Fun or Fulfilling
Does gaming have to be fun to the good?
Before even get into the idea of if gaming should be fun, let's talk about fun itself. Can it even be quantified as a single thing, since each person has different things that they find entertaining and enjoyable? There are those who find slapstick comedy amusing and those who are annoyed by it. There are those who find word games most exciting and enjoyable and those who just get angry and frustrated at them. How can be set aside a single definition of what is fun? Each group will have its own definition, so we will simply accept that for the rest of this.
The first wall you run into with the idea that gaming should be fun is that many take this mean that you should be light hearted, laughing, and joking through it. It should no be serious or really dark, although some more amusing dark tones could be used for atmosphere. Gaming should be something to make one smile and laugh, having jolly old fun with your friends. This is what these people see is the goal of gaming, that it should be fun.
Personally I see this as highly limited in view and scope. There are some games that are clearly written for this kind of gaming, some more obviously than others (like Toon!), but there are also some kind that would be ruined by playing them with this attitude. Can you imagine goofing off as you make your way through a Call of Cthulhu story? It would completely destroy the feel and point of the game. Rather than being afraid for your life or sanity when a great one rises from the water, you crack a Monty Python quote and laugh your ass off, ruining the scene.
Now, not being silly does not mean the game isn't going to be fun for those playing it. It just means that they are going to get another kind of fun from it. Getting a deeper immersion and even a bit of the horror thrill in your heart can be just as much fun, only of a different kind. It's the same kind of fun and enjoyment you get from horror movies or roller coasters. Fear and chills cause all sorts of natural drugs to get released in your brain, which is what these kinds of games also bring to the table when done well.
Then there are also those who find stories that are deep with plot, drama, romance, and all sorts of other story elements enjoyable. These aren't necessarily going to be the goofy or scary base level types of fun, but many still truly like these kinds of games. At the end of the day they will come out of the game smiling and saying that they have a lot of fun, even though during the game they are immersed in the moment and not showing the fun on their face. These are just other kinds of fun people have through gaming.
Now that we have redefined what could be meant by fun, not limiting it to the light-hearted goofiness, it's time to move on. This still leaves us with the idea that games have to be fun, but at least it allows for a wider range of things to be considered fun.
So now we have to cover the idea that fun (in some form) has to be the point of the game. I do think that this will be the goal of most gaming groups, but I don't think it has to be a rule for the hobby. There are times, and even entire games, where fun is not the point or the goal of the game. It is even possible to use gaming as a tool for other things, such as therapy or education, but even this is now what I am talking about.
One of the main things a lot of people talk about when describing RPGs is escapism. Using games to do things and try things they can't do in real life. This is why we see so many larger than life heroic game characters and powerfully endowed superheroes. They are things that the average Joe will never be, so they escape into the word where they are one. But not everyone heads this direction with the idea of escapism.
Some people want to use this escapism to explore the darker or grittier areas of the world that they can't or wouldn't want to touch on in real life. The most common of these is the savage killing machine found in most every fantasy adventure game, who kills thousands of creatures and beings (usually for experience) without a second thought or moral twinge. There are also those who want to explore the world of vampires, cultists, assassins, or other darker beings that they would never actually choose to go into for real, but most of these still somewhat fall into the idea of being larger than life and heroic, even if they are on the dark side.
The other side of this is using gaming to explore more realistic things you would never actually choose to do. Touching on taboo subjects or the darker natures of man. Serial killers, questions of morality, pushing envelopes of good and evil, political leanings, questioning authority, and more. These are all things that aren't necessarily going to be fun for anyone to play, but they are explorations into something that they would never get or want to try for real, which can be what some people would like to get out of a story. This is the same reason some people like reading novels about serial killers or other real life criminals.
This idea can also be used to explore cultures and area of history that do not mesh with your current modern life. Playing out events of the old south and slavery, from the point of characters who live in that time without our modern morality superimposed over it. Playing out a story in the heavily Muslim middle-eastern countries with people from there, without placing our western beliefs over the top of them. Trying to survive the horrors of the Vietnam War in a platoon of soldiers who are dying off. All of these things may or may not be "fun" for the group (at least in and of themselves), but they would be something a group may want to do. Done right, they may even learn something about these times and places in the process.
The final area I want to touch on is the idea of bringing some elements of the unpleasant into games. Things that are depressing, frustrating, angst filled, sad, disappointing, annoying, uncomfortable, or even completely pointless can all be elements brought out in a story. Most people would not find these things fun in a game, but they can add something to game that people want to feel realistic or have deeper plots carried out. Some of the most amazing stories are those based in these most un-fun subjects.
Great movies like Platoon, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Million Dollar Baby, and more are not really uplifting and fun movies, but they are great movie experiences that millions of people consider their favorites (and watch them over and over again). The same goes for similarly depressing, dark, sad, and uncomfortable books and even TV shows. Battlestar Galactica is one of the most acclaimed shows of the last few years and it is nothing more than a constantly depressing beat down on the last shreds of Humanity trying to survive the near annihilation of their own race. Not exactly a fun and uplifting story.
These are often used to help explore and understand areas of our own psyches and world that would be near impossible to explore without going through it yourself. Touching on them through the stories to give you a real feel of what it could be like to have gone through them, without having to actually go through it. This is something a lot of people like (enjoy isn't the right word), as it opens their minds to new ideas and questions and makes them think.
The same kind of things can be done in games and some people will find them just as enjoyable in the end, even though the experience may be one of constantly struggle and turmoil. The game may be hard to get through and cause some stress while working your way through it, but that's half the enjoyment form these kinds of gamers. Few will actually use the word fun for most of this, but they would also not want to stop doing it as the game is worthwhile and enjoyable to them. It fills some desire or need in them, which I guess could be called fulfilling.
Personally I don't care for games that are completely this kind of thing, but I do like to incorporate elements of these darker and "less fun" things into my usual games, since I like some level of realism. Even though it is not exactly fun, it is very rewarding and fulfilling when done right and people will talk about these games for years to come. So I really don't like to include the wording of "Gaming should be fun" in my descriptions of RPGs, as I don't completely agree with it.
What is actually required should be left up to your group to decide. If they require silliness or heavy angst-ridden drama, you should include that in your games. None of this has anything to do with what gaming itself requires, but what your group wants from it. Gaming should be rewarding and/or fulfilling, which often leads to fun, but doesn't require it.
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