In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster proposes that the experience of fun found within video games “arises out of mastery” (40). For Koster, the euphoric sensation of fun—that makes gaming so addicting—comes to us “out of comprehension” or “the act of solving puzzles” (40). Analyzing the etymology of “fun,” Koster identifies that it “comes either from ‘fonne,’ which is ‘fool’ in Middle english, or from ‘fonn,’ which means ‘pleasure’ in Gaelic” (40). Both of these etymological origins create the definition of fun “as ‘a source of enjoyment’” (40). As we solve challenges and puzzles within the game-space, we feel euphoric pleasure, which arises from “the release of endorphins into our system” (40). The subtle endorphic rush of problem solving creates this sensation of fun, and, hence, a failure to solve problems adequately or successfully deprives us of this euphoria.
In practice, playing Super Meat Boy over the last two weeks was an overall fun experience, but what really intrigued me about my experience journaling my play-time was the lack of fun that I sometimes experienced.
Starting with the fun that I experienced as I played Super Meat Boy, the most fun I experienced was when I was “getting it.” Having never played Super Meat Boy prior to this gaming assignment, I was entertained by the aesthetics and the quirky narrative that had been overlayed upon the fundamental mechanics of game design. In one of my first posts, I remark that was immediately entertained by the title screen, which displayed the beaten face of Meat Boy, stretched across the start menu. Team Meat worked hard to capture the attention of the gamer before the “fun” even started, tactfully including a grungy, rock soundtrack and some pretty squishy, meaty sound effects as you move throughout the menu.
As I started to play the game, platforming became easy, and there wasn’t much in the way of explicit challenge. As Koster points out in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “boredom is the opposite” of fun, and this occurs when “a game stops teaching us,” when we are no longer learning and we realize “there are no new patterns to absorb” (42). While I was at risk of trivializing the game, the game drew me in with more challenge. As I got to Stage 10 of Chapter 1, I was finally challenged with the addition of dirt barricades. In my first few trials, I slid against the dirt walls that prevented my path towards the damsel in distress, quickly realizing that the dirt crumbled as I slid against it. This stage added a new mechanic which additionally created a new puzzle that was easily overcome, yet—as I progressed—the game used this new mechanic to increase challenge.
Stage 20 of the first chapter provided a great example of a puzzling challenge that actually created “fun” experience. Using my knowledge that I had gained as I progressed through the prior stages, I deconstructed stage 20, realizing that there were two dirt walls that prevented my passage which had to be crumbled consecutively before I could reach the completion of the level. This stage united all of the factors which had been introduced in the level: timing, jumping, and mechanical awareness. After some effort, I grasped my task: scaling the left side of the stage while avoiding the falling blades, wall riding against the first dirt wall to reveal the second, timing my sliding against the final dirt barricade, and narrowly making to the far side where the rest of the stage was trivial.
This stage represented Koster’s idea of fun brilliantly, as Team Meat created a learning curve which simply built upon the puzzles that had been solved in the prior stages, utilizing mechanics that I had already been forced to encounter and overcome. Hence, this was a truly fun experience, identifying the solution to the problem and getting the sweet reward of the adrenaline rush upon completing the stage. Although this was an incredibly rewarding experience in my first week of playing the game, the rest of my play experience revealed unexpected challenges.
On stage 8 of chapter 2, I accidentally fell into a warp zone which teleported me to a completely new stage. On this stage, I was placed into a stage covered in spikes with a character that was completely unfamiliar. Using my knowledge acquired from playing with Meat Boy, I try to sprint jump over the spikes to my right and strafe to my left in order to reach a safety platform; I try this for 10 or so minutes straight. At some point, I figure I must be doing something wrong, so I begin to play with my controls, intuiting that something must be different with this character in order to beat the level. As I spam the spacebar, I realize that this new character can jump in mid-air continuously. Frustrated, I continue to try to complete the level. Eventually, after much stress and a tinge of gamer-rage, I finally complete the level, only to find that I can now play as this new character in the stages instead of Meat Boy.
Using Koster’s theory of fun, I was not having “fun” because I was not learning how to complete the challenge that the game placed in front of me, thereby reaching boredom, or boredom punctuated by frustration and anxiety. I attribute this blockage in learning to one of Koster’s ideas of boredom, where he says “the game might also unveil the variations too quickly, which then leads to the players losing control of the pattern and giving up because it looks like noise again” (44). Because I was not expecting the abrupt change in controls (knowledge which would have aided me in completing the level), I grew tired of the game and quickly stopped playing after I completed that stage. This problem might have been easily solved with a brief tutorial, or an incremental hike in difficulty after a few stages. The beautiful curve which Team Meat had constructed up until this point had been discarded, and I was left to gleam the knowledge all on my own: a picturesque example of boredom, antithetical to any form of fun.
While I will say playing Meat Boy was an overall fun experience, the moments of frustration clearly highlighted the areas where Team Meat’s game design was lacking, where difficulty overtook my tolerance or patience for learning, completely undermining what Koster defines as the “fun” which is to be found in gaming as an as a source of biological and emotional pleasure.
Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, 2005. Internet resource.