The Four Theories of Fun

This is my ninth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

I have come to think that there are four main theories of “fun”, or at least experience in video games. They are: Rules, Fiction, Social and Feel. When I teach game studies classes, I usually invite students to mention their favorite game and then discuss which of the categories it falls under. The categories are not exclusive, but they have their own favorite game examples.

Here they are:

1) Rules

This is still the primordial theory of games. According to this theory, (video) games are by definition (or essentially) rule-based structures, and the player’s experience hinges on rules that create interesting mental challenges for the player. This theory tends to claim that it has identified something unique about games.

It can of course then be extended from the description to the prescriptive, and claim that because games are defined by the presence of rules, all games  should be centered on rules, with all other possible design elements (say, Fiction) being negative agents that dilute the purity of a game.

This theory has typically been promoted by game designers and people wishing to identify games as a unique art form. It is also very hard to imagine teaching video game design without it.

Favorite example: Go, StarCraft, Tetris.

2) Fiction

Another classic, this theory has some backing from especially the humanities, and argues that video games first and foremost are about experiencing, and possibly feeling immersed in, stories and fictions. This theory is particularly useful when we think about games in a cross-media perspective.

This theory has typically been promoted by literary and film scholars.

Favorite game examples: Final FantasyUncharted, BioShock.

3) Social

This is a slightly different theory in that it doesn’t invoke the game’s content, but the social sphere around it. The paradigmatic game genre for this theory is currently MMOs. And this is sensible as an explanation of why many players keep returning to this type of game.

The social theory also has a stronger version in which the social sphere isn’t simply something around the game, but it defines or is the game, both for multi- and single player games. (Mikael Jakobsson and Anne Mette Thorhauge are probably the main proponents of this strong version.)

Favorite game examples: World of WarcraftDungeons & DragonsWii Sports.

4) Feel

feel - swing

Feel is the newer theory, and it is only really articulated Steve Swink’s book on Game Feel. Here, video games are seen as centered on the immediate sub-second experience on controlling something and receiving audio and visual feedback. This is the theory for discussing game controls, graphics and sound. (Yes, you could argue for graphics as a separate theory, but let’s just put it here).

It is also a good theory for teaching how game design often starts with narrowing down a central core mechanic which feels good as in the picture, and how designers must then add context around the core mechanic for it to remain interesting.

I suspect feel hasn’t been popular in media or literature departments because it talks about an experience which is very hard to verbalize, and hard to connect to existing theories. (Though Donald Norman’s Emotional Design has some family semblance).

Favorite game examples: Super Mario BrosSuper Mario BrosSuper Mario Bros.

The meaning of “is”

The question of course is what we mean when we say that a video game is anything in particular. As always, there is a fine line between:

  1. Proposing a particular description (“feel is one way to look at it”).
  2. Insisting on a particular description (“to ignore the social is to ignore the lived experience of players”).
  3. Insisting in having identified an essential component of video games (“without rules, there is no game”). (Though the rigid designator comes up here: it just is easier to claim a central position for rules than for, say, 3d graphics).
  4. Insisting that all video games should be made with a particular theory in mind.

There are other theories, of course, but I think these are the four dominant ones at the moment, November 2014.

PS. This 4-part list does not replace the (cough) ludology-narratology debate or the rules/fiction distinction in Half-Real. The rules/fiction distinction is about how the players conceptualize the game that they encounter. Feel and Social are theories about other aspects of game-playing.


ToDiGRA, vol 3, issue 1 on “Physical and Digital in Games and Play”.

This is a special issue on “Physical and Digital in Games and Play”. The issue editors are Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka, and Anu Seisto.  A big thanks to the issue editors and all authors for your work!


  • Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka, Anu Seisto: Editors’ Introduction to the Special Issue
  • Stephanie de Smale: Building Material: Exploring Playfulness of 3D Printers
  • Paul Coulton, Dan Burnett, Adrian Gradinar, David Gullick, Emma Murphy:  Game Design in an Internet of Things
  • Mark Lochrie: From the board to the streets: a case study of Local Property Trader
  • Frederika A Eilers: SimCity and the Creative Class: Place, Urban Planning and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • Inger Ekman: “That’s not a secure area”– physical-digital sound links in commercial locative games
  • Karl Bergström, Staffan Björk: The Case for Computer-Augmented Games
  • Marcus Carter: The Roll of the Dice in Warhammer 40,000
Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association (ToDIGRA) is a quarterly, international, open access, refereed, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to research on and practice in all aspects of games. ToDIGRA is published in print as well as electronically. ToDIGRA does not currently accept unsolicited submissions. Submissions must be directed towards a specific call for paper and conform to the specific focus of that call.

Common practice periods: When games are stable

This is my eighth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

It is easy, and probably common, to think of video game history as a series of innovations that propel video games “forward”, allowing for new experiences and expressions. (Not that anyone has written such a history in any significant detail.)

