On how enjoyment can't be directly mapped to design and why some video game criticism is simply a defensive reaction to diversity.
We can't think of fun in terms of its legitimacy. Fun isn't a quality but a meaning we assign to an experience. Attacks on the worth of certain activities disguised as game design critique is a way to masquerade exclusionary agendas into a more politically correct form.
An Old Acquaintance
I first heard about Wrong-Bad-Fun on role-playing discussions over a decade ago. It was shorthand for the idea that only some kinds of fun are legitimate, that people that like certain activities are delusional or experience a twisted concept of fun.
The term became a tool to call out the real argument behind a number of complaints hurled at the design of games.
Nowadays I see the same notion in video games discussion, still masqueraded as design analysis, preventing the real issues to be tackled. Examples abound, the rallying against the inclusion of optional lower difficulty modes is one of the more visible ones.
While making easier or less punishing games isn't necessarily a good goal per se, a fair share of the arguments against it are rooted on a goal to exclude part of the audience camouflaged as design critique.
We can't reduce the meaning of an activity to its observable qualities. Meaning is the way we understand and live through experience, not an aggregation of atoms.
Each player brings their own motivation to games, each tries to fulfil a personal agenda. We like to do different things in different ways while playing the same game.
There is no Wrong-Bad-Fun. To dismiss what other people find enjoyable when it differs from our own preferences isn't justified by some invisible legitimacy scale.
Motivation & Good Design
Good development requires knowing your audience. Game design aims, at least partly, to create a product that facilitates an experience through which players fulfil their agendas.
Evaluating design is a matter of effectiveness and efficiency:
- Effectiveness - Does it do what it set out to do?
- Efficiency - Does it achieve its goal with minimum wasted effort or resources?
Game design that is great at doing something that you don't find worthwhile isn't bad design, it's great design.
Criticising game design for catering to an agenda that the critic finds unappealing or illegitimate is problematic. What is really being explored is the worth of certain activities. Keeping these discussions at the technical level of design ensures they don't get properly resolved.
The further two agendas are from each other, the more difficult it is to design a game around them without jeopardising quality and increasing costs. Design is a practice of tradeoffs, not perfect solutions.
There are, however, lower cost solutions for doing this involving tweaks to game variables without using new assets. Difficulty settings in the majority of games work like this. The result doesn't fully support a new agenda but leaves enough room for new audiences to enjoy the product on their own terms.
There is some truth to arguing that fitting mechanics that target different agendas impoverishes the game as a whole. It's a juggling act and trying to please everyone is a sure way to drop the ball.
A little concession can go a long way, though. Compromising an edge of elegance can be the acceptable cost of including whole new swathes of people.
The Bottom Line
- Can we talk about how some games encourage activities that, while engaging, are not desirable for the player?
- Can we discuss the development and artistic costs of designing for different audiences?
- Can we explore how including more options can devalue the experience for players?
The answer is yes.
But if it all boils down to complaining about the fact that the wrong kind of people can now play your game then at the very least be upfront about it.