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The Escapist Bulletin: What’s fun got to do with it?
How Jenova Chen and Denis Dyack upset the masses
Product: The Escapist Bulletin | Format: DS, DSi, PSP
The Escapist Bulletin Multiformat, thumbnail 1
Denis Dyack thinks very highly of what he does. Indeed, he thinks very highly of the industry he’s in. This week he called video games the ‘Eighth Art’, referring to the work of Ricciotto Canudo, an Italian film theoretician who added Dance and Cinema to the five ancient arts of architecture, scultpure, painting, music and poetry, calling them the sixth and seventh arts respectively.

That wouldn’t be so bad, except he also said that said that “gameplay isn’t everything” and in doing so he opened himself up to a storm of scorn and derision, as gamers around the world pointed out that a game with no gameplay is no game at all. They were ignoring the point that Dyack was actually making, which is that there is more to a successful game than gameplay alone

Not long after that Jenova Chen of flOw and Flower said that during the creation of Flower he had removed more traditional gameplay elements, which ostensibly made the game more ‘fun’ but interfered with the emotional experience that the game was supposed to convey.

Once again the reaction was visceral, and again it missed the point that Chen wanted to make something different from the other games available on the PlayStation Network, saying that he didn’t want games to become toys. But all that gamers saw were the words ‘less fun’ and that was that. Chen was crazy and had no business designing games if he wasn’t going to make them fun.

Most gamers have the attitude that the state that gaming is in now is the way it should always be, and by demanding that games always be ‘fun’ - a nebulous concept if ever there was one - they limit the medium in a way that seems wholly unique.

The word ‘game’ is the stumbling point. Is it really a useful label, or an impediment to a burgeoning art form? ‘Game’ creates the wrong expectations because the word is practically synonymous with ‘fun’ and conjures up images of throwaway diversions, something to pleasantly pass the time, with no real need to invest anything of yourself into it.

It’s a shame that no substitute name immediately springs to mind, because it seems ludicrous that a single word could have such an impact on an audience. Even developers aren’t immune, despite countless examples from other media that a work does not have to be fun to be engaging.

Film and literature are littered with examples of utterly engaging works that that you’d struggle to describe as ‘fun’ in any way, and while games are clearly inspired by such works, far too few have learnt the most important lesson: that as long as a game is engaging, it doesn’t have to be ‘fun’

While there's nothing wrong with a game that you play just for fun, but that isn’t the only way games can be. The question of whether or not games are art is one that comes up often, but it’s pretty safe to say that if we get hung up on the word ‘game’, the games that we play aren’t going to be art: they’re going to be Monopoly with a controller and, as Jenova Chen put it, “our industry will flat line”.

The Escapist is the internet's leading source of intelligent writing on the subject of video games.

The Escapist 25 July 2009
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