A Theory of Fun For Game Design (Book Review)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

Have you ever wondered what makes games fun? Sure, you can talk about how you enjoy the challenge or the novelty, but what makes those things fun? What does “fun” mean, anyway? In A Theory of Fun For Game Design, Raph Koster tries to answer the fundamental question of how games work by defining “fun” itself. Though his background is in video games, he finds common ground with everything from sports to role-playing.

According to Koster, games appeal to us because our brain rewards us for learning new things. Games present a structured, learnable system, in effect providing us a lesson that can later be applied to our more complex reality. In fact, Koster takes this to its logical extreme, saying that games are part of the same medium as training drills and school. “Fun is just another word for learning”, and if we don’t normally perceive learning as fun, that is more a failure of school lessons than with the medium itself. After all, our brains are wired to want to learn.

It’s a compelling theory, as figuring out new challenges is a fundamental part of games and it explains why a game will not be fun for someone if it is too simple or too complex for them. Koster builds up this point with a breezy description of cognitive theory, throwing around terms like chunking and explaining levels of consciousness to quickly lay a foundation for the way he sees our relationship to games. This simple style is complemented by the cartoons that are found on every even page. They help the book fly by, partly because those pages read so quickly, and partly because they make it so easy for the reader to peak ahead and suddenly become committed to the next page. They also are effective at driving home Koster’s points; Whether it’s his game design experience or understanding of cognitive theory, he knows that using a second source to repeat a point to a reader will make it much easier to accept.

The open book, with text on the left half and a cartoon on the rightUnfortunately, this breezy style occasionally becomes too glib. Koster seems to write whatever comes naturally to him at the time, even if he contradicts it elsewhere. While talking about how games evolve to meet our needs, he points out in chapter four that there aren’t many games today built around about obsolete topics like farming. But later in the same chapter, he bemoans the fact that so many games still teach obsolete skills instead of modern ones. And he is so enamored with the idea of games teaching us that he repeatedly refers to the fact that games are designed to teach us. While games may appeal to learning centers of our brains, the creators were not generally doing this intentionally.

The limits of Koster’s theory become apparent when he supposes that gambling games “are actually designed to teach us about odds.” And of course, people who keep playing and losing money didn’t learn the lesson. As someone who has (enjoyably) lost a lot of money at Craps, I find this both inaccurate and insulting. I have an excellent grasp of the math behind the game, understand that I can expect to lose money over time, and have a thrilling time despite that. I’m not failing to learn a lesson any more than the game was “designed” to teach me one.

That is an instructive example for me, because for the most part Koster’s vision of games does ring true for me. But if there is a flavor of game that I enjoy for reasons other than figuring out a logical structure, then maybe other people like games for other reasons as well. Despite the book’s title, it never proposes any tests to prove or disprove this “theory”, just anecdotal evidence. (Not that I have any right to complain there – I did that with horror movies just last week.) But I suspect that a lot of people do not find games to be a method of learning. Just look at how much the gaming landscape has changed since this book was published in 2005: Farmville and its knockoffs have come to dominate the computer gaming industry, proving that for millions of people, simple repetitive tasks make the ideal game as long as it keeps telling them that they are achieving new things.

I can imagine how Koster would reply: He would say first of all that games like Farmville are failing in their purpose, just as any game does if holds on to its players once they have learned the lesson. (I somehow suspect that the publishers who have made millions from the games would disagree about the purpose, though.) Further, he would remind us that all artistic mediums are dominated by unchallenging popular works. Just because most people find comfort in a simple game doesn’t mean that creators shouldn’t keep pushing the envelope. I don’t disagree with that statement, but I do suspect that the number of people interested in unchallenging games is still a knock against his theory. Were I to formulate a theory of games, it would probably focus on the thrill that comes from accomplishment. Traditional gamers (from tabletop to sports) seem to favor accomplishments that involve learning or mastering systems, but apparently many people can be satisfied by nothing more than “the game says I accomplished something”. It’s very reminiscent of the way that junk food hijacks the part of our body that thinks fats and sugars are rare and vital for survival.

(Note: I’m aware that a few paragraphs after I expressed offense at Koster’s depiction of gambling games, I’m dismissing another category of games as “junk food”. If anyone who reads this wants to explain what Farmville means to them, please do so. Just because I don’t see the point doesn’t mean there isn’t one, and I’m always interested in why people like the things they like.)

The second half of A Theory of Fun moves from what games are to what they should be. This mixes in all the elements that you would expect from someone who is explaining his geeky hobby to the world: The focus is on how games add value to the world and justifying them as art. Unlike most works of this kind, though, Koster isn’t satisfied with easy answers. He admits that games in their current form are not very successful art yet, and there is a lot of work yet to do. This conclusion is somewhat unsatisfying, but it makes the call to arms more inspiring.

Koster also examines many other elements of gaming culture through the lens of his theory. This is often fascinating, because even though I’m not convinced that he has defined games universally, he does have a good window into a type of gamer that I identify with. Explanations for why some people cheat and for why gamers shrug off the ethical implications of games like Grand Theft Auto seem so natural that it’s hard to remember if I thought about those issues in that way before I read the book or not.

So overall, is this a good book? It’s hard to say. Many people definitely feel that it is great (I picked it up on Brenda Brathwaite’s recommendation). I think that the book does an excellent job of explaining its ideas and being fun at the same time, but I question the completeness of Koster’s theory and whether the moral duty he lays on game designers actually exists. If nothing else, though, this book is notable because it can start discussions like the (one-sided) one in this blog post. Maybe someday there will be so many books out there discussing the value and meaning of games that A Theory of Fun will seem insignificant. We’re a long way off from that, though, and for now this book is an important start to a conversation that not enough people are having.

Grade: B

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