What concerns me most is not that these discussions are often circular (not taking to mean that nothing can be learned from them) but they usually forsake the most fundamental aspect of games; something that all games (and even some non-game experiences) share: All games are meant to be engaging.
“Engaging?” – you might ask – “I thought the goal of games was to provide fun…”
This confusion is commonly spawned from the lack of clarity when tossing the terms “fun” and “engagement” around and so, my goal here will be to attempt to define and contrast both.
You see, engagement takes place when you are able to tap into one or more essential human traits (which in MMDA we define as Aesthetics) and, through them, hook the player to the experience you are creating. These traits might be the desire to put one’s skills to the test, to discover new and exciting possibilities or even the desire to express oneself creatively.
When we listen to a song or watch a movie that makes us cry, we don’t think of ourselves as having fun at that moment, even thought we are still extremely engaged by that experience. When we use the word “fun” that usually carries a frivolous and light-hearted connotation with it, which is unable to include the full spectrum of what engagement is. Fun is a way that games traditionally use to engage the players but it is not the only one and, as veteran game designers, we should be aware and familiar with other parts of the engagement spectrum to empower ourselves with more tools.
Engagement is the pure design metric by which you can assess a game’s success or failure. Through the lens of engagement you can determine whether that feature you’re planning on adding next will actually improve your game or not.
We have always, perhaps intuitively, known how to measure engagement. When you experience something engaging you tend to interact with it for longer periods of time, share the excitement it brings to you with others and come back to it time and time again.
Ultimately, our job as game designers is to craft an experience that will deeply engage our players and that should be our number one consideration when making any decision.