Just recently I made a forum post in the (fantastic) Thinking Outside the Box union boards, in which I openly pondered what aspects made games fun. The following is a more structured (and grammatically editted) detail of my discoveries.
As an aspiring game designer, I've studied a lot of different aspects of a lot of different games in an effort to see what I think sets the truly clas(s)ic titles from the yearly crop o' crap. I'll impart my opinion, naturally, but I'm really more interested in what other people think.
From what I can gather, it all comes down to two factors. These factors consist of further aspects that are often discussed, but they all contribute to immersion and suspense. Probably not the two factors you were expecting, but hear me out, I've put a lot of thought into this.
We all know what immersion is, when a game's setting is so deeply crafted that you blindly accept that it is a living, breathing world on that screen. You invest feelings into characters that don't exist, and you're never disappointed because they exist to you. Immersion covers a lot of the main elements that is covered by most magazines' and websites' reviews. Sound, music, graphics, story, controls. It's the meat of the game, and this shouldn't really be a surprising revelation of what makes games fun.
The real discovery I made was when I was trying to analyze just what the hell made Geometry Wars so damned fun. No single aspect made it very noteworthy, and a lot of reviewers would leave this mystery factor up to a value lazily labeled "fun factor". And then it hit me: Suspense is the mystery fun factor.
I'll try to explain myself via anecdote: As previously mentioned, I find the act of shooting hundreds upon hundreds of geometrical enemies into oblivion without respite a fun endeavor to engage in several minutes at a time, several times a week. One phenomenon I've encountered during most of my Geometry Wars sessions is that I'll try my best to get an achievement or certain benchmark, whether it be to survive to 400k or score 1 million. During these goals, if ever I have it in my head that it's just not going to work out on this run, I find myself heading back to the main menu to start a new run, since continuing would be unfun.
And here is where my hypothesis is born. If what makes games (like GW) cease being fun is certainty of fate, then logically, what makes games fun is uncertainty of fate. More concisely put, suspense makes games fun. Think about it. How many times have you played a guitar hero song, trying to make 5 stars and restarted after missing 3 consecutive 4x streaks? Up until then, you were hellbent on getting it beat, even though you were unsure if you would make it or not. Once you knew you wouldn't make it, the magic was gone, you're determination vanished, only to be found anew on your next run when that uncertainty returned.
In competitive games, you're never sure if you're going to beat your opponents until either the game is over or the skill gap between you and your opponent(s) has become apparent. At this point, the game is either over or (worse) has ceased to be fun. It's always been my opinion that people who play those much better or lesser than themselves and claim to be "playing for fun" are lying, either to themselves or others. At that point, you're either playing to get better (which would constitute training, which i do not define as fun) or just enjoying your time with friends (in which case you're not playing for fun, you were having fun before the game started).
Suspense can be seen even more easily in story-driven games. In fact, that's what the story is there for, to keep you wondering what plot point will unfold next. Will Mario ever find the correct castle? Does Sonic ever defeat Robotnik for good? Will Solid Snake defeat Liquid in time to escape? You sure as hell aren't going to put the controller down and walk away from such pressing matters, are you? Of course, not.
I'm sure my juvenile examination of the essence of games will not sit well with many of you, but that's OK. That's why I'm posting this, I want to know what you think about what makes games fun. Educate me, I'm open to more and better ideas than my own. I hope to read some well-formed opinions. :)