Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment

All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”

The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.

One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.

But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.

I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!

Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.

Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.

Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.

I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?

You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.

The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.

All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.

¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.

² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.

Posted on May 16, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I don’t think the fun connected to the “investing process” and the fun connected to the “instant gratification” are independent from another. Means, some things seem to be fun in themselves and right now, only because they seem to lead to more fun later.

    Imagine your 9-hour deck building would have had no effect on your chances to win the 1-hour match. Now, that wouldn’t have been fun, I’m sure. Hence, one reason the “investing process” was fun right when you did it, was that you knew that it would have an effect. the fact that it was an investment was a necessary condition for it to be fun!

    And that’s really the whole trick of “fun by investing”: Things that usually wouldn’t be fun become fun when they are part of an investment. In fact, I’d argue that most of the “instant fun in themselves” things aren’t actually all that much fun in themselves. 99% of the fun things in life are fun due to what they mean for the future: raising kids, building a house, starting a new job, buying shares, and, yes, playing games.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that any investment is fun just because it is an investment; that’s obviously not the case.


    • I don’t know about that. There is no real progression in Counter-Strike, and I played that for years. I suppose you could drill down and say “if you click the mouse and the gun didn’t fire, it wouldn’t be fun.” But as a complete, holistic experience it was still entertaining despite being ephemeral. Even losses could be fun, as long as I did something crazy/useful/clever before getting killed. I’d probably still play it even in some hypothetical scenario in which I didn’t get better at playing the game.

      You are correct in that I’m not writing D&D campaigns because I do not have any conceivable way to utilize them. On the other hand, I would “over-write” D&D campaigns all day long if there was but a sliver of a chance for them to see play, going far beyond what is strictly necessary to run a session. I still have campaign modules and encounters I wrote years ago that I never got to use; I do not regret writing them. Thus, while there likely is a connection between the payoff and the investment, I don’t think it’s a strong connection. And it’s certainly not strong enough to allow designers to slack off about the moment-to-moment fun.

      There are a lot of entertaining things I could do with $1,000, but none of them would make getting punched in the face fun.


  2. While I agree with Nils there is one exception there in termss of deck building. Now I don’t build Magick decks but I like to try out different builds in Rift that I can come up with or others show me. The thing is 50% of those builds never even get tested. Not because they fail, but because I have a build that I like and thus won’t change. I build the other builds just to see if it is possible to build a build that has 24 points in Void Knight and the rest in Riiftblade while still looking viable on paper and then thinking of how I would play it in practice. The fact that there is nothing coming out of my investment (no playtime for the build), yet building the build was fun means to me thaat building builds is fun in and of itself to me in Rift.

    But and here is where I disagree with Azuriel, some things if done at the right time are fun to me even if I normally fiind them boring. Farming for materials is one such activity. It allows me to relax while playing the game and nnot take everything in the game as seriously. Or just gives me an output to do something differently. Sometimes it is even fun to see where some of the ores actually end up being and doing explorationn in the process.

    What I want to come to is that very few things are fun in and of themselves (having no need to see if your work has paid off e.g. playing the build you created) to an individual and taking several of them we see very few different things that are fun in and of themselves, leading to me thinking that it is impossible to create a game that offers only activities that are fun in and of themselves to several people. That is why the “fun through investment” (which includes far more numerous actvities) that Nils mentioned has to function as a glue between those few activities that are fun in and of themsleves.

    Like you said Azuriel (and since this is flagged as Philosophy): if “there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice” does that not mean that both activities are equally to be considered fun, since there is no real difference? And if that is so why not enjoy the fun of both activities as the fun it is? Especially since some “un-fun” activities might become fun at a later point due to the fact that they are different and new activities or need to grow on you.


    • Good points. I too find the occasional resource-gathering run relaxing, although I typically only do such activities if there is at least one other thing I am working towards, e.g. multi-tasking by Herbing while in the LFR queue, or while out checking for rare spawns.

      As for your final point, I would still argue the moment-to-moment fun is a worthy goal to strive for considering we’ve established it as possible. Retro-active fun, which I’m sure exists, sits too uncomfortably in the realm of “ends justify the means” for my taste. And on top of that, you are never really assured of an end that does justify the drudgery you just sat through. I don’t think the coping mechanisms we employ to save our sanity should excuse designers from at least attempting to develop the whole game as fun.


  3. The moment I saw you talking about M:tG the other day I just knew you were a Johnny Az.


    • Guilty as charged. I usually drift towards the Johnny/Tim hybrid model with my convoluted schemes, as opposed to Johnny/Spike. Besides, the latter play style is a fast way to lose friends/MtG partners unless you play exclusively with the tournament types.


  4. I like twiddling my thumbs. It drives Mrs Bhagpuss mad. She correlates thumb-twiddling with anxiety and seeing me do it leads her to believe I must be anxious, which makes her anxious. But I’m not anxious. I have no correlation between thumb-twiddling and anxiety. I do it because it feels nice.

    I do my dailies every day in GW2. I have two accounts and I don’t believe I have missed a daily on either, possibly ever and certainly since the introduction of Laurels. But I still have all my laurels. Every one. I still have all my jugs of karma. I still have all my mystic coins. I have never spent or drunk one of them. Not ever.

    I don’t do the dailies because I want anything I can get from them. I do them because doing them feels good in almost exactly the way twiddling my thumbs feels good. Almost everything I really enjoy in MMOs feels good that way. Playing MMOs may be nothing but one vast, never-ending thumb-twiddling session.

    I used to say that I played MMOs because it was something to do with my hands while I listened to the radio. Nowadays I don’t even listen to the radio. Maybe all it is is something to do with my hands. If so, that’s enough.


  5. You keep painting yourself into a corner you cannot get out of very easily. You went on for a long time about how much you enjoy building decks in MTG, on one hand, and then on another you seem to say that a person who enjoys gathering herbs in a game must be crazy.

    There are plenty of times when i have been playing MMO’s where i am just straight exhausted from playing PvP, or doing dungeon runs etc, and i just want to go out and farm materials. They are a good downtime activity, imo.

    Problem is, game developers have decided that they should make crafting systems for people that do not generally enjoy crafting. Sitting there, watching a crafting bar cooldown over and over is not a good crafting system.

    If people just want better gear to fight with, then they should get it through combat. Crafting has been watered down in MMO’s for almost a decade, and i really find it bothersome.

    I am not saying i disagree with your premise, but there have to be someways to increase the fun factor when harvesting. Like perhaps you are at a mining node, and you have luck of finding something special, like really special that you could sell to better armor yourself up, or craft something yourself.

    I find this generally to be the case in MMO’s. If you are just talking in general, i understand where you are coming from a little, but that does not make for games that are enjoyable over the long haul. I have been unable to find a game that entertains me for any length of time since WoW, and League of Legends. I have played MTG planewalkers 2012…or 2013, i don’t remember, for 100 hours, which was pretty entertaining, but kind of ran its course.

    I am not trying to complain about getting hundreds of hours of entertainment from a game, but when compared with the sickening amount of time and entertainment i poured into MMO’s in the past, i find the current crop of games to be lacking, and all of their problems are the same. They are too damn easy, and they keep trying to change the fundamentals of the MMO world, but that is a discussion for another time.

    I think i agree with you fundamentally, but i am not sure there are enough game developers that want to input the time and money investment into making a game that is complete.


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