By Raph Koster, 2005

Written by game designer Raph Koster and published in 2005, A Theory of Fun For Game Design explores the meaning of fun and the potential of games. It comes at the issue from a design perspective rather than a theoretical one, and its informal, personal tone combined with useful but comical illustrations make it a very accessible read. Koster's main focus is on games and fun as psychological phenomena, topics that are important in and of themselves as learning tools and (eventually) means of expression. While the tone is very positive, Koster's ideas have been criticised for his focus on fun as the main perogative of games, especially by Ian Bogost in chapter 8 of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism.

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Chapter 1: Why Write This Book?Edit

Koster sets out the context and mission of his work in this chapter. Kids, he opens with, use games as learning tools even before learning language, and see patterns in games like tic-tac-toe even if they cannot understand them in the same way adult designers might. This ability seems to fall off with age -- Koster himself admits to having experienced the sad phenomenon of boredom from games that are too easy and games that are too difficult alike (10). This, combined with the growing cultural force of games and play's relation to work, is why Koster decided to "tackle the questions of what games are, and what fun is, and why games matter," the three major themes of his book (10). 

Chapter 2: How the Brain WorksEdit

This chapter begins with a discussion of possible definitions of a game, citing minds such as Johan Huizinga, Jesper Juul, and Chris Crawford among others. Koster's personal definition is connected to how the brain works: "Games are just exceptionally tasty patterns to eat up" (14). Koster follows this up with a primer on how the brain works, focusing on the phenomenon he describes as "chunking," the division of large sets of information into usable groups. This tendency helps us cut through the "noise" of everyday life and get usually reliable information from it. 

As the mind gets more and more accustomed to using specific chunks of information, levels of understanding increase. The highest level of understanding is something Koster calls "grokking," a level of familiarity akin to muscle memory. To Koster, the ultimate goal of the brain is turning certain actions into routines in order to allow more time for conscious thought (32). Mastering a game may be an example of this phenomenon.

Chapter 3: What Games AreEdit

In this chapter, Koster explores the possible meaning of "game" further, linking it to the way the brain works as described in the previous chapter. To Koster, games are puzzles to be solved and provide lessons to be learned (or grokked.) This is where the notion of "fun" comes from: "Fun from games arises out of mastery," Koster writes, "It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug" (40).

Following this logic, the best games are those that have enough variables to keep the new data flowing in order for the brain to keep learning for as long as possible before the player stops playing. Tic-tac-toe, for example, with its limited amount of permutations, is easy to master, and so boredom sets in after a relatively low number of playthroughs. On the other hand, a complicated contemporary game has more variables, and thus provides more challenges and more fun for a longer period.

Chapter 4: What Games Teach UsEdit

Having established a working definition for games, Koster continues to flesh out the properties of games mainly by explaining what they do. He goes on to briefly touch on many of these functions: games help us practice calculating odds, teach spatial relationships, and encourage conceptual exploration. All of these themes seem to come down to teaching skills that were useful in humanity’s distant past, when we were all “hierarchical and strongly tribal primates” and so almost always have something to do with power, survival, and maintaining hierarchy (52, 69). This is a problem to Koster, who holds that games should be evolving to teach players skills more relevant to (and acceptable in) the modern world, like networking or teamwork (66). After this, Koster goes into a discussion on game topology, the basic mechanics of gameplay that are rehashed in genres like the platformer. Because of this, Koster says, the evolution of games is much slower than it could be, and the same old paradigms are repeated until a new innovation arises. The chapter ends with a review of the characteristics of games (76) and an application of his concepts of topology and evolution through the history of the 2-D shooter (or “shmup”) genre (78).

Chapter 5: What Games Aren'tEdit

In this section, Koster differentiates the formal abstract system that forms the games one actually plays and the “dressing,” or the fiction that is put over the system to give the game flavor and conceal the mathematical system behind it. The example he uses is checkers: the notion of “kinging” a piece puts the game in a fictive setting, but it can generally be overlooked by the player who is paying attention to the rules of the game (80). The ability of players to look past the fiction and focus on the game itself as a system is what often causes controversy with violent or graphic games – the gamers can see past, say, killing a prostitute for money in Grand Theft Auto, because they see it as simply overcoming a challenge to get points. Rather than focus on the dressing of a game, though, Koster calls for a development of the less understood formal abstract systems underlying games in order for them to develop as a medium (84).

This transitions into his point that games are not stories because they work in very different ways. Instead of trying to make games like stories, Koster believes the industry should look at the strengths of games, one of the most important being the type of enjoyment they can provide.

