The Anatomy of Fun

Teaching/mentoring part-time at a game college is an interesting gig, to say the least. I have complete freedom when it comes to curriculum-with the result that I’ve put together lectures based on what I’ve learned. You’d be surprised at what you end up learning about a subject when you need to teach it. Teaching means that I have to prepare, which in turn involves reading, analysis and ‘research’, which mostly means that I have to take out time to keep track of what new and interesting games are out there.

To analyze a game, I break it up into it’s components, and I’m not speaking as a designer here but as a player. Why was that particular game fun but not that other one? Players are individuals with differing personalities and preferences, and everyone’s idea of fun will be slightly different; but is there a ‘kind of fun’ that turns specific players on? I think there is.

In the beginning of each course, I teach students the Four Fundamental Categories of Play, as explained by Roger Callois in his 1961 book Man, Play and Games or as I like to call them the




Competitive play, the expression of skill. A game where the player’s hand-eye coordination, balance or even mental prowess is all that matters. A first-person shooter would be almost purely Agonistic. So would Chess. Statistically a male-dominated trait, this taps into the primal Alpha instinct of getting ahead by force. Most games have a reasonable dose of Agon, casual games admittedly less so. Some examples of Agon-dominated games:



Super Meat Boy

The game we were making would definitely be skill-based.


Chance-based play, the play of luck. Snakes and Ladders would be an example of a game that is won or lost purely on the basis of chance. The slot machine, if you could call it a game, would be a purely Aleatory game. Many games seem to be biased towards luck, such as the draw of cards at Poker or Teen Patti, or even the roll of dice in a board game like  Settlers of Catan- but one finds that luck can take you only so far, and a skilled player always beats the lucky one because luck runs out, skill and experience adds up. Here’s a video of a slots game for iOS:

Slots Casino 

I wanted to incorporate some degree of luck into the game as well.


Role-playing, make-believe. The player(s) enters the Magic Circle, the game universe. Mary the pastry chef is now Meradeth, the Half-Elf leading a formidable troupe of legendary warriors. Mimicry affords players release from their lives and environment; if one can craft one’s own character-so much the better! It is the fiction that leads the way, that makes the player identify with her/his character and immerses the player in the game. Here are some Mimicry-heavy games:

Fable III

Grand Theft Auto V (Warning: bad language!)

We had a game mechanic, now we needed to weave a fiction and create a world around it.


This is the physical sensation of vertigo. If you’ve ever been on a roller coaster or any kind of amusement park ride, this is the kind of fun you’re paying for. It’s what makes a racing game fun, that maintenance of delicate control in a world rushing past at high speed. This kind of Fun comes from moving really fast in real life, or in a game world. Here are a few examples:


Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit


It is said that to realize the world one has to realize the self :).

I’ve been analyzing myself as a player to figure out what I like and why, because as a game-maker I need to understand the player for whom I am creating a game.

I (and I realized this while I was thinking about, and writing, this post) am something of a skill-grinder. If I like a game, however hard it is, I will do whatever it takes to get better at it. I’ll die a million miserable deaths but will respawn each time and play that level again just for the pleasure of improving-my hand-eye coordination and figuring out the perfect timing and position for that jump. How it looks matters only up to a point.

I’ve tried (hard) to get ‘into’ RPGs, but nah. Role-playing games, mimicry-heavy with customizable multidimensional characters, beautiful and immersive environments and a strong narrative….nope. Try as I can, I can’t buy into the fantasy or really get involved with the story or character. I don’t really enjoy exploring gorgeous game worlds either.

I’m no gambler, either. At cards, I prefer the deviousness of Bluff (Cheat) to the chance and bluster of Teen Patti.  The last time I went to a casino was in Vancouver. I played the slots for a while, lost twenty bucks and fell asleep on a couch.

I really really like roller-coasters. At Disneyland, I did the Indiana Jones (Backwards!!) ride two times back-to back, and during my fourteen years in the merchant marine I was never seasick.

That makes me an Agon-Illinx type of guy/gamer. There you go.

So what now? Well, I thought I’d make a game for my kind of gamer. Heavy on the skill and vertigo, and light on luck and story. This seemed logical, as my target demographic would be very close to my own tastes.