Mainly due to my increased conscious thinking about game theory, I've started playing more chess these days, mainly against the computer as chess enthusiasts are few and far-between. The reason for this is fairly straightforward to me, now that I've been playing the game more.
In popular language, calling a game "not fun" is tantamount to saying it's not a good game. Games are supposed to be fun, after all: that is their purpose. If a game is not fun, it is not fulfilling its purpose. But I still think chess is one of the best games ever invented and enjoy playing it--I just don't have fun while I'm doing it.
Before you start thinking I'm barking up the wrong tree--that chess is indeed fun, I'm just describing a different kind of fun or something--know that I truly do not find it fun and yet I truly do find it worthwhile. Other people might find it fun, and other people may find it not enjoyable. The important thing is that at least one person is capable of finding a game not fun and still finding it worthwhile.
So the question to ask is, why? Why is chess not all that fun, while still being a good game? What makes a game fun, after all?
I posit that the key element to making a game fun is a heavy luck component. The reason has to do with simple psychology: I don't like blaming mistakes on myself, so I will take whatever steps necessary to avoid doing that. Sometimes, events conspire so that I'm forced to accept my mistakes--this happens. However, when it comes to games, players have several powerful options when it comes to denying responsibility, the most powerful of which will be to call the game "not fun," "useless," and ultimately, "a waste of time."
If a player does well at a game, that player will likely enjoy the game until he starts doing poorly. The tricky part is that at some point the player must do poorly, or there is no sense of accomplishment for getting better. If everyone can do equally well at a game, it is truly a waste of time--pure diversion--and it will quickly lose its appeal. It reminds me of the expression, "He who is friends with everyone is friends with no one." To be a great game, the game must challenge its participants at some point. This means the player will eventually make a mistake, lose, and will be looking for someone to blame it on.
Games considered fun usually designate the blame for the player: it's not the game's fault, it's certainly not the player's fault--it's luck's fault! You got dealt a bad hand! Your numbers didn't come up! You got tougher questions than your opponents! Now the player can blame something else for the mistake and go on playing, sans bruised ego.
Once a game has established luck as a common enemy, the game works its way into a trickier situation: how to encourage players to learn more about the game. Not many people will dedicate much time to a game that solely awards players based completely on luck. People, in addition to needing something to blame failure on, need a mechanic that will point success back at them. In other words, they need to be able to express what they did to deserve the win. Luck needs to play a limited role here, as any win attributed to luck isn't attributable to anyone.
In this way of seeing things, a game's "fun" and a game's "worth" aren't merely two distinct descriptors, but are potentially pitted against each other. A game needs to assign losses to luck (to be fun) and assign wins to players (to be worthwhile). This is difficult, but then again, it should be. Otherwise, every game would be good, and "good" would lose its meaning.
It also explains why chess is not fun and worthwhile, poker is fun and worthwhile, and Candyland or the lottery are fun and not worthwhile. Each of them manages luck differently, and result in different experiences. In chess, there is no luck--or to be specific, the only luck in the game (an opponent's mistake or oversight) cannot be used to justify a loss. The player is completely responsible for any loss.
To me, a game of chess is nerve-racking, all-consuming, and a frequent cause of rage. These are not descriptions of a fun activity to me. They do, however, suggest a level of emotional attachment that an activity which can only be described as "fun" would lack. Games need to move beyond fun to be worth anything, but don't forget that fun is an important "spoonful of sugar" that helps the medicine go down. While chess teaches me a lot of lessons about games, system design, and life in general, I still wish I had more people willing to play it with me.