So apparently the latest thing in the blogging circles is to talk about what makes games fun. As a happiness-oriented gamer, this is right up my alley!
The main problem is that fun is so subjective. What's fun for some people is not at all fun for others. This means that a game can never 'get it right' in terms of fun, it can only appeal to larger or smaller audiences. I suppose I could talk about what I personally find fun.
First of all, I think people aren't being very precise when they talk about wanting to have fun. Fun is basically enjoying doing something. Unless coerced, everything we do is something that we want to do, that we've chosen as the best thing to do. We're always doing what we want. Fun is when 'what we want to do' aligns with an elevated mood over a duration.
I would divide the mechanism by which a game provides an elevated mood into 4 distinct aspects.
The first aspect is escapism. In the absence of any immediate joys or troubles, our lives still have a baseline level of happiness. A major part of choosing to play a game is to discard your real world baseline happiness for the game's baseline happiness. Being able to dissociate from the stress and troubles of relationship drama, paying bills, meeting expectations, managing a career, all that. Instead you can be an elf or a hobbit or a superhero or a spaceship captain. And these personas have their own troubles, true, but playing the game lets you somewhat easily overcome those troubles. It's very seductive to play as someone who has their shit together better than you yourself do. The more you immerse yourself in the game, the closer you can approach your avatars baseline. For really happy people, that can actually be a problem. :o People who are already happy need other aspects to keep them gaming. For everyone else, immersion can create stability.
The second aspect is about fulfilling real needs, and is often in direct conflict with the first aspect. We all have real world wants and needs, and not having these filled causes a loss of mood. One can play a game specifically to try to fill a need, and thus remove that loss of mood. If you feel stuck in a dead end job, a game with easily measured progression can add a sense of advancement. If you are shy, talking to people on an MMO can fill social needs. Competitive games can create a sense of victory that very few people experience in real life. Pornographic games provide fantasy and relief of sexual needs. Building games creates a sense of adding permanence to the world when in reality we're all transient. People searching for this aspect of fun don't want to escape into their games, they want to use the game to affect how they are in real life, to improve their real life baseline improve.
The third aspect of fun is about activity. This is where simply doing an action improves your mood. This is where there is the greatest difference among what people find fun. Some people quite simply become happier when jogging. I personally become desolate and certain that I'm about to die when jogging. :o Some people find the act of organizing and spreadsheeting fun. Some find that working on puzzles is fun. Some people enjoy making other people angry. Some people enjoy going really really fast. Some people enjoy being scared. Some people enjoy resource management. This is not about accomplishing anything, it's about when the action itself gives you a sort of high or rush.
The final aspect is about rewards and punishments. Its when an event occurs that causes a sudden shift in your mood, negative or positive. Solving the puzzle, killing an enemy, winning the battle, reaching the next level, finding epic loot, getting a high score. Getting killed, being yelled at, being cheated, losing your place, losing an accomplishment, having your time wasted, getting frustrated. All of these and more, the things we pursue, the sudden surge of joy and triumph, the sudden failure and giving in to despair. These produce surges in mood, that slowly revert to the normal. They have magnitude and duration, but the duration is generally short. A new boss kill followed by victory sex and a lap around the house makes for a hugely elevated mood, but only for perhaps a day or two.
This is the part where I talk about everything that's wrong in the gaming world and how to fix it. Except that doesn't really work. Again, it's all about audience. Everyone has their own balance of which aspects of fun they prefer. Some people are all about escapism, others are all about rewards. A game doesn't have a 'correct' choice, it can merely focus on different aspects and see what audience it attracts.
FWIW, my own opinion is that modern MMO's and WoW in particular are spending too much time focusing on providing ever higher rewards, the fourth aspect of fun, creating great surges of happiness now and then, but quickly reverting to a fairly low baseline happiness. The devs are chasing what players say makes them happy, instead of what makes them not unhappy. I'd like to see a lot more focus on the third aspect, providing lots of different activities that people can enjoy simply playing, without needing a shiny at the end to justify it. I'd like to see more work to prevent negative surges than to provide positive surges.
But I've long since realized I'm an outlier in almost everything, so I can't claim that following my advice would be more profitable, only that it would likely be more fun for me and people like me. :o