(This had been in my notes backlog for a while - might as well post it now since it also relates to the whole writing-about-stories kick I've been on (or rather Fr. Stephen's been on
and I'm just following him).)
Given a sufficiently large number of people, whenever theories about what makes a good game are discussed, you're sure to run into some ignorant hack who will proudly declare, "I know! A game is good because it is Fun!" and act like he's found some perfect insight that would blow away everything. It shows a contempt not even worthy of being called obscurantist, but it does invite a certain reality check: your theory of what makes a game good must address the preferences of those who are wholly ignorant of your theory
, or what you are doing is groundless and pretentious (in the sense of pretending to things it lacks the authority for).
Between the Skinner box approach, the feminist critiques and my own buying/modding habits, I think I've boiled down to the following that a game must do:
If your game does all three, and they do them in a way that does not offend the player, that player would probably think your game is "fun" on some level.
Engagement is simple enough: the game must provide some kind of stimulus-response-"reward" interaction with the player's input that gets dopamine running. It does not matter if any pleasure is involved (though pleasure may be necessary to get the player started): rage, self-righteous zeal and simple "need" to keep going are all sufficient.
Emulation generally takes the lion's share of the work and is the most likely one to be noticed at the game-buying stage. This may
include the game's world-setting and story, as the word may suggest, but participation in a fictional world is not necessary. Emulation may also include the social context of the intended player: whether in collaboration or competition, with friends or strangers, in person or online, whether the game should be a "safe space" for any given identity group. In other words, it is everything in a given game that draws the player into participating in a given narrative or social arena, be it the study of a living ecosystem, glory in combat
, or (ostensibly) happy competition with family and friends at a gathering.
Edification has seen a resurgence in discussion in recent years, mostly for negative reasons. Whether any explicit thought is put into it, an activity that sets up a behavioural reward system within the context of getting a reader to participate in a specific narrative of human conduct by definition must be drilling some
moral or ethical message into that reader's mind, in a way that is much more easy to implicitly accept - or, rather, much more onerous and unrewarding not to accept ("win the game" as opposed to "type in some cheat codes and fuck around for hours in places the player was never meant to go") - than in a book ("read the book" as opposed to "read the book and scribble long notes in the margins and between the lines with a fine red pen detailing every reason why you think the author is full of shit").
As far as appeal and getting people to play goes, I suppose edification can be subsumed into emulation. Or perhaps emulation is too broad to be a useful category and edification too narrow. I will revise once I get another alliterating trio.