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May 10, 2013

Dear Reader,

My left arm has been hurting recently from the wrist to the elbow, along what feels like a stress point that exists from resting my hand the way I do when I play video games and have to mash the hotkeys.  Is this the beginning of carpal tunnel?  I took a bit of a break from games to let it settle down, but it still starts to flare up if I play or type for more than a half hour a day or so, and with a ton of portfolio essays and final exam essays to grade, I’m going to be resting my arm like that a lot simply due to work.  I can type okay if I rest my arms like a piano player would, draping my wrist and making a C with my thumb and fingers, but it’s very awkward and, not being a pianist, I can only hold my arm that way for a certain amount of time.  It sucks.  Anyway, that’s on my mind.  Thoughts?

Today’s correspondence, though, is not on that topic.  As we’ve been discussing various social aspects of games recently, such as “community” and “social fabric,” I saw a lot of pushback against the importance of those elements.  The argument I saw most was that a strong community could not make up for a game being inherently un-fun.  Rather than getting into the boggy depths of “What is fun?” (it’s the perfect matching of your level of skill to the game’s challenges until you reach mastery, for the record, but we’re NOT getting bogged down in that), I began to wonder “In what other ways do games try to conceal their lack of fun?”  In other words, “what crutches do un-fun games use?”

Take grinding for example.  It’s not fun.  I’m not criticizing the activity; if you just want to turn your brain off a while and go easily massacre monsters over and over, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not fun.  How do games cover up for that?  I came up with a few ideas to create a base list, but I’m curious what else I may not have thought of.  Here’s where I started:


I tend to agree with the comment that community cannot sustain an inherently un-fun game, but many game developers have certainly tried.  Even WoW, to some extent, has utilized the relationships we form in game, guilds in particular, to sustain long periods of content drought.  During those times, WoW becomes an immersive Facebook.  Using an MMO as a social network was what I was going to discuss the day I ended up talking about Bartle Archetypes as Developing Identities.  The only reason I, and I’m sure some others, too, log on to WoW is to see our old friends.  The game itself isn’t that much fun any more, but we miss our contacts if we stop playing.

Not only the positive aspects of community bind us, but as Green Armadillo voiced in the previous discussion of social fabrics, but negative aspects of community – social obligations – factor in as well.  I don’t think there’s been a single MMO burnout that wasn’t exacerbated by continuing to play due to duty when the player should have stopped and taken a break.

Extrinsic rewards

This is by far the most obvious attempt to sustain long-term interest in simple, un-fun activities.  Grind dailies for rep.  Grind dungeons for gear.  Grind raids for more gear and achievements.  Again, I’m not criticizing the activity, just that I wonder how many players are self-aware enough to realize they’re being manipulated in that way.  The older generation likely is, but what about younger players?

All of those examples refer to MMOs, but the mindless chaos of Xbox FPS games like Call of Duty aren’t much different; they provide rankings and achievements in much the same way.  How much work did people do for “…the Insane?”  Having the title may be a mark of “honor,” but the activities cannot possibly be described as fun.

Habit-forming behaviors

Aligning with the previous one, particularly regarding the idea of younger players, are the habit-forming behaviors that more and more video games are trying to build.  Warframe is a prime example.  Each day you log in, you get a reward.  The more days you log in in a row, the better the reward.  The game is trying to form the habit of logging in with those extrinsic rewards.  I mentioned in our last correspondence that Neverwinter had a few designs like that, too; it offers free rewards each hour that you log in and invoke at a shrine.  It’s a little disgusting, if you think about it, but clearly it’s effective for the free-to-play model.  Sub models do it, too, with dailies and weeklies, and none of us are fully immune.  We want to get as much as we can if we care about progression, so we almost feel “self-obligated,” like we “should be” doing certain activities, and we feel guilty when we do others.  That’s clearly not fun.

Future promise of fun

Another typical MMO tactic is to promise more fun in the future if you get through the un-fun of the early game.  To be fair, WoW only really got bad about this later on; in the start, leveling was as much fun for most of us as we expected the end-game to be, but once you’ve done it on your first or second character, it begins to lose merit.  Clearly the devs agree, as they keep reducing the amount of xp you have to gain and boosting the bonus xp you can get through guild and gear bonuses.

Other games work in a similar fashion, that they “unlock” new fun options as you play.  Warframe is like this; you get new classes through an absurd amount of grinding or paying real money, but you can only play them and thus change up the gameplay a little from the otherwise extremely repetitive FPS model by playing more and more of the extremely repetitive FPS model.  Even with the cash shop available, you cannot play the “Rhino” class until you, the player, is level 2, which takes probably 20 hours of play.  Then, with the new suit, you’d have to repeat the first 20 hours to get it powerful enough to survive the levels you were previously at with your old warframe.  That’s not much fun.


