by Dave Rickey
This column almost didn't get written. The fact is, I've been playing City of Heroes since it launched, and having a hell of a lot of fun. It's had plenty of good reviews elsewhere, so I won't go into too much detail over it, but I did want to give kudoes to the Cryptic and NCSoft teams on a near-flawless launch of an exceptional product. I haven't been able to much enjoy playing these games since working on EverQuest, and CoH has let me recover that simple sense of enjoyment.
What I wanted to explore this time was that feeling: Fun. What is fun? In past columns, I've put forward a definition that centered on goal-seeking behaviour: Fun is the process of defining, pursuing, and achieving goals. But feedback from others and further research has convinced me this is incomplete, a useful definition of a certain kind of fun, but not a complete or fundamental one. I think I've come up with a more fundamental, but unsatisfactorily dry version: Fun is a core mental function that evolution uses to steer mind/brain formation. It's behaviouristic brain reward, intended to draw us into pursuing certain forms of activity and developing skill sets too complicated and dependant on circumstances to be hardwired.
At the core of the defense of this definition is sex. It's hard to argue that sex is not a dominant factor in both evolution and any useful psychological system. On any scale of pleasure, "Orgasmic" has to occupy the top rung. The evolutionary purpose of sex is reproduction, but it's not an intellectual desire to fulfill our biological imperative that makes us want to have it. Freud believed that the desire for sex and the frustration of it underlay all of human effort (personally, I think Freud had an unhealthy obsession with sex, but the theory does have a certain logic to it). Certainly the desire for sex will draw all beings with a nervous system into expending considerable effort on strategem and maneuver.
Conflict, especially combat, is another area where the things a creature needs to know can't be hardwired, but have to be learned anew by each generation. Anyone who has ever raised a litter of kittens or puppies has seen how much of their "play" can only be distinguished from a genuine fight by the fact that the participants are not yet strong enough to hurt each other. Whether it's a basket full of kittens, or kids playing "Cops and Robbers" (or "Star Wars" or "Superheroes", or Mortal Kombat), mock combat is a a constant focus of play in most mammals. That this play fighting may be extremely different from real fighting doesn't mean it isn't tapping into the same instincts (or that it doesn't teach anything useful, ask a drill instructor why they still learn marching drill centuries after formation combat stopped being how wars were fought, or the America's Army team why that game is more than just a recruiting pitch). And the fun of the activity doesn't stop at childhood, as a still thriving Paintball industry can attest.
Discovery is another source of "fun". The exploration of possibilities and territory is found in many mammals, but primates and especially humans take it to a much more extreme degree, especially in certain individuals. The quest of some individuals to open up new resources and capabilities for the rest of us is the stuff of legend, literally. But most of us exhibit it to some degree, especially as children (there's a reason why homes have to be "childproofed"). The "Aha!" moment when we discover something new about the world is the same whether we're a small child learning that switches on the wall make the lights turn on, or grown adults realizing that Spirit of Wolf + Damage over Time = Phat Lewt.
For primates (and most non-primate pack hunters like them), social grooming behaviour is another source of pleasure. Humans are beyond picking each others fleas and lice, but passing gossip and rumors fills the same role. We can spend endless hours talking to each other about each other. Much of TV and novels are based on relating the banal but endlessly entertaining details of interpersonal relationships against various dramatic backgrounds.
Hoarding and collecting behaviour is yet another source of enjoyment. Probably deriving from our mixed diet of both storable and transient food sources, we always pursue an excess of whatever resources we need. Probably this ties back to sex and reproduction, mates who displayed a capability to stock up resources would have been more able to provide for children.
If it sounds like I've just recapitulated the Bartle types in other terms, it's because I have. But, more to the point, I think I've delved one stage deeper into where the the types came from to begin with. The question becomes: have I gained anything by doing so, or have I just engaged in a labelling game? I think that the change of framework gains something, if only because the Bartle dichotomies are limiting as a design framework and don't seem to match up very well with individual motivations in these games. For example, they hold no place for the traditional hunting process as exemplified by games like Deer Hunter. The industry still seems mystified by how the hunting games have done so well, but I suspect this is because few of those in it have ever gone hunting: There is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from trying to think like an animal in order to kill one. Anthropomorphism, which I discussed briefly in the last EOC, the tendency to project human qualities onto non-human animals and phenomena, has been shown by anthropological studies to actually improve hunting success rates. It has an evolutionary grounding, a proven computer entertainment application, and no place in our theories of design. This strikes me as evidence of the inadequacy of the theories, not the unworthiness of those who play and enjoy those few games that serve the desire.
Many other mysterious successes stop being so mysterious when evaluated in this light, for example the popularity of "virtual pets" like tamagotchi or Catz links pretty clearly to the longstanding instincts for care of domestic animals (dogs, if nothing else) and possibly children as well (until recently, "It takes a village" wasn't a bad political slogan, but merely an obvious fact, raising children was performed by extended families, rather than by the government and the media).
We need to look backward, to our personal childhoods and to our pre-civilization roots, and find the evolutionary itches that are no longer being scratched, in order to find the keys to designing better games.