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Theory of Fun for Game Design

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Now in full color, the 10th anniversary edition of this classic book packs more insight into what it means to design games for fun. Theory of Fun for Game Design challenges and inspires game designers as well as game enthusiasts looking for products and experiences that are truly fun and entertaining.

The book discusses the impact of designing in a multidimensional landscape, where computer science, environmental design, and storytelling all play a role in creating an interactive game design. For the professional game developer to the interested young gamer, this updated edition takes you on an illustrated ride in fun and games.


Learn why some games are fun and others are boring
Discover how playing a game and learning are connected
Understand why making a game too hard--or too easy--is a mistake
Find out why games have to balance deprivation and overload, order and chaos, silence and noise
Explore why you need to balance challenges of task mastery, pattern recognition, discovery, and time attacks

300 pages, Paperback

First published November 6, 2004

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About the author

Raph Koster

10 books56 followers
Raph Koster is a veteran game designer who has been professionally credited in almost every area of the game industry. He's been the lead designer and director of massive titles such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies; and he's contributed writing, art, soundtrack music, and programming to many more titles ranging from Facebook games to single-player titles for handheld consoles.

Koster is widely recognized as one of the world's top thinkers about game design, and is an in-demand speaker at conferences all over the world. In 2012, he was named an Online Game Legend at the Game Developers Conference Online. Visit his blog at www.raphkoster.com.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 243 reviews
Profile Image for Matija.
263 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2011
Don't bother with this one. It's just $6 in the Kindle store, or else I wouldn't have even bought it, but I regret it now in any case. Luckily it's quite short, but even so I just skimmed a chapter or two.

To me, this is a collection of sometimes barely coherent stream-of-thought ramblings of a video-game executive, apparently about what makes games fun, though you'd barely know to read it. They don't really seem to have much purpose to it, except to draw attention to how educated and cultured the author is (he frequently makes comparisons to classical music and other "classical" forms of art, as if to say, hey look at me, I'm a man of the world). Also, the chapter titles often don't match the contents, like the one on ethics.

If there's a central theme to it, it's that fun means learning and then "grokking" (as in deeply internalizing) something new, though I'm not sure that revelation was worth the six bucks.

It looks like the author called up a couple of his contacts (all well known industry figures) and asked them to write a glowing cover blurb (or a foreword) to his book. Him being an important industry executive, they naturally obliged, though the generic tone of their recommendations should have been a giveaway. There's a lesson to be learned here about celebrity endorsements, kids.
Profile Image for Nicolay Hvidsten.
147 reviews35 followers
April 4, 2019
Raph Koster, a rather celebrated game designer (and former creative head of Sony’s game department), tries to explain just exactly what video games are, and in the process of doing this takes on what he feels are common misconceptions about video games.

Like McCloud, Koster feels like his medium of choice (of course, he obfuscates this point - but more on that later) is misunderstood, and that it deserves a cultural status akin to that of literature and art. To defend his position, he goes on in great detail about how video games function, and what they truly are about at their most basic level - learning patterns.

Koster claims that the fact that games are basically pattern learning machines (or pattern grokking as he might call it) is generally ignored by society, and that this is the main reason that games are misunderstood.

He goes on to rather bombastically propose that graphics (look and feel) of games are somewhat irrelevant to the actual game itself, and that this game aspect is basically just wrapping paper. It’s the underlying mechanics that matter according to Koster, but the wrapping gets all the attention. He seems like a true purist in this sense, and his annoyance towards the trend of improving graphics rather than game mechanisms is very evident throughout the book.

To prove his point, Koster further claims that there only are a few different types of games (cartoon on page 71), and that newer games just build on existing creations and just add a few new elements (the cartoon on page 79 illustrates this point).

This generally is the crux of Koster’s point, and he apparently really wants to reader to get this, so he continuously points it out throughout the book - which gets old really fast (cartoon on page 87, 127 and 167 to name a few). He desperately wants games to evolve beyond the focus on surface, and instead start to focus on the fundamental subjects the games revolve around.

