We don’t have a good way to derive what will be fun for different people aside from attempting to replicate what we find fun. Fun as a concept is transient, temporal, experiential, slippery, subjective, and fickle.
If I were to pick a starting point for a discussion of fun, I would start with the importance of learning. I agree with Raph Koster’s assessment that fun is a matter of learning. But when some players hear this, they pull back from the idea with shock and dismay, curious as to what education has to do with gaming.
Schools have turned learning into dreary work, though we frequently learn and enjoy the process—games are one such case of self-directed learning.
Players resist thinking of games as learning experiences because when society institutionalizes a concept like learning, we associate the institution with the concept that birthed it and draw a confused distinction in our minds between the institutional workings and the actual concepts. Through their experience the American public education system, most Americans have been traumatized into thinking that they want to learn as little as possible. Combine that trauma with a general aura of anti-intellectualism in the United States, and you can easily see how learning would be frowned upon by working people. Learning is a weapon wielded by the intellectual elites (who they consider to be liberal blow-hards who have never worked an honest, real job). In an idealistic meritocratic society, hard work means more than smarts. Smart people are crafty, manipulative, and cannot be trusted; hard-workers are honest, feel with their hearts, battle-worn, and sympathetic. We, of course, side with the hard-working factory worker instead the lazy banker (not that the banker is necessarily smart or the factory worker is necessarily dumb). Values among Americans are changing with regards to smarts because of the prevalence of computers and their usefulness in the modern world, but there is still this palpable dislike for anyone who wants to make you think—and that dislike extends doubly to people who would have you think for yourself.
The joy of games is that they allow you to think—they make you think without you being aware of it! They are distractions. Distractions make you think about something aside from your normal concerns. Fun games establish self-contained thought patterns that please us because they are outside of our everyday experience. Games let us engage in an exotic kind of thought unlike our everyday drab thinking.
This thinking is simply learning for a different cause.
When you learn, you internalize patterns so that you can recreate them or recognize them later. Pattern matching is the basic operation of the human mind. Everything we mentally do is pattern matching. Our senses provide us with data; our brain processes them and, through recognition, understands the world. From this understanding, we make decisions and change our environment or ourselves. This view is so abstract and big-picture that we do not think of it in our everyday lives. Pattern matching is the frame through which we see the world—it’s easy to see how we wouldn’t notice that frame when we’re so busy looking past it.
Games present us with new patterns, or new variations on old patterns that we like, and we find learning these patterns fun.