“Playing Outside” is a great essay by Leigh Alexander in The New Inquiey covers much ground on the role of play and fun in games.
An emerging digital ecosystem is emerging outside the contours of classic blockbuster video games. Alexander asserts that:
if genuine legitimacy for games lies in the idea that they can be creative expression, tools of global communication and teaching — that’s the evolutionary purpose of play, after all — fun decreases in relevance. Culture-changing entertainment is rarely described as “fun.”
See also this series of articles from The Economist on the video games industry back in December 2011.
Finally, this interesting article from the New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten called MASTER OF PLAY (profile of Nintendo’s great Shigeru Miyamoto ) and this quote of interest:
The Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his classic 1938 study “Homo Ludens” (“Man the Player”), argued that play was one of the essential components of culture—that it in fact predates culture, because even animals play. His definition of play is instructive. One, play is free—it must be voluntary. Prisoners of war forced to play Russian roulette are not at play. Two, it is separate; it takes place outside the realm of ordinary life and is unserious, in terms of its consequences. A game of chess has no bearing on your survival (unless the opponent is Death). Three, it is unproductive; nothing comes of it—nothing of material value, anyway. Plastic trophies, plush stuffed animals, and bragging rights cannot be monetized. Four, it follows an established set of parameters and rules, and requires some artificial boundary of time and space. Tennis requires lines and a net and the agreement of its participants to abide by the conceit that those boundaries matter. Five, it is uncertain; the outcome is unknown, and uncertainty can create opportunities for discretion and improvisation. In Hyrule, you may or may not get past the Deku Babas, and you can slay them with your own particular panache.
The French intellectual Roger Caillois, in a 1958 response to Huizinga entitled “Man, Play and Games,” called play “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.” Therein lies its utility, as a simulation that exists outside regular life. Caillois divides play into four categories: agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). Super Mario has all four. You are competing against the game, trying to predict the seemingly random flurry of impediments it sets in your way, and pretending to be a bouncy Italian plumber in a realm of mushrooms and bricks. As for vertigo, what Caillois has in mind is the surrender of stability and the embrace of panic, such as you might experience while skiing. Mario’s dizzying rate of passage through whatever world he’s in—the onslaught of enemies and options—confers a kind of vertigo on the gaming experience. Like skiing, it requires a certain degree of mastery, a countervailing ability to contend with the panic and reassert a measure of stability. In short, the game requires participation, and so you can call it play.
Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.
Notice how it refers to two studies who first addressed games and play. They are about in the middle of the article