Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

Just watched an interesting video of Nicole Lazzaro speaking about her excellent research and insights into how game players experience emotions (her most cited work identifies and explains the multitude of human emotions that most people just lump together as “fun”).

Why Lazzaro’s Theory of Fun Is Useful

Lazzaro’s work is comprehensive and she thinks outside the box of the mainstream video game industry.

Her insight goes far beyond just making a game fun for the sake of fun. Unlike design professionals in every other industry, such as architects and productivity software designers, game designers sometimes resent having to design games that produce other measurable, quantifiable outcomes besides fun. Creating a functional building, working within end-user specifications and other design constraints is essentially what an architect is paid and expected to do but there are obviously major perks for architects that also create enjoyable, livable, beautiful spaces too. The aesthetic component is there, as with website design, but the practical constraints really define the design challenge. It’s the same in a marketing game or gameified application trying to achieve outcomes above and beyond a good time for the player.

When the game has to serve a purpose beyond simply being fun to play, I think it’s best to look to designers like Lazzaro for insight rather than to the mainstream video game industry right now. Studying Grand Theft Auto or the intricacies of a good tower defense game WILL NOT help you develop a great social media title that engages your customers with your brand. Studying how and why players experience fun, engagement, and motivation while gaming WILL help you.

Her understanding of fun is rooted in the observable experience of gaming, playing, and engagement. Sure, she looks at mainstream video games, but the important difference for me is that she also looks beyond and synthesizes a lot of other relevant observations. Her theory of fun is not a personal manifesto justifying how one person likes to design games, nor is it a dissection of “best-selling” video games to see which mechanics were popular among the self-selecting group that played those games (the latter is particularly unhelpful for the broader application of game mechanics outside of traditional video games because there have been very few video game hits that sold enough to even be regarded as popular in the realm of popular media like top box office movies, best-selling books, or high-rated television).

Lazzaro Offers Actionable Insights for Experience Design

Lazzaro’s work is honest-to-goodness research and insight on the experience of fun, coupled with actionable insights on how designers can better delight, engage, and motivate people. If I could attend a game design workshop or Q&A with anyone in game design today, I’d probably pick Lazzaro or McGonigal because they 100% get the big picture of play and the myriad of game forms that exist (and will evolve in the future).

One specific, actionable idea is how Lazzaro presents player emotion as a palette of colors the experience designer can use to paint entertainment, engagement and motivation onto a process, product, or interface design. I would love to see an infographic like this for marketing games, to help marketers match verbs, emotions, and desired outcomes with types of play we can engender with game mechanics.

I particularly like her holistic look at fun (acknowledging the important role of frustration and other prerequisite distressing emotions that also contribute to engaging entertainment experiences, such as the fear of a terrifying horror game or the bittersweet sadness when we lose or a character we like is harmed). Lazzaro’s work seems to be as close as we currently have to a “universal theory of fun” for practical applications.

Other Game Design Theories Don’t Gel with Play as Work

If you’re looking at play as work, you’re not talking about gaming as an art form anymore. Unless you think going to work every day is a form of performance art, I think the kind of gaming we are seeing with Foursquare, frequent flyer programs, and blackjack are more about real world pay offs and entertainment more than they are about art. Some games are definitely, unquestionably, art. However, just as some written works are art, there are many other types of writing that do not function in an artistic context at all.

A lot of the big-name guys in game design seems to focus more on specific types of fun, such as learning and mastery (hard fun, fiero) without a balanced look at all the other ways people like to play. There is even a persistent effort to conceptually separate “real games” from software toys or other kinds of game-rule constrained or mediated play. And the result is often game design discussions focused on the types of complex nuanced game systems that most people don’t enjoy playing (casinos have more slot machines than blackjack tables for a reason). One of the narrower definitions of gaming ever bandied about as gospel is this one by Greg Costikyan:

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.

That’s a good definition for some types of games, but it isn’t comprehensive enough to be accurate (what’s the goal in Nintendogs? what are the game tokens in a game of tag? how is rock, paper, scissors artwork?) and it completely misses the point of why we play or why games are enjoyable.

Dungeons & Dragons is clearly a game with players making decisions to manage resources through game tokens in pursuit of game-designer defined goals (mainly to “level up” and develop the characters), but everything that makes the game fun and engaging (including the primary goals pursued) comes from outside the base rule system of the game. The player goals (including the goals of the DM, who is essentially a player of the D&D game system too) and actual gameplay in D&D more closely resembles an hour with a sandbox game like The Sims than a round of Chess which has a definitive, predefined static goal for every player.

