From Whence Fun?

The other day I was playing Words with Friends (aka Scrabble app) with my SO. She is not much of a gamer – although she did play WoW back in vanilla – but she enjoys board games, and word games the most. I play along with the word games mainly because it’s something we can do together, but… I don’t really enjoy it. Word games are not my forte, and it does not help that she is way better at words than I am. I have actually legit won on occasion, primarily on the back of a few critical plays when the tiles line up just right. For the most part though, she kicks my ass on the daily.

For those who don’t know, there are an abundance of Words with Friends “cheat” apps out there. What those will do is analyze your seven tiles and the board, and then list out the best possible scoring combinations via brute-force analysis. I have never played with any such apps, but I find the idea amusing simply because that is exactly what I try to do a lot in-game.

See, Words with Friends will only allow valid plays. So, if you don’t know whether something is a word, you can drop tiles and get instant feedback. I have gotten a lot of points before basically dropping random tiles in key locations and making a word I had never heard of.


I don’t even know what “Jeon” is, but I regretted playing it immediately.

The difference between my method and using an app to do it for me is… something.

I suppose it becomes less of a contest between two players’ knowledge when automation is involved, cheapening the experience. On the other hand, my SO plays word games a lot – she runs several concurrent games at a time, in fact – so she has memorized all the different Q words that don’t need a U, and so on, which is a pretty big advantage. And like I mentioned, I can do everything the cheat apps would do, if I was patient enough to do it myself. So, at some point, her overwhelming knowledge versus my very basic brute-force tactics becomes analogous to one or both of us facing two different kinds of bots.

That thought led me to another: what if we both used cheat apps? At that point, the game would probably come down to the random nature of tile distribution, and perhaps a few scenarios in which we had to choose between two same-point plays. Regardless, it doesn’t sound particularly fun, right? If we have automated things that far, we may as well automate the selection of the answer, and just have two bots play against each other forever.

So… from whence did the fun originate?

I think it is safe to say that certainty reduces fun in games. While I do not necessarily mean that randomness needs to exist in order for fun to occur, I do mean that the outcome needs to be unknown, or at least in contention. If one person has the cheating app and the other does not, it’s not likely to be a fun game. Even if no cheating was involved, one player having an overwhelming advantage – either knowledge or skill – and the outcome is probably the same.

But what does that really say about our games, and the way we play them? The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have. Having a little advantage is nice, and the process by which we get better (experimenting, practice, etc) is a lot of fun too. At a certain level though, it tapers off. What’s fun after that? Direct competition? Maybe. Part of that fun is likely tied into the whole “unknown level of skill from opponent” thing though. Because if we knew he/she was using a cheat program, that fun would evaporate pretty quickly.

Now, there is a sort of exception here: it can be fun to totally dominate your opponent(s). Be it ganking in MMOs, or aimbots in FPS games, the reason a person would do such a thing is precisely to “collect tears” by specifically ruining other peoples’ experience. At that point though, the medium is kinda immaterial; the bully is just using whatever is convenient and less personally risky.

In any case, I went ahead and shared my thoughts above with my SO and her response was interesting. For her, the “game” within Words with Friends is actually just challenging herself in finding the highest-scoring move each turn – she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game. Which, to me, sounds like she should be playing against bots, but nevermind. And I actually understand that sentiment: whenever I was playing BGs in WoW, my goal is not necessarily to win at all costs (e.g. sitting on a flag 100% of the time), but to amuse myself on a micro level, even if I was grinding Honor.

Still, I suspect my SO will eventually tire of the wordplay over time, once her skills plateau. Or… maybe she won’t. After all, I somehow find it infinitely interesting to collect resources in Survival games despite having achieved maximum efficiency usually by clicking the button once. Which leads me back to my original question: from whence fun?

Posted on April 24, 2018, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I did once hear a radio program about Scrabble in which it was claimed that its creator intended it to be played collaboratively, with each player trying to work with the other(s) to achieve the highest cumalative score. I can’t find any supporting evidence of that claim but it has certainly become an established way to play the game.

    As I have said many times in response to some of the more gung-ho competitive gamers in blogdom, the word “game” has a number of meanings, some of which do not relate to competition in any way. I think it’s a very subjective, even solipsistic judgment to say that having fun while playing a game is predicated on believing you can win. That’s true for many people but certainly not for everyone. Plenty of people enjoy process as much as or more than outcome. If you enjoy the intellectual challenge of finding the best placement for your Scrabble tiles, for example, it may not matter much – or at all – whether you end up with a higher score than the other player(s).

