Why is filling out your tax forms feel a major bummer, when playing a round of foosball seems so fun? Or, why do we enjoy playing first-person shooters but resist physical hand-to-hand combat? The answer lies in the theory of natural funativity.
The word funativity looks pretty silly at first glance. Maybe, it sounds made up? Well, that’s because it is! In the 1980’s, seasoned game designer and child psychologist Stephen Arnold found himself at what was then known as LucasFilm Games managing a large team. When his crew came to him with new ideas, he always asked them the same initial question “What is the funativity quotient?”
Turns out Arnold’s spirited question had enough of an impact on his team to inspire an entire school of thought that borrows elements of psychology, game theory and evolution.
Natural funativity takes a critical look at why we enjoy entertainment, and why we would choose to engage in entertainment in the first place. Much of the theory strings from studies of evolution, with its groundwork laid around the fact that humans (and nearly all other animals) divide their time between work, rest and leisure. One can reason that working too much or too little can jeopardize survival (hunting too often results in over exposure to danger, while hunting infrequently results in a shortage of food), so when animals reach that happy medium they no longer spend their time working and choose to either rest or partake in leisure. Play is just another form of work, an abstract form where the dangers of real life are removed. Play can be seen as a sort of practice for survival for us to hone our physical, mental and social capabilities without endangering ourselves to real consequences. Just look at a game like chess, a simulation of war, or tag, which represents a predator and prey relationship.
Kittens bat around a ball of yarn, dogs fetching balls and infants giggling in a game of peek-a-boo. Examples of play are everywhere and it is hardwired into who we are. There are significant survival advantages to playing and we have biological rewards to reinforce our desire to play. When we play, endorphins are released in our brain and we desire to do that activity in the future. You’ve probably experienced this in the form of a runner’s high or even that awesome feeling after winning a game of checkers. That reward is what drives us to play and can be thought of as the “fun.” Without fun we would have little motivation to practice our skills and our evolutionary trajectory would stall.
Natural funativity is a deep and complex study and certainly worth anyone who is interested in game design or user experience, and while it can’t demystify the insane popularity of a game like “Angry Birds,” it can give us insight into why humans enjoy slinging overweight featherbombs into structures in the first place.
Image source: Appl3T3ch.co.uk