Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is one of the best work-related books I’ve read in quite some time. It is also one of the strangest. Written in a simple, plain-spoken style with relatively few words on a page and an illustration on every facing page, printed in a shape that is wider than it is tall, the book feels very much like a children’s book. But don’t be fooled. The level of sophistication, both in the narrative construction and in the content itself, is impressive. The result is that you can plow through this book very quickly and yet absorb some very rich and subtle concepts.
Most interesting of all, though, is that the book is really about teaching and learning as much as it is about games.The book starts by talking about how are brains are pattern recognition machines, always hungry to learn new patterns. Games feed our hunger to learn new patterns, and good games dish out new patterns to learn that are just hard enough and coming at us just fast enough to keep our attention. Koster writes,
Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present. But they have to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of deprivation and overload, of excessive order and excessive chaos, of silence and noise….
If your goal is to keep things fun (read as “keep the player learning”), boredom is always the signal to let you know you have failed.
The definition of a good game is therefore “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.”
That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.
One wonders, then, why learning is so damn boring to so many people. It’s almost certainly because the method of transmission is wrong. We praise good teachers by saying that they “make learning fun.” Games are very good teachers…of something. The question is, what do they teach?
You can see why I like this guy. Koster, as it turns out, was the creative lead for Ultima Online and is currently the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment. So he knows his stuff. He is also apparently trained as a writer, which means he knows how to communicate.
As you might guess, the narrative structure created by a guy like Koster is unique. The pictures on the right-hand pages were annoying for the first couple of pages and then quickly became fascinating. He basically constructs a parallel visual narrative that comments on the textual ones. There are times when I would find myself leafing ahead to see the next illustration before going back and reading the text on the previous page.
And the range and depth that he covers is amazing. Here are just a few of the topics he tackles:
- The relative strengths of games versus narratives as teaching tools
- How games and the stories tacked onto them do and do not tend to support each other
- The ontology of essential game patterns, or “ludemes”
- Whether games can ever be “art” and what it would mean if they could
- Why a sense of fun is an evolutionary advantage “right up there with opposable thumbs”
In the process, he touches on art, music, literature, cognitive science, philosophy, and many other highbrow topics with great sophistication yet without a trace of pretention or even an excess of big words. In one instance, for example, he poses (and answers!) the question, “What would an Impressionist game look like?” After discussing the commonalities across media in Impressionist art, literature, and music, he writes,
Can you make an Impressionist game? A game where the formal system conveys the following?
- The object you seek to understand is not visible or depicted.
- Negative space is more important than shape.
- Repetition with variation is central to understanding.
The answer is, of course you can. It’s called Minesweeper.
In another example, he illustrates (and I do mean illustrates) how a story tacked onto a formal game structure can have profound ethical implications:
The bare mechanics of the game do not determine its semantic freight. Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s picture a mass murder game wherein there is a gas chamber shaped like a well. You the player are dropping innocent victims down into the gas chamber, and they come in all shapes and sizes. There are old ones and young ones, fat ones and tall ones. As they fall to the bottom, they grab onto each other and try to form human pyramids to get to the top of the well. Should they manage to get out, the game is over and you lose. But if you pack them in tightly enough, the ones on the bottom succumb to the gas and die.
I do not want to play this game. Do you? Yet it is Tetris. You could have well-proven, stellar game design mechanics applied toward a repugnant premise. To those who say the art of the game is purely that of the mechanics, I say that film is not solely the art of cinematography or scriptwriting or directing or acting. The art of the game is the whole….
…All artistic media have influence, and free will also has a say in what people say and do. Games right now seem to have a very narrow palette of expression. But let them grow….It is not surprising that we wonder whether games or TV or movies have a social responsibility–once upon a time we asked the same thing about poetry. Nobody really ever agreed on an answer.
The constructive thing to do is to push the boundary gently so that it doesn’t backfire. That’s how we got Lolita and Catcher in the Rye and how we got Apocalypse Now. As a medium, we have to earn the right to be taken seriously.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Read the book. Especially if you are a teacher.