As much as it pains me as an English teacher to admit it, narrative is often a crutch for bad gameplay.  The desire to find out what happens next is an extremely powerful force to most humans.  Curiosity killed the cat, and it can cause a player to plow through a lot of un-fun game mechanics to advance the story.  Old console RPGs – which I loved, to be fair – often allowed you to grind hours and hours to get to secrets that might have a tiny change overall in the story.  Multiple endings are similar to this; often to get the “best” ending requires more work, not necessarily more fun.

So those are the crutches I came up with off the top of my head.  What did I miss?


Stubborn (with a hurt hoof)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2013 9:21 am

    But the most fundamental question is: does every minute of a game have to be fun?

    Leaving MMOs for old school MtG, back in the Revised era, I spent a lot of time looking at cards, deciding what might work in combinations, and ‘playing’ those decks against a set of rigged decks to see if it did meet expectations. Once I was happy with a deck it was time to take it to the hobby shop for some live rounds. Only the last part of that was classically fun, though it all was rewarding. Even in a pen&paper RPG the players are going to do record keeping, updating character sheets, and other bookkeeping that isn’t fun but does enable enjoying the game.

    The question for an MMO is how much of this grunt work is required to get to the fun parts? I have little problem with dailies (until the explosion in Mists), it’s just something you knock-out, sort of like checking email when you get to work in the AM. What the game needs to offer is the next part. You’ve done the chore, now where is the payoff?

    Using this framework I would argue that compelling narrative is a good payoff for getting though content that may not be entertaining but isn’t pull-your-eyes-out boring. The same can be said for community, new gear, or achievements. Everyone has something that will motivate them to work through difficulties. This goes with another line of thought you have explored – why are MMOs becoming so simple? Where is the accomplishment? I would argue that if a game tries to be just the fun part you will never get to that sense of triumph and that is the fundamental flaw of LFR. To engage as many people as possible Blizzard has ratcheted down the difficulty to the point that it starts to feel meaningless. What should be a fun activity, raiding, becomes a mildly enjoyable or annoying (depending on group) chore.

    • May 14, 2013 4:47 pm

      Clearly not; WoW and every other MMO has proven this over and over. But I’d follow that up by asking, “Why shouldn’t it be?” In a purely voluntary activity, is there a reason we shouldn’t be striving for fun? That doesn’t mean total success; failure, when done properly, can be fun. It doesn’t mean total leisure, either; stressful situations can be fun, too, when adjusted to the proper level of difficulty. I don’t really see a reason we shouldn’t expect our games to provide fun for the entirety of the gameplay experience.

      Your P&P RPG example furthers my point. I refuse to do all that bookkeeping (triple double letters ftw). I made sure to streamline all that kind of nonsense that sapped teh fun away. I’d also argue that some of those examples – like updating your character sheet – are actually fun. Looking and planning and deciding what you want are interesting decisions that can be really engaging as you postulate through the various outcomes.

      So while I completely see your point about the fact that not 100% of game time for most games is fun, I’d simply counter by saying that I think it could be, and even if 100% isn’t achievable, we can certainly do better than many games are doing.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Beshara permalink
    May 10, 2013 10:04 am

    It is a possibility that what you are experiencing is carpal tunnel. I tend to have issues with my left wrist if I play too much too often, since i also use the computer a lot at work. I don’t get pain, but it gets very uncomfortable. I have to use a wrist brace to help fix it. Getting a brace might help, if you don’t want to see a doctor right away. The one I use is a medical brace similar to a heavy duty bowler’s brace. I got it from my doctor years ago when it first started happening. It has metal that extends from the bottom of your wrist to the palm of the hand and keeps the wrist straight. Makes typing awkward when you can’t position your wrist like usual, but for me it keeps me from developing worse problems.

    • May 14, 2013 4:47 pm

      I left it alone and took it easy for a few days and it went away, but if it comes back and won’t disappear, I’ll certainly look into getting a brace like you described. Thank you!

  3. May 10, 2013 11:49 am

    Despite how a recent post of mine might come across, I actually feel like a group of friends can make a bad game fun. But friends can always do that, so it’s really not a point in that particular game’s favor. In which case, it’d be in everyone’s best interest to move their friends over to a game that is legitimately fun, especially since you might not be able to play with your friends all the time.

    Your example of building M:tG decks and Syncaine’s example of painting Warhammer figurines are, IMO, arguments in favor of the “100% fun games” position. Conservatively, I probably spent 10 hours on a given Magic deck for every 1 hour of actually card-playing. And I loved it! It was not a chore to think through all the possible card interactions, or to play sample games to make sure I could reliably get smooth land draws. It was a part of the entertainment. I spent similarly “absurd” amounts of time prepping for my D&D sessions. Would I have done either if I never got to play a game, e.g. experienced the pay-off? No. But the payoff allowed me the mental space to complete what felt like (and therefor was in truth) fun actions.

