the design of a game. In fact, I think quite the opposite is true.

Since the industry emerged in the 80s it’s always been dominated by -and catered to- white male power fantasies. White males like me. From Atari’s Nolan Bushnell, who talked about how he made games for his fellow (straight, white, male) computer scientist friends would enjoy, to former SEGA, Xbox and now Electronic Arts CEO Peter Moore who regularly talks about how he made sure that the platforms he worked on always appealed to that 13-25 male demographic. Video games have always been made by men for men, specifically straight white men.

While the story has certainly changed a little for the better in recent years thanks to a growing indie scene and diversity initiatives from notable organisations like the IGDA, it’s still very much a man’s game. Just take a look at the AAA games that came out this fall. We have Infinite WarfareBattlefield 1Titanfall 2Hitman and Final Fantasy XV to name a few. What do all of these games have in common? They all star white males, on their box art, as the main character (or entire cast in Final Fantasy XV‘s case) and as the focus of their promotional material. The story has been the same for decades and would have stayed the same if game development had not become more accessible. It would have remained behind the giant locked door of sausage parties like Bethesda, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and countless other massive game studios battling for that coveted 13-25 male demographic.

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But I digress… for this response, I read Chapter 11 of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop. This chapter, entitled “Fun and Accessibility,” discussed the various parts of a game’s design that might cause the player to stop having fun or deter a player from enjoying the game. It discussed the types of choices the players make in a game and how to make them interesting, how to make progress feel earned and how to surprise the player when they might be getting bored with the current level of difficulty or story or whathaveyou.

The chapter also discussed what Fullerton described as “Fun Killers” like micromanagement, stagnation, predictability and arbitrary paths. I have absolutely encountered all of these in games I’ve played over the years and such design. There was a hacking mini-game in the original BioShock that if the player didn’t have certain tonics equipped was actually impossible. You would try to hack something and discover you couldn’t and lose a bunch of health, especially on the tougher difficulties where higher damage is received. This is an example of game design that pushes the player to the point of frustration and in some cases, I stepped away from the game for a while.

Other times I have found myself frustrated with a game but it’s to no fault of that game, but rather myself as a player for not recognising which types of games I don’t enjoy. Take Agricola for example. The level of micromanagement and strategy and overall skill that the player needs to have to succeed at that game gives me anxiety. I played one game of Agricola before realising that it was not for me. I totally get why someone who loves all of those mechanisms and wants to get involved on that level would adore Agricola but I am not that person.

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So while I would argue a game has never excluded me, games have definitely employed Fullerton’s “Fun Killers” in a way that pushed me away from the experience.

Published by Stephan N. Reilly

Freelance writer and designer.

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