Friday, May 25, 2018

approachable theory: Types of Fun

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The approachable theory logo.
Hi all! Today I have a post by Selene Tan on Types of Fun! Selene is a game designer who is always up for a design competition, and writes about games and GMing. This post is about types of fun - the ways we enjoy games - using a variety of existing theory and talking about how we can understand those things in our own experiences. Selene said she loves "interacting with dynamic systems that produce unexpected and inspiring outcomes, and it's even better with friends!" So let's see what she has to say!

I ask that you remember the requests I put forth about treating my writers with respect and understand that a lot of game design theory is still growing, so definitions can be a little fluid. 


A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
A collection of materials for a game of Roar of Alliance (Game and photo by John Sheldon.) during play. 

Whether you call it “fun,” “enjoyment,” or “involvement”: when you’re playing the right game, there’s something that makes you want to play it, and keep playing. But not all games are fun in the same way.

The fun of tactical miniatures combat in D&D 4th edition is different than the fun of a collaborative story/map-making game like The Quiet Year. There are many types of fun, and while people have preferences, none is intrinsically better than any other.

We can sort these different types of fun into categories. Sorting and labeling experiences is a good way to analyze them, and analyzing game experiences is a key skill for game design. There are schemes that classify games or players, and schemes that classify fun directly. I find schemes that classify players reductive. As a player, I enjoy many kinds of games, depending on my mood and situation. Classifying games is more useful, but again, most games combine different types of fun. I prefer to classify fun because as a designer, those are my building blocks. The types of fun I want to focus on are a key part of my design vision.

It's worth comparing several schemes to learn what works for you. The main factors that I consider when deciding on a scheme to use are:
  1. how applicable it is to the kinds of games I want to classify. If there are a lot of experiences not covered by the scheme, some of the types are unused, or most experiences go under one type, the scheme is a bad fit.
  2. how easy it is to remember. If there are too many categories, or the names are confusing, it's hard to remember the scheme.
  3. how easy it is to apply. The categories should clearly describe what experiences belong to them, and most experiences should clearly belong to one or two categories, without confusion.
I’m including links to several others, but here are three schemes with different approaches that I find
useful for analyzing RPGs.

Schemes of Fun

8 Kinds of Fun

My personal favorite scheme, and the one that started me on categorizing fun, is 8 Kinds of Fun, originally described by Marc LeBlanc as part of the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics framework (overview).

Chris Sniezak at Gnome Stew has written in more detail about the 8 Kinds of Fun for RPGs. Here’s a quick summary of the types:
  • Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure. e.g. playing with miniatures and detailed terrain, background music, or props; drawing; manipulating dice.
  • Fantasy: Game as make-believe. e.g. exploring a world from the point of view of a character. This is the most “RPG-y” kind of fun.
  • Narrative: Game as unfolding story. e.g. playing through a story with cool set-piece encounters, crafting a story together with other players.
  • Challenge: Game as obstacle course. e.g. dungeon crawls or combat-focused games, any encounter where the point is for players to overcome it with skill.
  • Fellowship: Game as social framework. Playing as an excuse to hang out with friends. e.g. Kaleidoscope, where you "remember" (invent) a movie with friends and discuss it.
  • Discovery: Game as uncharted territory. e.g. sandbox games, hex crawls, and dungeon crawls.
  • Expression: Game as soap box or self-discovery. e.g. drawing your character or other game elements, creating detailed characters.
  • Submission: Game as mindless pastime. In RPGs, this is usually combined with Fellowship. e.g. Kick-in-the-door play where the goal is to defeat baddies without thinking too hard.

Classifies types of fun, not games or players

Flexible enough to apply to RPGs, board games, and video games

The eight categories cover a wide range while being easy to remember


The categories have a video game bias

Some of the word choices seem awkward (submission, soap box)

A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
I used Roar of Alliance because it has a variety of materials and two parts of play, with strategic combat and "downtime" roleplaying making up the game - both could be very different kinds of fun. (Photo by John Sheldon.)

Quantic Foundry Gamer Motivations

Another scheme is Quantic Foundry’s Gamer Motivations. It classifies reasons that people play games, where each reason is a type of fun. There are two schemes, one for video games and one for board games. The video games scheme has 12 motivations in 6 groups, while the board games scheme has 11 motivations in 4 groups.

