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Published June 16, 2021

In this blog, we spend a lot of time investigating how to design meaningful ethical choices in games without necessarily asking the question of why. One easy justification for this research is its possible applications in training. It is not hard to justify the idea that games can allow us to practice and improve our ability to be moral agents, but this fails to address the proliferation of thorny moral problems in a long history of games that have no pretension of being anything more than entertainment. Of course, this isn’t just true of games, a lot of our entertainment media deals with difficult moral problems. But the question remains: why do we enjoy morally challenging works?

Standard theories of fun from game design literature don’t do a great job of capturing this. Yes, you could say there is an element of challenge to solving a difficult moral problem, but a moral problem is often hard in a way that feels different to an intellectual or physical challenge, and there isn’t the same sense of triumph in choosing the least unpleasant solution to a wicked problem as there is in solving a puzzle. We could say that moral problems create interesting stories, but that is just kicking the can down the road. What is it that we enjoy about stories of protagonists struggling with difficult moral problems, especially when they can feel so unpleasantly prickly when we are in the midst of them?

Ask a psychologist this question and they may talk about the difference between hedonic and eudamonic happiness. Hedonic happiness is the pursuit of enjoyment and pleasure. Most of the “kinds of fun” we talk about in game design are hedonic pleasures: sensation, competition, excitement, escapism, these are ways of pursuing positive emotion experience (affect). Eudamonic happiness, in contrast, is the pursuit of meaning and purpose. The concept dates back at least as far as Aristotle who talked about eudamonia as the highest good – a life well lived. The satisfaction we get from dealing with difficult moral questions is because they are meaningful, and give us insight into deeper questions of what it means to be human.

Which leads us (at last!) to this paper. The authors want to explore the question of whether a game can be ‘meaningful’ in a way that more than just ‘fun’. They postulate that we can have a sense of ‘appreciation’ (eudamonic happiness) from a meaningful game, that is distinct from ‘enjoyment’ (hedonic happiness). To investigate this question, they surveyed 512 individuals from a variety of backgrounds and asked them to recall either a game they found ‘meaningful’ or a game they found ‘fun’ (the exact definitions of these terms were left up to participants to decide). They asked participants to rate the games in terms of story and gameplay, and then had them complete the Player Experience of Needs Satisfaction (PENS) survey. Additional questions were appended to the survey to measure the player’s experience of “insight” provided by the game.

Through statistical modelling they were able to show that ‘enjoyment’ and ‘appreciation’ are indeed different concepts and that the concept of ‘insight’ helps explain ‘appreciation’ in a way that the normal PENS measures of ‘autonomy’, ‘competency’ and ‘relatedness’ do not. The figure below (taken from the paper) illustrates the relationships between the different factors.

The relationship between story, insight and appreciation

Notable in this diagram is the fact that story has a much stronger relationship with insight (and thus appreciation) than game play. This speaks to the difficulty I believe we still face as designers in creating non-scripted game play that produces meaningful experience, but that is a topic for another post (and another paper). What I primarily take from this is the reassurance that games can and do create meaningful experiences for players and are a source of eudamonic happiness. When prompted, 70% of participants could name a game title that provided them a ‘meaningful’ experience. This is a very encouraging number and I can only hope that continued design innovation will see this continue to grow.


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