But in order for games to evolve, they must first be understood, and Koster does a really good job in explaining how he believes games work. He claims that games provoke a very distinct chemical reaction in the brain when they are designed correctly, and introduces the concept of flow.

Flow is basically what happens when you are constantly tested at the reach of our abilities, thus being totally engaged for a longer period of time - games that are tailored perfectly to your skill set can accomplish this, but it’s rather rare (I’ve had it happen to be a couple of times).

The most important thing Koster touches on however, is in my opinion how games can become educational tools. He claims that games are, in essence, about learning.

According to him, patterns occur constantly in our daily lives (exerting power, controlling territories etc.), and games are the ideal tool for learning how to function within the parameters of these patterns. Because games are at their most basic forms just patterns waiting to be absorbed, Koster claims that by fully engaging with a game we will absorb (learn) the pattern represented by the game - a notion I fully agree with.

Koster goes on in great detail about how the brain reacts to game stimuli, and how grokking patterns is the result of the brain chunking the information presented to us - basically automating it. This is, according to Koster, why it’s so hard to make a well balanced game - consider the fact that we’re constantly trying to master the patterns being presented to us, and when we do, the challenge suddenly becomes trivial. If the game doesn’t present its patterns in new, intriguing ways we’re destined to get bored with the game, which is a rather sad notion that leads Koster to conclude that no games are eternal (not yet, anyway).

Now that we have established a basic foundation of what games fundamentally represent, lets move on to another interesting aspect of games that Koster brings up: their ethical implications. This is an aspect of games where Koster and I gravely disagree, and I feel that his claim that the fiction surrounding a game is largely irrelevant to the effect games have on us is just plainly wrong. I can’t help but get the feeling that several years of working as a game designer has led Koster to adopt a completely mechanical approach to games, which I feel becomes evident in his reasoning.

For instance, he describes a rather ethically reprehensible game called Deathrace to illustrate his point - that this game doesn’t teach the players to run over pedestrians any more than Pac-Man teaches them to ‘eat dots and be scared of ghosts’. Here I feel that Koster doesn’t appreciate the power of context, and I think that this might be due to the fact that when he was enjoying games the most (probably in the early 90s/late 80s), games were just what he described: simple pattern learning machines.

Naturally, I do see his point that when you reduce games to their most basic form, this becomes evident once more, but in my opinion that’s like comparing Drive (fantastic character-driven movie created in 2011) to Horse in Motion (arguably the first movie ever made, in 1878, showing a horse, moving). Just like movies have evolved from just being sequential images showing motion, games have evolved from being faces eating dots to complex, three-dimensional (pun intended) characters joined together in intriguing, multi-layered (often epic) stories. I feel that game mechanics work in addition (rather than orthogonal) to these concepts, to bring forward an even more profound user experience.

Of course, this brings up the interesting question about the ethical implications of games. If the fiction surrounding games have such an impact as I believe, wouldn’t that mean that games like Grand Theft Auto are morally reprehensible?

Again, I believe the power of context comes into play. Just like comedies about teenagers getting killed (such as the magnificent Tucker and Dale vs Evil) are not morally reprehensible, neither are games like Grand Theft Auto.

Both of these two pieces of entertainment (for the lack of a better term) feature content that when displayed in a different context would be seen as devoid of morality, but for some reason we don’t feel that way when Tucker accidentally kills a teenager in a wood cutting machine or when we run over a line of joggers to get 1000 bonus points. I believe that this is due to a agreement (of sorts) we unconsciously enter into when we engage with culture - for instance: Should I take a trip down to a museum featuring pieces of contemporary art, I might think to myself: “This is just a chair upside down, in any other context I would just flip it over and that would be that. However, since this is placed in a museum this is considered art, and I will interact with it as such.”

