Should video games be “interesting” or “fun”?

This is a guest post written by a Gengo translator.

In Japanese video-gaming criticism, omoshiroi sometimes translates to “fun” and other times to “interesting”. However, the word tanoshii is also usually translated as “fun” but is actually closer to the sense of “enjoyable”.

Whereas in games criticism and studies written in English, there is a fair amount of angst over the word “fun.” Is it a useful term? What gets lost if we stop using it?

“Fun” is usually recognized as a vague word that expresses some sort of pleasure. The benefit of using this expression is usually associated with the belief that gaming is a commercial industry within a male-dominated culture. However, when developers say that their peers don’t focus enough on what makes a game “fun”, they often have a good point.

It’s difficult to do justice to the full semantic range of these words, which embrace the way that ordinary people describe games that they like or don’t like. Overall, there are four terms (two dichotomies) that are central to games writing as value judgement (as opposed to games writing as critical analysis):

  • Omoshiroi (adj.) fun, interesting ; tsumaranai (adj.) unappealing, uninteresting
  • Tanoshii (adj.) fun, enjoyable ; tsurai (adj.) tough, harsh

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Omoshiroi is not just a straightforward English translation of the term, but rather a game is described as omoshiroi because it appeals to someone’s past experiences. This is an important definition to bear in mind if you usually translate omoshiroi as “interesting”.

I’m accustomed to hearing “interesting” applied to a game precisely because it’s doing something different or unexpected. I want to put this difference down to the language gap, but the full semantic range of the word “interesting” is not covered by omoshiroi anyway.

Tsumaranai can simply be translated as “boring”, but there’s something more specific happening here. Tsumaranai is generally accepted as the antonym of omoshiroi, but it can also be tanoshii. A game is tsumaranai if it is too simple, or too retrograde. The basic idea of the game, or its surface appearance, might fail to attract your interest, but you can still play the game and discover that it’s tanoshii. So tsumaranai is unappealing or uninteresting.

I think Flappy Bird is a key example of a tsumaranatanoshii game. It looks like trash, but is exceptionally good fun once you start playing it.

Tanoshii and tsurai are more about base emotion. A game doesn’t have to be tanoshii to be omoshiroi, but it can be both. Tanoshii is an impulsive response. It might be a game making you go “woah” or just pulling you in and grabbing all your attention.

Tsurai is the direct opposite of tanoshii and means “tough” or “harsh”. A lot of omoshiroi games are tsurai, since the work the developers are doing in an omoshiroi game is usually about taking an existing pattern and adding a challenging new twist. First Person Shooter games are omoshiro-tsurai,and this was the preferred pleasure of pro arcade gamers of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The word “fun” can be applied to games that are extremely difficult and require a pre-existing level of aptitude to even play at a mediocre level, but the word tanoshii cannot. Looking at how the word is written, this does make some sense—it is written with the character raku, which on its own refers to ease and relaxed enjoyment.

There are many other pleasures that can be gained from a game. There’s an elevated cultural status given to omoshiro-tsurai games in core gamer culture, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with a game that is tsumarana-tanoshii.

There can be possible interrelationships between pleasures and pains in gaming without decrying a game for having aspects that are painful. To make a good game, you don’t have to eliminate the possibility that it could be experienced as tsumaranai or tsurai. It’s okay to have those pains present. A game doesn’t have to be both omoshiroi and tanoshii in order to be good.

However, I do think there’s a lot to be gained from breaking down “fun” into different pleasures and pains that act together and against one another, as long as we accept that not all games have to be fun or interesting.

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Zoya Street

The author

Zoya Street

Zoya, a Gengo translator in French to English and Japanese to English, is a historian and journalist of video games and playful art. As the editor-in-chief of Silverstring Media’s critical publishing arm, his writing covers plays, games and software.


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