But what about in between? There are periods of time where, as I like to say, we know what video games are.

Four voices
When I took music classes in high school, I learned to do 4-voice arrangements of church hymns according a set of rules for harmony and voicing. Though it has later come in handy in weird ways, I can’t say that I appreciated learning those rules at the time, as it was rules about music that I did not care much for in the first place. In music theory, what I learned relates to the common practice period, ca 1600-1900, which is considered a stable period with certain rules about harmony, well-known chords and so on. One of the famous rules of the period is that two voices/instruments cannot follow each other in octave or fifth intervals. This was strange to me as I listened to much music, say Led Zeppelin, which often has the bass and the guitar playing riffs in unison.

I think I would have appreciated the lessons much more if I’d understood that the rules were a description of a particular musical style, and that all musical styles have sets of rules for what can and cannot be done.

Common practice periods in video games
And so it seems that video games have similar “common practice periods”, where video games, or at least certain video game genres, follow a set of rules. For example, the shooter genre is still in a common practice period where we expect a new game to contain both a single and multiplayer game, with the single-player game lasting between 10 and 30 hours for story-heavy games, and <10 hours for multiplayer-focused games. In addition, we expect such games to be promoted on ever “better” graphics, allow us to shoot firearms, collect more of them, manage ammunition, and so on.

In a bigger perspective, another common period was from 1980 to 2005 where we knew that video games were sold in boxes, aimed at a particular demographic, and (also) promoted on “better” graphics.

Does it follow that changing distribution models have bigger influence on the stability of game design than technology does?

And we can keep zooming out: When I was writing my game definition I dealt with the issue of change by not claiming that I had defined everything called games for all time, but rather that I was identifying a particular “classic game model” that had been dominant for several thousand years.

Institutions behind common practice
Going back to music, periods of stability may often have some institutionalized codification where rules are followed not only by observation, but may be explicitly taught to practitioners, and sometimes enforced. Video game educations and game design books can then also serve to define and maintain a period of common practice, though I suspect that many contemporary video game educations are more fascinated with breaking the rules than with maintaining them. Though that can become a type of common practice by itself, a “tyranny of pixelated platformers”.

That would be another type of history to write, one where we examine what it was that made certain periods of video game history so stable.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play special issue

Special issue of Surveillance & Society on Surveillance, Gaming and Play.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play

edited by Jennifer R. Whitson and Bart Simon

Table of Contents


Game Studies meets Surveillance Studies at the Edge of Digital Culture: An Introduction to a special issue on Surveillance, Games and Play PDF
Jennifer R. Whitson, Bart Simon 309-319


Surveillant Assemblages of Governance in Massively Multiplayer Online Games: A Comparative Analysis PDF
Aphra Kerr, Stefano De Paoli, Max Keatinge 320-336
Surveillance and Community: Language Policing and Empowerment in a World of Warcraft Guild PDF
Lauren B. Collister 337-348
Getting Played: Gamification and the Rise of Algorithmic Surveillance PDF
Casey O’Donnell 349-359
Games of Drones: The Uneasy Future of the Soldier-Hero in Call of Duty: Black Ops II PDF
Carrie Elizabeth Andersen 360-376
Creative Misuse as Resistance: Surveillance, Mobile Technologies, and Locative Games PDF
Jason Farman 377-388
The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Google, Ingress, and the Gift of Surveillance PDF
Nathan Hulsey, Joshua Reeves 389-400
‘I had no credit to ring you back’: Children’s strategies of negotiation and resistance to parental surveillance via mobile phones PDF
Carol Margaret Barron 401-413
Gaming Privacy: a Canadian case study of a children’s co-created privacy literacy game PDF
Kate Raynes-Goldie, Matthew Allen 414-426


Enclosures at Play: Surveillance in the Code and Culture of Videogames PDF
Alex Dean Cybulski 427-432
Reporting From the Snooping Trenches: Changes in Attitudes and Perceptions Towards Behavior Tracking in Digital Games PDF
Alessandro Canossa 433-436
Watching Us Play: Postures and Platforms of Live Streaming PDF
Austin Walker 437-442
Diverting and diverted glances at cameras: playful and tactical approaches to surveillance studies PDF
Justine Gangneux 443-447

Research Notes

Playdates with Big Brother: Playfully Repurposing Surveillance Cameras to Build Communities PDF
Holly Robbins, Katherine Isbister 448-458

Artistic Presentations

Surveillance Chess PDF
!Mediengruppe Bitnik 459-465

Book Reviews

Review of Björklund and Svenonius’ Video Surveillance and Social Control in a Comparative Perspective PDF
Catarina Frois 466-467
Review of Lianos’ The New Social Control: The Institutional Web, Normativity and the Social Bond PDF
William G. Staples 468-470

Are Game Experiments Apolitical? Avant-garde and Magic Realism.

