Posted by on March 17, 2009

(This is an excerpt from a longer argument building a description of fun and linking it to the much more explored subject of play.)

On face value the question rings true. Some places do seem more fun than others and wondering "What makes a place fun?" is equivalent to asking: "Where is a fun place we can go?"

Of course, the simplest questions can belie a complexity not obvious at casual glance. After all, fun itself is an amorphous concept that resists a universal categorization. "What is fun?"

  • Taking a nap is fun.
  • Driving fast is fun.
  • Playing football is fun.
  • Getting promoted is fun.
  • Meeting new people is fun.
  • My job is fun.
  • I had a fun time last night.
  • This weekend will be fun.

What any individual finds "fun" is ultimately contingent on a personal framework of desires, interests and intentions as well as the action of the individual themselves.  In contrast to classic concepts of aesthetics that posit the nature of beauty in and of the object itself, the aesthetic of fun balances on the relationship of the individual to the object. Disneyland is not fun, going to Disneyland is fun. A place itself is not fun or not fun. Rather, what we do in a place structures the experience of the fun. Fun is contingent on the person and the place, present in neither and dependant on both.

This notion of contingency is not new within the world of game design, a discipline focused on creating, measuring and delivering fun as an economic metric of sales success. Fun games sell.

Game designer Sid Meier is famously quoted as saying “A game is a series of interesting choices.” (For one reference to this bit of game lore, see: ) In his remark, Meier points to the contingent nature of games and fun itself. What Meier assumes in his quote is that fun relates to the concept of choice, and that this choice must be interesting. In other words, choices themselves point to the necessity not only of a contingency between the player and the game, but to a complex and solvable sort of field that makes play possible.

Chris Crawford, likewise has argued for the dependency of games on a noun/verb dichotomy that favors the action of the verb (For a good discussion on this idea, see: ). In other words, the nouns, the subject of play and its place, matter less than the contingency, the actions adhered to the people, places and things by the player.  In a simple sense, it’s not where you are or what you have, but what you do that defines the fun. Again, the contingency of the player frames the question of fun. No amount of “fun” things will replace any amount of fun action. Or even more strictly, things are not fun, playing with things is fun.

The question, then, “What makes a place fun?” appears to ponder the imponderable. The fun does not come from the objects or the place, but exists in the space and interaction between the player and place. Beauty may be in objects, but fun is in the moment of object interaction. To extend Crawford, nouns contain beauty, fun occurs in verbs.

Looking at Meier and Crawford side-by-side, we see a dilemma, though. If fun is only the moment of action, then the idea of fun itself dissolves. Fun in this sense is a flash of light, a transient phenomenon, a luminal experience that resists its own definition. Creating a fun game, or a fun place, would be like taking a snapshot of motion. Once the picture is taken, the subject, the motion, is gone. What remains is only a sign for the thing, the thing disappearing even as you attempt to capture it.
Of course, game developers make fun games and game players routinely describe games that they have played as fun and games that they expect to play as fun. 

The trouble comes with trying to reconcile the nature of fun with ease at which we use the term.  Because what we mean by fun is not reduced to the indivisible moment of action, rather points to the tangible contingency or interaction between the player and the played. Fun includes the memory of the past and the expectations of the future. The central contingency of fun is the conceptual connecting point of the past and the present.

So how does fun relate to places or games?

These observations, thankfully, do not reduce the question, “What makes a place fun?” to absurdity. Instead, they point to a central contradiction: Fun may operate as a contingency in the moment of experience. Fun may not be in the place or in the objects of the place, a property to be experienced universally.  But like a ghost, fun lingers in the place, haunting with a memory and an echo of a feeling and an active experience that once was and might be once again. In this way, the fun house is the twin to the haunted house—a place imbibed with a perceivable sprit, an active history linked to a past action and an ongoing manifestation, an imbibed future.

The question “What makes a place fun?” then, may be read as contingent itself. The question both poses a plea to remember the past—what made this place fun?—along with a hope for the future—what will make this place fun again? Fun is never present, but only lingers as a memory and shimmers as promise, a context in the present moment.

As result of this fundamental contingency, fun becomes a portable concept, referring to a matrix of hopes and memories, recollections and expectations, ambiguous in its nature. 
(Next up: Finding a Play House: What makes a place playful?)
Questions waiting answers:

* What is play?
* What is the relationship of play to fun?
* What, exactly, is an "interesting choice"?
* How do the concepts described here relate to other notions of fun, such as Koster's A Theory of Fun?

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