    In MMOs that’s far more likely. A huge quantity of content, probably almost all in many MMOs, is non-competitive by design. It has always been difficult explaining that to the highly competitive minority, who also tend to be the loudest and most forceful of players.


    • Oh, for sure, not everything has to be competitive. I do believe my SO when she says she’s not expressly trying to win in Words with Friends.

      At the same time… it seems to me that she would be better off playing against bots than other people, ya know? I certainly don’t enjoy getting saddled with three D’s and no vowels while she makes 80+ point plays and hoovers up the high-point tiles. If I were facing anyone else, I would have resigned from that game to try again (or stopped playing) because the present game is no fun for me anymore. The outcome is known, even if the particulars might vary.


  2. I used to be on the other end of that arrangement – a good friend and I would play Words and Chess via app, I happened to be the stronger party and she a very good sport. I will say that of the two, Words was more fun for me. RNG made it possible for me to struggle and lose and, precisely as your SO and Bhagpuss says, the presence of a monster-score word on the board was a source of glee for both of us, regardless of who plonked it down. Chess was much more one-sided and a particularly bright (by my meagre standards) chess play was much more difficult to appreciate.

    So… I think light RNG’s essential, as is the possibility of reversals of fortune. I suppose that’s why card games played over multiple hands are so enduring, and why Hearthstone was so much fun to watch back in the day – even the streamer pros were often thrown curveballs and had to sweat against presumably weaker randoms. But some people do get really, really mad if they are ‘robbed’ of the precise level of dominance to which they feel their skill-level entitles them.

    You might be making too much of testing word permutations, though, which is just a flaw of Words. It would not work in actual Scrabble, and Words should have an game setup option to commit a word without pre-validation, if it does not already. And, of course, playing against bots just feels different – even a much stronger human player is fallible, has recognisable quirks and style, etc.


    • My only issue with experiencing the glee of monster words in Scrabble apps is the fact that which plays we make are predicated on avoiding setting the other player up. If I were a better sport, I would be making those six-tile plays for a whopping 10 points and thereby opening the field up for my SO to hit multiple Double-Word score spaces, etc. But I don’t, and neither does she. There is a special glee when they are hit anyway – that BLOW play for 81 points pictured in the post, for example – but those sort of shenanigans are only possible because I’m taking the game seriously, e.g. trying to maximize my points while minimizing hers.

      For the record, I doubt that she would enjoy playing if I were essentially just setting her up with layups all the time. The struggle is what makes it fun, I expect. Which is basically another way of saying that one is playing to win. And once that’s no longer possible?

      Absolutely agree on the RNG though. Uncertainty of outcome is key. She loves playing Boggle more than Words with Friends, but there isn’t any RNG in Boggle and she wins 100% of the time.


  3. > she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game

    Neither do I, as long as I win most of the time.

    Isn’t it human nature to not care as much about winning as we care about not losing


    • Ha, that’s true. I just looked back in the feed, and in the last 10 games I won 4 of them. 40/60 is a pretty bad ratio. And in the current match, she’s ahead by almost 100 points now.


  4. The thing is that Scrabble isn’t really a PvP game. When your turn is up, you are faced with a puzzle created by the previous turn and the available pieces. You can’t really damage your “opponent”, there are no way to “outplay” someone. You aren’t really playing against someone, merely the game utilizes the other player to randomize the board for you.


    • That’s true in a sense. However, another player can absolutely capitalize on, say, my gambling that they do not have the proper letters to take advantage of a Triple Word space that I opened up. I did not have to play JEON in the screenshot, for example – I could have “played it safe” somewhere else where I did not open up the board (e.g. playing parallel words, just adding S to the end of something, etc).

      In any case, there is a scoreboard and a big “X won the game” at the end, so it’s at least as PvP as Poker, Pool, and Darts. And, arguably, about the same as any turn-based game. Could Chess not be considered a puzzle created by the previous turn and available pieces?


  5. “The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have.”

    Which is why for most people, MMOs are at their peak when you’re a newbie trying to figure out the game. It’s also why MMO-clones have severe player dropoff after 2 months. It’s not the lack of content, it’s the lack of engaging and unknown/undiscovered systems. It also kinda explains why a game like Black Desert is still going strong, despite the complete lack of PvE endgame.


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