Why is sex fun?

Ian Schreiber writes on the question of “what is fun”:

When a game designer (or student) first starts trying to define why games are “fun” they have trouble even conceptualizing it beyond “I know it when I see it.” Then they encounter Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and/or Koster’s Theory of Fun and have this huge epiphany: Eureka, all fun comes from learning a new skill! Then after awhile, they enter another stage of questioning this: wait a minute, if all fun comes from skill mastery, why aren’t students driven by the promise of fun to get straight A’s in all their classes (even the poorly taught ones), since that involves mastery of the material? Why is sex fun (by some standards), and yet doesn’t involve mastery (ahem, again by some standards)? At any rate, you could think of this as three stages of evolution of a game designer, and different designers are going to be in different stages, and when they encounter one another there will be chaos when they start discussing the nature of “fun.”

I find that Marc LeBlanc’s 8 kinds of fun is a much more comprehensive answer than Koster’s or Csikszentmihalyi’s. He categorises eight different features of an activity that can make it fun. So to answer the question of “Why is sex fun?”:

Sensation – Game as sense-pleasure

This is the most obvious. Sex feels good. If done right, it can also look, sound, smell and taste good. And like a well designed game, the sensation is in the activity, not just something you admire from afar.

Fantasy – Game as make-believe

Sex play can involve fantasy. Again, I don’t think this needs too much explanation. Part of the fun of sex for some people is the make-believe aspect.

Narrative (I prefer Drama) – Game as unfolding story

The sexual act is a naturally dramatic one involving suspense, climax and resolution. You can add other kinds of drama by, say, having sex in a public place.

Challenge – Game as obstacle course

Despite Ian’s objections, sex can involve challenge for the person who is so minded. Pleasing your partner can be an interesting challenge if you’re up for it. You can even create ‘difficulty progression’ by choosing more challenging positions.

Fellowship – Game as social framework

Sex is a social activity which builds relationships. It is pleasing to do because it involves interacting with another person and working with them to achieve a pleasure experience for both of you.

Discovery – Game as uncharted territory

Sex is an act of exploration and experimentation, both in terms of ‘discovering’ you partner’s body and in terms of trying new and unusual positions.

Expression – Game as soap box

While perhaps not usually ‘artistic’ in the normal sense, sex is nevertheless a major act of self-revelation, expressing who you are.

Submission (I prefer Meditation) – Game as mindless pastime

This category I’m not sure about. Perhaps ask someone who knows more about Tantric sex than me.

I wrote this quickly off the top of my head. I’m sure you could write many books on any one of these categories. I don’t think in any case I’m over-reaching. Sex is obviously a very well designed game.

Published in: on October 9, 2008 at 2:14 am  Comments (7)  
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  1. Interesting point. I left out “8 Kinds of Fun” because it didn’t come up in the discussions at SIEGE, but you’re right that it offers a more comprehensive answer than Czikszentmihalyi or Koster.

    That said, LeBlanc et al. admit that their 8 kinds are not comprehensive, and some of them overlap uncomfortably (where exactly is the dividing line between Narrative and Fantasy?).

    I do think you’re stretching for some of them by saying that sex “can” fit these categories if you do it in a certain way. You could use that argument for most activities (homework “can” be fun if you make a game out of it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have your students procrastinating their WoW level grind because they want to do their homework first). Most of the kinds of fun aren’t inherent to the activity itself.

    I’ll give you sense-pleasure and fellowship.

    As for whether sex is a well-designed game, that opens up the whole can of worms of whether it’s a game at all, and how you define “game”… but that’s a whole other post.

  2. Yes, the categories do tend to coincide in way that are tricky to untangle. I don’t find “Narrative” and “Fantasy” too hard to decouple, if you regard the former as “Drama” and the latter as “Imaginary world”. Lots of games have significantly drama without any imaginary component. But there are definitely cases where they work very closely together. The same goes for “Fantasy” and “Expression” when you consider improv games.

    But the act of trying to make hard-and-fast definitions is probably counter-productive. I tend to play down the whole “what is a game?” question, because I don’t want to forbid my students from being creative just because their ideas don’t fit my model. I’m happy with “participatory entertainment”.

  3. […] post prompted the Words on Play blog to write their own answer, citing Marc LeBlanc’s 8 Kinds of Fun, breaking down the ways in which LeBlanc’s 8 ways […]

  4. […] read about the connection between Raph Koster, sex, and English lit essays. Raph refers you to Word On Play, which takes it eight […]

  5. For all the Googlers arriving here looking for “fun sex games”
    I recommend: http://darkroomsexgame.com/

  6. Submission (I prefer Meditation) – Game as mindless pastime

    This might easily refer to that feeling of being “in the zone” where your conscious mind takes a back seat to the subconscious and the muscle memory. In BDSM, it’s referred to as “sub-space” but the kink isn’t required for that to happen.

    “Meditation” is likely the best term.

    • I have taken to using the term ‘Ritual’, as I think it best captures what the original authors were trying to say. That is, the kind of meditative pleasures that arise from the repetitive and automatic performance of otherwise meaningless actions.

      ‘Immersion’ is a slippery term. Designers have identified a number different kinds of immersion, which are related to the different kinds of fun above. They include:

      1. Sensory Immersion. Getting lost in pure sensation, as in the experience of a brilliant piece of cinematography at the movies, or a symphony or a rock concert.
      2. Tactical Immersion. Also know as flow, as when concentrating on a difficult feat of skill at the outer edge of your ability.
      3. Strategic Immersion. Getting lost in your head in a problem solving task. Common to computer scientists.
      4. Narrative Immersion. Getting lost in the story and your own imagination, as in a great novel.
      5. Role-play Immersion. Getting caught up in a character while acting. ‘Becoming’ the character.

      It would be interesting to link this work to psychological literature on altered states of conciousness.


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