After citing multiple theorists, Koster breaks down enjoyment into four categories: aesthetic appreciation, visceral reactions, social status maneuvers, and fun (the act of mastering a problem emotionally). According to Koster, since games are learning systems, they should concern themselves mainly with the last of these. In his words, “Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter” (98).

Chapter 6: Different Fun For Different FolksEdit

Citing Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, Koster makes the point that, because there are multiple learning styles based on personality traits, different games will appeal to different types of people. Koster conceded this may be a drawback for games in general, as the formal abstract systems that make them up may not naturally appeal to all people, especially across gender lines. However, he argues, if people take on the challenge of playing games they don’t inherently understand, they will be able to make strengths of their weaknesses and perhaps reach their true potential (108).

Chapter 7: The Problem with LearningEdit

In another section that draws on human psychology, Koster sets the human tendency to play and learn at odds with the inherent mental urge to make things easier, usually through cheating. In a sense, Koster says, cheating shows that someone has truly “grokked” a game because it is the most efficient way to overcome the challenges it presents (112). Once someone reaches this point, of course, the game becomes boring, which Koster holds is “the destiny of games” (118). This may be described as the “Mastery Problem,” which is counteracted by designing a game around a single core lesson that is to be learned before the system becomes boring (126). That, to Koster, is what makes a successful game.

The chapter also contains a useful listing of the elements of a successful game, according to Koster (120-122). 

Chapter 8: The Problem with PeopleEdit

Similar to the last section, Koster again pits two natural forces against each other: the efforts of game designers to make games more interesting and long-lasting versus the sad fact that “people are lazy” (130). To counteract this, Koster prescribes that games ought to “encourage you to move on” as soon as mastery is achieved (134). In addition, he thinks making things too complex is not the answer, and that games ought to be placed in the same context as other human endeavors so inspiration may be drawn from outside the industry.

Chapter 9: Games in ContextEdit

In this chapter, Koster explains how games are slowly evolving into a discipline. Though he holds they are not yet a medium, but must be seen as one before the question of art can be looked into. That being said, Koster does discuss the possibility of an artistic game. It must be something that challenges rather than merely entertains, and must be thought-provoking, immersive, and “force us to reexamine assumptions” about the world, among other criteria (150). Koster prefers a formalist perspective towards game as an art form, and holds that “the closer we get to understanding the basic building blocks of games [fun included], the more likely we are to achieve the heights of art” (152). This is followed by a brief discussion of formal systems and vocabulary in other mediums, such as music or poetry, in order to show their similarities to the elements of a game.

Chapter 10: The Ethics of EntertainmentEdit

This chapter focuses on the role of the “dressing” in games as a whole. While Koster had been focusing on the formal abstract parts of games, he holds that aesthetic elements and other parts of dressing are extremely important to the end-user experience of a game, and should not be disregarded. In fact, the dressing should be thought of and used in tandem with the formal system at its core (something he calls ludemes) in order to make an artistic whole. To illustrate the importance of the dressing to the overall experience, Koster imagines a game of Tetris that uses dead bodies instead of blocks – it completely changes the feel of the game. To Koster, “the art of the game is the whole” (168). 

Chapter 11: Where Games Should GoEdit

This chapter further expands the idea as games as potential art forms. Koster uses the metaphor of a trellis to show the importance of intent to the maturity of the medium as a whole (178). People are like plants and a given medium is like a trellis. The plants will try to escape the trellis, but will also use it to grow. The trellises of other works of art are shaped in very specific ways so that any plants that take to it are shaped in very specific ways. Games still have yet to take on a specific shape, and instead “know only ‘fun’ and ‘boring’” (180). Only when authorial intent over the learning outcome can be wielded (as opposed to promoting, say, power fantasies) will games emerge as a legitimate art form. 

Chapter 12: Taking Their Rightful Place (& Epilogue)Edit

The final chapter of the book is an inspirational half-time speech for game designers and enthusiasts alike. The general gist is if we believe that games can be art, then eventually they can be seen that way. He finishes with an acknowledgement that this evolution may be difficult and perhaps even have some societal repercussions just like every other art form in history (including classical music, 205). That being said, designers ought to act responsibly when trying to push boundaries. Koster concedes that people may be right in considering the whole academic field of ludology and game studies as “an aberration and frivolity,” but people had doubts about everything from painting to rock n’ roll, and they turned out to be an essential part of our culture (218). Overall, Koster says, “games deserve respect” as a medium, and should continue to earn it by pushing artistic boundaries (216). 

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