Even the rule systems of D&D themselves are collaboratively created by the game designers and the players (particularly the DM player) to create house rules and unique interpretations of how complex rules interact. What Lazzaro calls “easy fun” abounds in a game of D&D, but many game designers would focus only on the “hard fun” parts of the game design: the rule book, the reference tables, and the quantifiable stat (points, levels) and badge (items, gear, story hooks) rewards (and a bit on the setting and aesthetic window-dressing) rather than the more salient components of the game that actually make it fun for the DM and the other players. The social fun, and the curiosity of what will happen next is at least as important as the combat resolution rule system. Hell, the biggest part of what has made D&D a successful game is that it provides a great opportunity for the DM player to tell a story and explore their game design skills with willing players in a social setting (a combination of social fun and serious fun). The designers of D&D weren’t experts in player emotion though they sure developed an enduring and influential game franchise.

Like most successful games of the past, D&D designers were simply committed to play testing until they found the right game rules to make the experience fun. This made game development a bit risky, like trying to write a best-selling novel and reiterate on reviewer feedback before you published. You could do your best, but the market ultimately decided if your game was fun. For people who are in the business of providing value besides fun, the risk and expense of trying to develop a fun game using trial and error alone is not the most attractive proposition (hence we see a lot of me-too, copy-cat game design in marketing games because a familiar game design that is well-liked already may reduce the risk of market rejection).

Marketing games and play-as-work projects need to have a much more robust understanding at the outset of what specific kinds of fun they are targeting. It’s not enough to just target “fun” when fun obviously has so many different facets and experiential qualities. Your new Android app might live or die by its ability to get fun right on its first release (how many people reinstall a rejected app to see if it “got better in the next version”?). In fact, your product’s particular flavor of fun will limit the market it attracts and retains. You might create a game that IS fun… for 40% of your customers. Not an epic fail, but how do you go about making it more fun? How do you know what types of fun you are not delivering without a much more detailed vocabulary about the component emotions of fun?

Lazzaro’s Theory of Fun Is about Outcomes

That’s why Lazarro’s theory of fun, focused on experiential emotion rather than the game mechanics themselves, is extremely useful when you’re trying to make games that provide real world outcomes and value above and beyond fun.

In all fields of design, a focus on the outcomes you want, not the tools or design philosophy you like to use, will lead to better designs. And in experience design, user emotion targeting is really more important than creating a “good” game by traditional game design standards. Foursquare is not going to win any game design awards, but damn if they aren’t successful in their niche right now.

Do you think about the full spectrum of fun when you design user experiences? Do you spend as much time thinking about player emotions as you spend on the game mechanic and rule design? Leave a Comment

3 thoughts on “Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

  1. hmm. i’m an ID and like what u say, tho i only just flicked thru it before sleep. will read at work tomorrow on the big screen. ty4 sharing!

  2. How do we differentiate if a particular computer Flash Game is of the “Hard Fun”, “Easy Fun”, “Fiero” category. Does the player define the game as “hard fun” if he wants to achieve a particular score or beat his opponent, or does the player categorize the same game to be “easy fun” if he wants to explore the game. Do I understand that the category of the game should be defined first by the player,, depending on his/her aim.
    Please advise

    1. Great questions, Bob. I think the player is the one who ultimately decides what type of fun they are having (many games offer the opportunity to play it differently depending what your goals, mood and play style are in a given play session). However, game designers have to understand how to create opportunities for different types of fun, and the proper application of one type of fun or another (or providing a variety of fun choices) is particularly important when your game has performance marketing or monetization goals (if you need to motivate specific actions more than others for reasons beyond entertainment value).

      So, initially the designers are trying to make a game that affords players interesting choices, all of which are hopefully fun in some way, and then it’s up to the players to choose what kind of fun they want to have. For example, most successful MMO games have challenges that are very easy (socialize, drink 30 different beverages, explore a new location), moderate challenges (normal or below-level questing, battlegrounds when you’re at the top level of your bracket and have decent pvp gear, etc.), and very hard challenges (complex top-level raids, pvp ranked arena play (especially when you’re not in top pvp gear yet), completionist achievements that take large amounts of time and patience to grind). Other games are very focused on one particular type of fun.

      However, the player can ultimately play however they like, regardless of the designer intent. A good example is fighting games like Soul Calibur where a skilled player is engaged at a strategic level and a novice is just button-mashing frantically. Both people are having fun using the same mechanics, but the button-masher is not intellectually engaged or challenged in the same way that the novice is (and even with the experiential difference there, you still might have a novice who feels the experience is hard fun because they are frantically trying to make a combo trigger by chance, and the skilled player might feel this is easy fun even though they are thinking through each move simply because their opponent isn’t putting up a good fight).

      So there is not one main way to categorize fun, but every designer will have their own intentions for the type of experiences they are trying to create. If you’re talking about the design/development phase before play testing, then it’s the designer deciding, but if you’re talking about the play test period forward, I think the player response is more definitive of the actual game experience and the way the designer plays or wanted the game played becomes just one perspective of many. No doubt many games have taken on all kinds of play styles that the designers didn’t specifically anticipate, especially in dynamic and open-ended game systems (The Sims 3 is a great example as it has all the required components of a game, yet there are so many goals and play styles available).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s