    I don’t find dailies particularly fun, but the physical act of pushing buttons in WoW created its own sense of euphoria. After a while though, it just wasn’t enough for me because the pay-off wasn’t there. “Great, I’m Exalted. Now what? More 60+ minute LFR queues? No thanks.”

    • May 10, 2013 12:47 pm

      That’s rather my point. If you frame this as most MMO forum-goers do the only fun part of the game is raiding, or Arena or some other capstone activity. The rest of the game is drudgery to be endured because the game developer is so money-hungry that they include these things to make people subscribe longer.

      I also enjoyed the ‘out of game’ parts of an RPG or MtG – but they weren’t the reason to play. It’s all scale. I’m an old geek and I also like painting miniatures, but I’m not a modeler. For me that was something that I did, that could be interesting and challenging, but the fun was (probably losing) a game of 40K.

      This probably boils-down to your concept of enjoyment. I personally don’t think that a game has to be 100% maximal fun, in fact I’d argue that you can never support that model.

    • May 15, 2013 9:41 am

      I understand what you mean. I’ve slogged through a few real dogs simply because my buddy and I were playing together, making jokes about how bad it was throughout (Two Worlds 2 comes to mind). I also agree it’s better to move on, but sometimes you’ve moved through what’s available (in your price range) and have to just make do. Luckily, there’ve been a few good co-op games that have come out recently that I’m looking forward to.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Samus permalink
    May 10, 2013 3:45 pm

    The big one I feel you missed is probably the most lame, virtual “status.” I think this is the crutch used most by “hardcore” games like Darkfall and EVE to pretend other players “just couldn’t hack it.” But I think you can still see this in games like WoW where players like to show off their “l33t g34r” or rare mount by the AH. The point is for the game to make you feel somehow “better” than other players. (Or perhaps also, to make you feel somehow “inferior” and that you need to catch up.)

    • May 11, 2013 4:08 pm

      Status is part of the achievement of the game. I think it’s all in personal perspective though. I don’t begrudge folks who got all the l33t g3arz through hard work. I still have fun running around on my non elite mounts…through years of playing I have yet to get a dragon as I just dont feel the need for one lol. It can be a crutch though for a given game if that’s all they rely on.

      What I see in WoW, compared to a few other MMO’s is a diversity of playstyles you can entertain. It’s your 15 bucks and Blizz offers enough stuff to do that you don’t have to be linear in your gameplay. Now, when I played Age of Conan, it’s hugest crutch honestly was the epic level of graphics. Sounds odd right? Not when you consider they haven’t added meaningful content in both PvE and PVP in years. They then ply you with a ton of pretty cosmetic stuff you can buy from thier online store, instead of actually working on getting updated content on a consistant basis.

      I know a lot fo people have gripes about the mmo industry, WoW in particular, but really for such an aging game it has the most to offer. While I would love to see better graphics and less gear reliance it still has a ton of stuff to do. Oh and they are starting to cap out on stats in BGs at the end game which is a step in the right direction.

      In the end, it is as rimecat mentioned, perception of what is enjoyable. I still get a kick out of crafting and selling stuff. Ehh well, just my 2 copper.

    • May 15, 2013 9:43 am

      Yeah, you’re right. That’s a marketing angle, to be sure, but it’s certainly something that would motivate someone to keep drudging along in a game that was punishingly unfun. I think hardcore raiding is along the same lines – you do all the miserable chores so you can down those painfully difficult bosses so you can say you did. I can appreciate that, too, since I was there once, but I think that motivation circuit in my brain just broke after about a year of it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. May 17, 2013 2:10 pm

    I quit WoW because I got tired of the forced daily quests and even raid lockouts. Being a subscription game, maybe it’s something they have to do, but I can’t stand being forced to login each day to do dailies lest I get left behind friends and guildies. My free time is sporadic. Some days I can put a huge chunk of time in while others I can’t play at all, but I’m punished because dailies have to be done on a day to day basis. I’m fine with it taking 100 hours to get a rep to Exalted, but let me split up those 100 hours however I like. Don’t force me to do 2 hours a day. Let me skip 3 days and do 6 hours all in one day.

    I think I’m just turned off the whole thing now. I don’t play any MMOs anymore. I just feel there are so many good non-MMO games, both single player and online, I don’t feel the need to play MMOs anymore. I’m always on the look out for new MMOs though, just in case a new one comes out with less artifical stuff like this. I’m not sure if my preferences would be profitable with any business model though.


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