Now, there are of course many other topics Koster brings up (such as where games should go to be (rightfully) considered as art, how people ruin games by trying to grok them, how different games appeal to different people and so on), but I feel I’ve discussed the most important arguments he brings to the table. I agree with much of what he says (specifically how games affect the brain and how games can be educational tools), but it’s evident that he and I do not share a common view of what games are, and what they can achieve - and I haven’t even begun talking about how much I disagree with his obnoxious matrix categorization of art, jeez.
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
96 reviews129 followers
June 7, 2017
Excellent start for someone who has no idea even where to start when it comes to game design. The style in witch this book is written is quite casual and it doesn't go too much into details (as I said, good for absolute beginners).
Profile Image for Tom.
16 reviews2 followers
December 26, 2008
If I ever teach a class on video games this will be the first book I add to the syllabus. A must-read for gamers, casual gamers and designers of interactive digital environments. More importantly, I think this book is a must-read for parents and teachers. Koster does a great job of explaining what it is about games that eat up so many hours of our kids' and students' lives.
Profile Image for Elaine.
31 reviews66 followers
August 22, 2016
I found this book very inspiring and deep, especially the parts where the author tries to connect games and arts and fun. Some parts of the book are abstract and a little bit hard to grasp as the book includes many metaphors. Nevertheless, many paragraphs still give me goosebumps as they are so true and profound. The author has many strong arguments and also very has high ideals when it comes to game designing. A game is designed not only for entertainment, but also for educating and helping players overcome their weaknesses. He has inspired hopes in readers that one day, games will be no longer considered meaningless and trivial, but will join literature, music, dance and theatre as a form of "the arts".

My favourite quotes include:
1. Contrasting games and stories: "Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy. Games are external – they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal – they are about people’s emotions and thoughts."

2. How players prefer to wander in their comfort zone: "Look at the games that offer the absolute greatest freedom possible within the scope of a game setting. In role-playing games there are few rules. The emphasis is on collaborative storytelling. You can construct your character any way you want, use any background, and take on any challenge you like. And yet, people choose the same characters to play, over and over.* I’ve got a friend who has played the big burly silent type in literally dozens of games over the decade I have known him. Never once has he been a vivacious small girl"- Players tend to choose the games they're already good at, will they one day go out of their zones to play the game concentrating on enhancing the skills they lack? If they do, they'll improve many skills and become a more rounded person.

3. People like to master and learn things in a safe and non-pressure environment, which is game: “That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”

4. Brain needs stuffs (stories, information) to process all the time- notice how your mind never stops thinking and wandering from one place to another; however, it does not prefer challenging and complicated stuffs; it prefers familiar patterns: “Based on my reading, the human brain is mostly a voracious consumer of patterns, a soft pudgy gray Pac-Man of concepts. Games are just exceptionally tasty patterns to eat up.”

5. And finally: "We often discuss the desire for games to be art- for them to be puzzles with more than one right answer, puzzles that lend themselves to interpretation." To become arts, a game must be thought-provoking, revelatory, forcing us to reexamine assumptions, forgiving and encouraging misinterpretation. What's left behind after you finish playing a game? Will the puzzle already stops bugging you once the boss's dead and the princess's in your arms?

92 reviews
August 3, 2018
Outdated, banal, and surprisingly sexist.
Profile Image for Tom Coates.
51 reviews278 followers
July 3, 2010
It's an incredibly insightful book, and genuinely useful for people trying to create games. Having said that, its basic premise is that all satisfying play is learning and I just don't buy that. The logic seems very flawed to me in this area. It seems to me quite plausible that play or certain kinds of games can be seen as highjacking the satisfaction that you would ideally be getting from an actual accomplishment in real-life, diverting your mastery and craft and intellectual stretching from things that would advance you or create some value into diversion. I'm not saying that is a bad thing—not everything in life is about productivity—but it isn't something Raph is prepared to engage with at all. Essentially, amid all the great insight, there is a nervousness and a defensiveness about the value of games. I think that's unnecessary and a shame, and it's the reason I wouldn't give it five stars.
9 reviews
February 9, 2007
This book is about what psychological elements of video games capture peoples attention. In particular which of these elements create a fun game.