This is my seventh monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.


Here is a figure from Brian Schrank’s interesting new book Avant-garde Videogames. In the book, Schrank discusses various types of art-world avant-garde, and examines how they correspond to experimental video games.

Schrank structures the discussion around two axes of radical-complicit and political-formal. (I am personally placed in the bottom-right mainstream formal and complicit quadrant, but that’s OK.) He acknowledges the simplicity of this model and has many nuanced points and observations.

But let me just look at the political-formal axis. It represents video games, and art, such that a video game is either political or it is a formal experiment. Art historians can talk about this question at great length, but it is certainly an idea that was also expressed in 1940’ies denunciations of experimental, formalist, art. In that case, a powerful political entity felt threatened by experimental art and therefore decreed that artists should simply stop experimenting and rather only express established ideas in well-known form. And of course, the well-worn argument about art for art’s sake – that art should be judged on its own terms outside politics – sets up a similar opposition between the political and the formal experiment.

But is this really what we see in video games? Consider any of the high-profile political video game such as Howling Dogs, Dys4ia, Unmanned, September 12th, Cart LifeAll of these games are highly experimental in form and political. In fact, it is clear that their political messages are expressed through their experimental form. And it seems the formal-political distinction breaks down in most of the obvious examples of political video games.

Fortunately, there is an alternative view which has much more explanatory power. Here is Salman Rushdie reviewing Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Rushdie says that magical realism (where supernatural events naturally happen in seemingly realist settings) is a way of expressing experiences that cannot be expressed through established more forms such as plain naturalism. The formal experiment is necessary in order to express political ideas and overlooked experienced:

El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practised by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on. In the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands)

This, I think, is a more convincing way of seeing the issue. New and experimental literary forms are necessary because they are the only way to express complex and hitherto unexpressed experiences. Political video games are also formal experiments in game design because this is the only way to express new and radical ideas. There is no opposition between the political and the formal experiment. Fortunately, for think how drab the world would be otherwise.


PS. And this is not a criticism of Schrank’s very useful book. It’s just a discussion of a particular view on the relation between formal experiment and political expression.

Game Studies 14/01 is out

Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research has just published its latest issue (Volume 14, Issue 1, July 2014).


Game Definitions: A Wittgensteinian Approach

by Jonne Arjoranta

This article looks at how games have been constantly redefined in game studies without reaching an agreement. It is argued that such an agreement is not necessary, and a Wittgensteinian approach to game definitions is preferable. This approach sees the cycle of redefinition as a hermeneutic circle that advances the understanding of games.

The Heuristic Circle of Real-Time Strategy Process: A StarCraft: Brood War Case Study

by Simon Dor

The heuristic circle of real-time strategy process is a summary of key ideas about the cognitive and perceptive processes in StarCraft competitive play. It describes the way strategy in the game relies on the inference of three levels of game states and on the use of three kind of strategic plans at the same time.

Magic Nodes and Proleptic Warfare in the Multiplayer Component of Battlefield 3

by Johan Höglund

This article explores the construction of ludic spaces in the multiplayer map Grand Bazaar in Battlefield 3. It observes that this map constitutes a “magic node” that encircles a ludic space where only certain activities are possible. It concludes that the map Grand Bazaar represents a civilian Middle-Eastern locale as a permanent battleground.

Bioshock: Complex and Alternate Histories

by Ryan Lizardi

This article performs a close reading on the Bioshock series and determines that it encourages a comparative and contemplative look at the historical, cultivated through counterfactual and alternative experiences of accepted histories and reinforced through both ludic and narrative elements.

A Practiced Practice: Speedrunning Through Space With de Certeau and Virilio

by Rainforest Scully-Blaker

Through a discussion of Michel de Certeau and Paul Virilio, this article puts forth a language to discuss speedrunning, the practice of beating a game as fast as possible without cheating, as it relates to games as spatial narratives. A new set of terms for discussing game rules as they relate to speedruns is also applied to the analysis.

Play and Possibility in the Rhetoric of the War on Terror: The Structure of Agency in Halo 2

by Gerald Voorhees

This essay contends that Halo 2 helps attitudinally position players in relation to the War on Terror. It considers a range of possible, potentially-overlapping affective responses to Halo 2, foregrounding both the rhetorical efficacy of digital games and the player’s agency to determine their rhetorical effect.

Book Reviews

Sound in a Participatory Culture
by Kristine Jørgensen

Playing with Sound. A Theory of Interaction with Sound and Music in Video Games. (2013) by Karen Collins. Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262312288 .

Play Redux is Solo-Play

by Hanna Wirman

Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games. (2010) by David Myers. University of Michigan Press. ISBN: 978-0472050925