Book Recommendation: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

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.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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3 Responses to Book Recommendation: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

  1. Beth Harris says:

    Well, this book is interesting and fun, but a word of warning to female readers: I was enjoying this book until I got to page 102, where I read, “Men are more likely to have systematizing brains, and women more likely to have empathizing brains.” And then (p. 104) “Men not only navigate space differently, but they tend to learn by trying, whereas women prefer to learn through modeling another’s behavior.”

    Sounds a little like Harvard President, Lawrence Summers’ recent remark that biology is the reason why women don’t do as well in careers in science and math, no?

    And the conclusion of the author to the question of why games don’t appeal to more women: “games are more likely to appeal to young males because these players happen to have the sort of brain that works well with formal abstract systems.”

    Ugh! Guess I should just give up now.

    I don’t appreciate this sort of appeal to the supposed “science of the brain” to support claims that women are one way and men are another that only end up reinforcing deeply unfortunate sterotypes that continue to adversely effect the real lives of real women. There is (sadly) a long history of this kind of sexism.

  2. Raph Koster says:

    I’m sorry you saw those comments as sexist. They are not intended to be at all. As the book specifically states, these are comments on statistical averages only, not biological determinism. The quote from page 102 is a paraphrase of Simon Baron-Cohen’s thesis, not my own statement. Lastly, the book goes on to specifically argue that we should not regard biology as destiny, that games have the power to change how the brain is wired (definitely read the endnote on research on spatial manipulation, for example) and that we ought to broaden the appeal of games.

    There is a fairly substantial pile of research out there regarding brain differences across genders; none of the researchers in the field that I read in the course of writing the book were at all presenting it as a sexist argument. Rather, I’d argue that the limitations lie mostly on the “systematizing brain” side.

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