Its very short and written in the format of a children's book with every other page being a full page cartoon of the concept discussed in the previous page. It is not a children's book since they discuss things like "grokking" and pattern recognition.

The author is one of the creative leads for Sony interactive entertainment, so you learn a bit about how designers create games and how they cater towards players by trying to put elements that have been psychologically tested to be "fun".

Good short collection of info for anyone interested in game design or social psychology.

Profile Image for Franco.
8 reviews2 followers
February 6, 2017
Indispensable para entender por qué jugamos y la poderosa herramienta de comunicación y entretenimiento que son los videojuegos. No es un libro de game design que trate los aspectos formales del desarrollo de un juego, sino que se centra en cómo funcionamos al ser atravesados por el lenguaje de éstos. Llegó a mis manos con la etiqueta de ser "el understanding comics de los videojuegos", y este rotulo no le queda chico. Es un libro que invita a reflexionar y abre más interrogantes al terminarlo. Un must.
Profile Image for Xavier Rubio.
1 review2 followers
November 26, 2017
This book has some intriguing concepts but it fails to explore fun effectively both from an academic and game design perspective.

Its ideas may have been relevant when it was once published but right now it seem terribly outdated. All the discussions on themes, narrative and maturity of videogames as art completely ignore the last 15 years.

The book also tries to be academic without any proper citation or hypothesis. Finally, it uses old-fashioned ideas on cognitive behavior and evolutionary dynamics (i.e. biologic gender biases).
110 reviews3 followers
November 7, 2013
Great insight in what "fun" actually is. It's a theoretical book (as the title suggests)that feels more like a pamphlet for game designers than a book that actually helps you to ensure that the games you design are fun. Nevertheless, a great read that I enjoyed.
Profile Image for Inez .
3 reviews
December 21, 2020
It was disappointing and frustrating experience. I think this book could be good, but author turned to much it in personal journal, full of stereotypical views. As women I think it hits twice strong. The Book shares wrong idea of women in games and discourage women in industry.
Profile Image for Yuri Karabatov.
Author 1 book22 followers
September 7, 2021
While many reviews call it simplistic, it's clear that Koster has spent a lot of time thinking about the topic—there are many references to be followed and explored, and I've lifted a couple of thoughts from the book that speak to me personally.

Yes, you probably can't use it as a step-by-step guide to make your game fun, but that is outside the book's goals.

My only peeve is that footnotes take up a whole quarter of the book (and they're all at the end) and you have to constantly flip back and forth while reading.
Profile Image for Karen Chung.
387 reviews89 followers
May 10, 2021
An original, and provocative yet persuasive analysis of what "fun" is, and how all "fun" involves "learning", and "learning" involves "pattern identification". I have thought this for years, especially upon seeing how obsessed about improving gamers can often be, to the point of spending money on an arcade game they can't really afford – it's because they're after the rush that *mastery*, i.e. learning, brings them. What we need to do now is figure out how to motivate learners in a similar way in schools, with apps, and by other means. Recommended.
Profile Image for Sona Nahapetyan.
37 reviews2 followers
February 19, 2019
Do not bother if you are looking for a book, where you can actually find tips on how to make fun games. The book is more of a visual guide to other writers that can be considered for finding the answers to those questions.
Profile Image for Robbie Li.
7 reviews
January 23, 2023
4.5 rounding up. Only quibble is the title. Perhaps Craft and Art of Games would be more appropriate. Or maybe, Rethinking Games. The theory of fun is one of the salient points of the book, but feels limiting as a title. Great book. Seeing games in a new light.
Profile Image for Eugene.
157 reviews16 followers
July 23, 2018
introduction into games and into computer games. Why games exist, how they are developed in terms of design - the underlying theory. The book is not tactics but about the underlying theory of games: why some games have high retention and others are not. Why some games are boring and others are not.
March 29, 2019
Surprisingly Dissapointing

