At some point designers should know why people like to play games. Yet if anyone truly knew this, he or she would become rich as a consultant.
No one can exactly describe why people like to play games, though many have tried. If an author can spend 80 pages just trying to define what a game is (Rules of Play), how likely are we to define why games are enjoyable? Entire books have been written about this subject -- in this article, I summarize the less philosophical reasons people have suggested, and add some from my own experience.
Game designers make their best judgments about why people like to play, and then design accordingly. Yet there are many examples of software entertainment that surprise most experts. Why is The Sims so enjoyable for so many people, or Katamari Damacy? In the end, a simple answer to this question is "What matters is what happens when a large and diverse set of people play test your game."
No matter what you think about enjoyment of games, no matter whether you enjoy your game, the play test reflects the reaction of a wide variety of players. If enough of them like it, you probably have something worthwhile. If not enough of them like it, you need to change it.
Unfortunately, in the video game world it costs so much time and money to get to the point of playing the game that we really need all the help we can get while doing the preliminary design. A practical discussion of why people enjoy playing games is therefore a worthwhile endeavor.
Notice I haven't used the word "fun" -- that's because many people who enjoy playing games would not call them fun. Take chess as an example. It can be interesting, even fascinating, but many chess players do not describe it as fun.
"Fun" usually comes from external factors, from the attitudes of the people you play with and the environment, not from the game itself. People can laugh and shout and have a good time when playing an epic board game, even though most wouldn't describe the game itself as fun.
There are certainly games meant to be "funny," but not every gamer enjoys playing a funny game. Some think they're silly and boring.
What is Enjoyable?
Some authors have made lists of the kinds of enjoyment people can have while playing games. Such lists are useful to remind us of the details of enjoyable gaming.
sensation -- game as sense-pleasure
fantasy -- game as make-believe
narrative -- game as unfolding story
challenge -- game as obstacle course
fellowship -- game as social framework
discovery -- game as uncharted territory
expression -- game as soap box
submission -- game as mindless pastime
At Origins Game Fair 2008, Ian Schreiber (co-author of Challenges for Game Designers) gave his version of kinds of fun (enjoyment):
collection (collecting things)
Ask a group of game players to list ways that people enjoy games, and many of the above will come up in one form or another.
Raph Koster (in A Theory of Fun for Game Design) has brought to our attention research by Mihaly Csikszentmikalyiinto "optimal experience." The Chicago-based Czech researcher applies his ideas to life as a whole, in a series of books, but we can apply them to games. Csikszentmikalyi is interested in "the positive aspects of human experience -- joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow" [Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi].
For game purposes it amounts to this: People have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much. In other words, if something is too easy, it becomes boring. If it's too hard, it becomes frustrating and causes anxiety. The ideal game experience, then, is to challenge the player at whatever ability level he has reached, that is, keep increasing the challenges as the player becomes a better player. This keeps players "in the flow" (see the diagram).
Video games can be particularly good at managing the level of challenge, either through adaptive programming, via the difficulty setting, or through increasingly difficult levels in games that use levels. In non-electronic games, the level of challenge tends to change because your opponents tend to become better players just as you do, or you find better players to play against. In a non-electronic role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, the referee (Dungeon Master) manages the challenge. Novice characters don't meet fire giants but often encounter orcs, while very powerful characters may occasionally go up against an ancient and terrible dragon, but orcs aren't worth bothering with. This is in some sense artificial, but it makes the game more enjoyable.
Enjoyable to Some, Yet Not to Others
While these schemes and categories are all useful ways to think about games, I think game enjoyment often involves spectra of factors, with some people at one end, others at the other end, and the majority somewhere in the middle. Many of these spectra overlap, or are different views of what may be a more fundamental factor.
Here's a list of some of the factors (certainly not definitive) that I'll discuss:
role-fulfillment vs. emergence (story dominant vs. rules dominant)
story/narrative vs. what happens next/emerging circumstances
classical vs. romantic
long-term planning vs. reaction/adaptation to changing circumstances
socializing vs. competition
entertainment vs. challenge
fantasy/relaxation vs. urge to excel ("gaming mastery")