These are the video game groupings:
  • Action, containing excitement and destruction, e.g. fast-paced combat like Savage Worlds, or causing mayhem in towns.
  • Social, containing competition and community, e.g. combat in Agon, where whoever deals the killing blow gets more Glory; most D&D play where the party works together; or D&D Adventurer's League play, where you're part of a larger community.
  • Mastery, containing challenge and strategy, e.g. dungeons, combat, and character build optimization.
  • Achievement, containing completion and power, e.g leveling up, stomping enemies, and completing quests.
  • Creativity, containing discovery and design, e.g. hexcrawls and sandboxes, creating characters, or coming up with unusual uses for items and spells.
  • Immersion, containing fantasy and story, e.g. speaking and playing in character, following elaborate pre-planned plots, or playing dynamic characters that create emergent plots.

Data-driven. Quantic Foundry used a combination of survey questions about preferences and favorite games to create clusters of users, then labeled those clusters to get the 11-12 motivations.

Comprehensive. It's hard to think of anything not covered.


Since the schemes are for video and board games, some categories are barely used while others are heavily used for RPGs.

It's hard to remember all 11-12 motivations.

The category "Immersion" has a different meaning than its usual meaning in RPGs

Threefold Model and GNS

The third scheme is the Threefold Model (Drama, Simulation, and Game), including its descendant, Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism (GNS). The Threefold Model and related models classify play styles or modes by what aspect of RPGs is their highest priority.

Gamism is a play style where the highest priorities are challenge and competition. One example is the Dungeon Crawl Classics “character funnel,” where each player starts with multiple Level 0 characters and tries to keep at least one of them alive to Level 1.

Narrativism/Drama is a play style where the highest priority is exploring theme through character. Different characters address the theme in different ways, and highlight it through decisions. For example, every playbook (character class) in Apocalypse World has a unique take on surviving in the wilderness, from solving everything with guns to building a community.

Simulationism/Explorative is a play style where the highest priority is to experience a world or characters that have deep, consistent internal logic. Investigating crimes in Mutant City Blues, where the Quade Diagram describes how mutant powers relate to each other and therefore what kind of mutant criminal you're looking for, is an example of simulationism/explorative play.


Created for RPGs

Only three categories to remember


Lots of arguments and confusion about the definitions of each category

Ignores some common types of fun, e.g. Sensation or Creativity: Design

Other Schemes

Using Schemes

One way to use a classification scheme is to analyze play. I’ve adapted Nathan Paoletta's Two List Method for this.

Make a list of all the things you like and dislike when playing RPGs.

Then play an RPG session with that list in mind. Afterwards, write down a new list of things you liked and disliked from that session. If you won’t get to play for a while, make a list from your most recent session, but it’s best to do this while it’s fresh in your mind.

Pick a scheme and classify your list items. For each like, write down the type of fun. For each dislike, write down the type of fun it interferes with, and if applicable, the type of fun it promotes. Don’t worry about forcing things to fit: it’s okay to have some lone items. But if there are a lot, you might want to pick a different classification scheme!

For example:

I like to play characters that help people. (Fantasy, Expression)

I dislike games where everyone plays backstabbing schemers who are out to get each other. (Inteferes with: Fellowship, Submission. Promotes: Challenge, Expression.)

You’ll see trends arise from the lists. Some categories will have more items than others, and some reasons will keep showing up.

The categories that keep showing up in your likes are the types of fun you enjoy the most. You have the most experience playing and creating that type of fun, and the strongest intuition for them. You'll also find complements: groups of types that keep showing up together, or types that show up occasionally on your list of likes but not in your dislikes. The types that show up on your dislikes list interfere with or detract from the types you enjoy.

When you’re designing a game or wrestling with a mechanic, ask yourself what types of fun you’re aiming for. If the mechanic doesn’t seem to be working, is it encouraging a different type of fun than the one you’re aiming for? Is it related to a fun that interferes with your goal? If you have a design that feels like it’s missing something, try adding one of the complementary fun types.

If you want to read more about classifying and analyzing fun, here are some resources:
A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
Roar of Alliance is a fun game to play, and now after reading Selene's article, I can't stop wondering how someone would evaluate the game in regards to the type of fun - what type of fun is your favorite game?


Thank you so much to Selene for the excellent article and for making the theories of fun a little more approachable! I learned from reading this article, so I hope you did, too! Please share and keep checking back for more approachable theory!

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