Series Info...#15: What's Entertainment?

by Travis S. Casey
August 24, 2001

I don't usually like to use a column as a place to rant, but Jessica Mulligan's last Biting the Hand struck a nerve in me. So bear with me this time around.

Jessica's column was about game designers wanting to create Art. Her argument, boiled down, was that trying to create Art results in game designers forcing players into their "pre-ordained" vision of what the game should be like, and ignoring what the players might actually want. She continues on to say that, instead of Art, designers should try to focus on Entertainment instead.

There's a few big problems I see in this philosophy, though. First off, what's Entertainment? Or, to ask it in another way, whose Entertainment should be focused on?

Different people find different things to be entertaining. Some people find football fun; some others think they're crazy. Some people find going to plays fun; some others think they're crazy. Some people find killing imaginary monsters in a D&D game fun; others think they're crazy. Some people find investigating an imaginary conspiracy in a game of CORPS fun; others think they're crazy. As Abraham Lincoln might have put it, "You cannot entertain all of the people all of the time."

Thus, early on in setting up a game – or any other kind of entertainment – you have to ask the question: who are we trying to entertain? There are a lot of possible choices here. Let's take a look at a few of them:

"I'm trying to entertain myself, and others like me." This choice has one major thing going for it – namely, the designer generally knows what he/she likes. The primary danger here is that the design will wind up being aimed at too small a group; the designer and a few others like him/her will like it a lot, but the vast majority of people may not like it at all.

"I'm trying to entertain as many people as possible." This choice has the advantage that, if you succeed, you'll have a huge audience. The primary disadvantage is in that statement – if you succeed. Such an attempt all too often winds up coming out as designed-by-committee homogenized pap, which no one strongly dislikes, but no one strongly likes either.

"I want to entertain this group." The key here is picking the group you want to entertain, and then finding and listening to them. Sometimes the designer will be a part of the group, which takes us a bit closer to the first model, but the designer in this case recognizes that he/she is only part of the group, and seeks input from others. A problem here is finding a representative sample of the group you're aiming at – often a group of people will think of themselves as representative of a larger group, but find that they're wrong. However, even if the design misses in that sense, it tends to still be fairly entertaining to some group of people.

If Entertainment is your only goal, then it often seems natural to pick the second option – but I strongly believe that is the worst option to pick. It's the hardest to do, and even if you succeed, there's a good chance that, while you'll have a large potential audience, a lot of them will have other games they'll like better.

Personally, I think of the first option as the artistic option – making what you think will be good, and hoping that others will like it as well. I'm intentionally not capitalizing artistic there, because the person doing this often doesn't have their mind on creating Art, but the attitude of "if you don't like it, you're not who I'm doing it for" strikes me as an artistic attitude.

A closing thought on this part – while a single game designed following option #1 may not appeal to a lot of people, it's often possible to take what works from it and use it to make other games with broad appeal. A game designed following #2, on the other hand, generally isn't much use in this way.

Online Games Aren't Just Games

The second problem that comes in with the idea of just making it entertaining is that an online multiplayer RPG involves a lot more than just entertainment. To look at some of the other things, it involves, let's think about another form of entertainment quick – a concert.

A concert is definitely entertainment. However, putting together a concert involves a lot more than just the entertainment – you don't just select a popular band or set of bands and then go. One thing you want to do is make sure that the selections you've chosen will work well together, which goes back to the previous point of selecting who you're trying to entertain. However, there's also a lot of support work that needs to be done. The bands have to be gotten to and from the concert, a venue needs to be selected and arranged for, parking needs to be accessible, there need to be concessions, there's a need for security, etc.

An online multiplayer game is the same way – it's a form of entertainment, but there are other things that need to be handled. Just as unruly fans at a concert have to be handled, there needs to be some way of handling unruly players – which is what leads to the idea of player-run justice systems, the very thing which seems to have touched Ms. Mulligan off. Now, some people may have ulterior motives in creating such a system, but that doesn't mean that there aren't practical applications, nor that such a thing doesn't even bear talking about – which is the impression that Ms. Mulligan's article left on me.

One thing that strongly distinguishes online multiplayer games from many other forms of entertainment is the investment some people make in them – in terms of time, emotional attachment, and even money. Ms. Mulligan seems to associate player justice systems with PvP games, but a player justice system can make sense even in a non-PvP environment – even if the game doesn't allow attacking another player character, there are still ways to harm other players. (And I don't mean just ways to attack them indirectly – such things as exploitation of bugs and harassing other players can also be included.)

In the end, what I'm saying is simply this: focusing on the idea that a game is Art can be a bad thing – but so can focusing on the idea that a game is Entertainment. It should be remembered that one can have multiple goals – you can try to create a game that is both Art and Entertainment. And, lastly, just because some people give artistic reasons for pursuing a particular course doesn't mean that those are the only reasons for following it.

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