April 26, 2017

Holistic Fun and the Fallacy of Composition

This is a sentiment I hear pretty often, in discussions about game design:

“[element of the game] is not fun. Therefore, let’s change it, or remove it from the game.”

(Here’s an example in a discussion about the cost of resurrection magic in Dungeons & Dragons.)

This is a textbook example of the fallacy of composition.

The fallacy of composition is the idea that a whole must have all the properties of every one of its parts. So because chlorine is poisonous and sodium explodes upon contact with water, NaCl (table salt) must be more dangerous than white phosporus…

The fallacy of composition is obvious nonsense. So why do people forget this when they talk about games?

In the context of game design, the fallacy goes something like this: “For a game to be fun, every part of the game has to be fun. And if any part of the game is un-fun, then the game won't be fun (or at least, will be less fun).”

But wait! The person in the example you linked [Sean K. Reynolds] didn't actually say any of that!

You’re right. He didn’t. In fact, maybe he doesn’t even think any of that.

But in that case, why in the world would it be a problem, for an element of the game to not be fun? Why do we care about whether individual elements of the game are fun or not? (And how far should we take that concern? Specific game mechanics? Individual feats, spells, items? Do we need for every paragraph in the rulebook to be jam-packed with fun? Every sentence? Every word?)

The question we should be asking instead is:

Given that the game contains such-and-such an element, is the game fun?

In other words, the only sensible way to judge a game’s fun factor is holistically—not atomically.

We can ask whether a game is fun (and just how fun is it, and what kind of fun it provides, etc.). We can ask whether an element of the game contributes to, or detracts from, the game being fun. But it makes no sense at all to ask whether an element of the game is fun.

(Why not, by the way? Simply, because players don’t experience game elements on their own, devoid of context. Players experience the game, period, and the question of fun is all about the player experience.)

Let’s look again at what SKR says:

Q1: What is the point of a game where dying doesn’t mean anything beyond sitting out a few rounds?

Playing the game is fun. Having a “time out” before you can play the game again isn’t fun.

On the surface, it seems to make sense… but this atomic view of fun runs afoul of the fallacy of composition. If we amend the above sentiment to be compatible with the holistic view of fun, and say…

“Having a ‘time out’ before you can play the game [after your character dies] doesn’t contribute to the game being fun.”

… or, to rephrase it in a way that makes the distinction even clearer:

“A game where you have a ‘time out’ before you can play the game [after your character dies] is less fun than a game where there is no such ‘time out’.”

Now this doesn’t seem like nearly so obviously true a claim. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. It needs to be defended. (I think it’s not true, personally.)

The next time you’re tempted to use this sort of “game element X isn’t fun” argument, or see someone else using it, mentally transform it into the logical endpoint of the atomic view:

“Playing the game is fun. The word ‘the’ isn't fun.”

Does this sound like a good argument for excising every instance of “the” from the Player’s Handbook?

Leave a comment

All comments are reviewed before being displayed.

Name (required):

E-mail (required, will not be published):


You can use Markdown in comments!

Enter value: Captcha