Gamification Design: What’s fun got to do with it?

Fun is what’s on every game designer’s mind. All the time. And games being our big brothers and role models in most things, fun is a revered and all-powerful deity in gamification practice and theory, as well. But what is fun? And can you ‘design for fun’ or is it a byproduct of good design?


Finding it difficult to even write a sentence where fun and gamification don’t come up together, I was recently startled by the conspicuous absence of fun among the ‘favorite elements of gamification’ in the following visualization of the gamification design process by Gamified UK founder Andrzej Marczewski:


“Fun is a byproduct of good design. It is also not essential for a good gamified system,” Andrzej Marchewski replied to my questioning tweet. Though I quickly had to agree that fun can only be the desired outcome and not a “building block” in design itself, the second part still has a blasphemous ring to my ears and sent me off googling various interpretations, theories and classifications of fun.

Fun is the worshipped progenitor of games and hence of the game-inspired practice of gamification in business (both customer and employee-centered). Much of games and gamification literature is devoted to this elusive subject and if there is one thing on which all authors agree is that there are all too many kinds and degrees of fun. Any meaningful discussion thus starts with a definition and identification of the types of fun relevant to games and gamification.


Definitions of Fun

Oxford and Merriam-Webster both define fun as enjoyment or amusement, but while the former additionally refers to ‘light-hearted pleasure’, the latter adds the idea of entertainment (‘the feeling of being amused or entertained’).

In the context of games and gamification, fun is more aptly defined as ‘pleasurable engagement’, which provides a useful distinction with regard to the more ‘passive’ aesthetic pleasure and entertainment.

Yet we are still left with a variety of sources of pleasure and experiences which qualify as ‘pleasurable engagement’ and which need to be systematized in the context of gamification if they are to be of any practical use in the design of gamified systems.


Taxonomies of Fun

Marc LeBlanc’s 8 Kinds of Fun


The MDA framework (standing for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics) was developed over several years by game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek and presented in the 2004 paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.


Mechanics – dynamics – aesthetics are the design counterparts of the three distinct components of games: rules – system – “fun” .

As defined in the original paper:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.

Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.

Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.

To this day the “8 kinds of fun” outlined in the MDA paper: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression, and submission, remain a source of reference and probably the best-known list of player experiences that combine in various ways and appeal in different measure to each player to ‘make a game fun’.


Nicole Lazzaro’s 4 Keys to Fun


In 2004, XEOdesign, the firm founded by game designer Nicole Lazzaro, conducted a research study that led to the identification of 4 keys to emotions during play. The findings and resulting model were presented as “laying the foundation for gamification” by providing “new methods for increasing engagement with play”.

The 4 Keys to Fun: the game mechanics that drive play

  1. Easy Fun (Novelty): Curiosity from exploration, role play, and creativity
  2. Hard Fun (Challenge): Fiero, the epic win, from achieving a difficult goal
  3. People Fun (Friendship): Amusement from competition and cooperation
  4. Serious Fun (Meaning): Excitement from changing the player and their world


As explained by Lazzaro on her blog, “these four main reasons why people play games are how best sellers create more emotions for more captivating play. Each key unlocks a different set of play experiences. Because players alternate between them during a single play session best selling games offer at least three of the 4 Keys 2 Fun.”


5 Groups of Fun – Marczewski

Back to the [unsuspecting] source of inspiration for this article, Andrzej Marczewski’s own exploration of fun has discovered 21 things that people find fun, grouped in 5 major categories:

Gamified UK

Andrzej explains how he sees the role of fun in gamification in his first video blog of 2012. His current position (he will correct me if I’m wrong) is that the design of a gamified system should focus on the essential goal of motivating the desired changes in behavior, rather than obsessing with the highly subjective notion of fun.

Meanwhile, Gamified UK is conducting ongoing research on the subject and you can check out the results so far and join in by answering the seemingly simple question: “What do you find fun?

Since gamification, defined by Yu-kai Chou as “the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities” has been particularly successful in the fields of training and education, it seems most fitting to conclude the overview of ‘fun theories’ with a classic:


Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun as Learning

Fun, Koster argues in his best-selling Theory of Fun for Game Design, “is all about our brains feeling good” and what human brains love best is recognizing, deciphering, learning and practicing new patterns.

And while “games are systems built to help us learn patterns”, fun is “a neurochemical reward to encourage us to keep trying”, “the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing new patterns for learning purposes”.

Theory of Fun: 10 Years Later

From this perspective, the enjoyment of learning is essential to our survival and an ‘evolutionary advantage’. It is also why fun and pleasure wear off as we progress to mastery. A game stops being fun when we’ve mastered all the patterns and the brain has nothing more to feed on. Boredom is the signal that it’s time to move on to another challenge.


Are gamified systems trying to build a perpetuum mobile of fun?

A good gamified system taps into several intrinsically rewarding psychological processes or “core drives” and produces fun as an outcome of these processes. Fun may be a ‘byproduct of good design’ but it also remains FUNdamental to gamification efforts.

In a sense, gamification has the formidable task of starting where a game ends: with boredom and disenchantment. It is expected to rekindle passions, to create and nurture employee engagement, revitalize brand powers, reinforce customer loyalty, make tedious tasks and ordinary products exciting, all while ensuring (or promising) never-ending enjoyment and fun.

But if our brains are wired to ‘use up’ fun in the process of mastering mental problems and new skills, is gamification an attempt to have the cake and eat it too?..



Featured image: The Conjurer, Hieronymus Bosch, Wikimedia Commons



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