I'm not a hard reader to please. If you have access to my reading history you will see easy 4-5 star reviews for most anything pickier readers consider barely palatable, but this book really pushed some of my buttons, and very few of them actually because of the contents itself

While the main message is something I disagree with - need for art to censor itself as for feeling of social responsibility - I have no beef with the way the argument is presented and with the researched and educated contents of the things the author writes about

I take issue with the reading experience itself, because in this case it was easily worst in class for me, and I feel that this is something I need to warn potential readers about.
Its strange to think the author has formal writer training and has worked in game design as this book has the single worst designed reading flow in all my concious active reading history of well over 20 years.
See, approximately 40% of this book happens in end-of-book footnotes. Reading a given page is an excercise of skimming 3 paragraphs, turning to pages of footnotes, coming back to read another 3 sentences, rinse repeat. This is annoying, this is detrimentally affecting both flow and material retention and this is just a plain inconvenient way to structure your book. I literall turned every page apprehensively, scanning it quickly for footnote asterisks before breathing a sigh of relief when i didnt find any. finally i would think, a page of reading. The whole content just seems purpousefully obtuse and difficult to navigate for the person paying to read it.
For a normal reading expirience you would need to have 2 copies of this thing open at once, looking between the two simultaneously. Im honestly lacking polite terms to express just how frustrating of an experience this was with a Kindle eBook, so if you consider reading the thing, be warned, and maybe dont skimp on the paperback.
Profile Image for FiveBooks.
185 reviews72 followers
March 18, 2010
Journalist Tom Chatfield of Prospect has chosen to discuss Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Computer Games, saying that:

“Today we are seeing a new form of it, (Play) but in order to really understand it properly, we need to begin with this really deep evolutionary hold that games have on us. Koster looks at games as something that’s about learning above all, and they are in his phrase ‘chewy’ environments for our brains, where we are performing a task again and again to get better at beating the particular properties of a particular environment.”

The full interview is available here: http://five-books.com/interviews/tom-chatfield
Profile Image for Jennifer Gottschalk.
632 reviews2 followers
November 25, 2018
This is 3.5 stars rounded down.

This book had some interesting ideas and it covered the history of game development really well. It also discussed the underlying features of many games and considered what a game needed to include to be fun and successful.

Having said that, at times it seemed a bit long winded. One of the most annoying things about the books is that end notes were denoted by an asterisk (instead of a number) and these were liberally peppered throughout the material. I ended up using two book marks when reading through the various chapters and felt that many of the end notes could easily have been incorporated into the main part of the text.

I liked the cartoons and the 'random penguins' helped lighten the mood. Ironically despite the title, reading this book wasn't all that much fun. Which is a pity.
9 reviews2 followers
December 26, 2007
This was a very good book. While most of the other game design books I have read came across as textbooks, this one didn't. The way it was spaced out, it felt more like I was reading a novel than a textbook. The little cartoons on the right pages can piss of some people ("What the Hell is the point of them?"), but I enjoyed them, as they seem to illustrate the point of the text on the left pages a little more. While there are some things I would place into question, for the most part, the book does press a very strong theory of what makes something fun. Definitely a must read for future game designers (of any medium, not just video games).
Profile Image for Noah.
442 reviews5 followers
May 31, 2015
A deeply researched treatise on video games. Raph Koster, who worked on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, talks about the background of play and games and moves on to what games are and what games are not. He ends on what he thinks games should and could becomes. It is an informative and powerful book which is also peppered throughout with little cartoons that he has drawn to better illustrate his points.
Author 9 books25 followers
June 11, 2007
How to describe this book? It is enjoyable, entertaining, and the best synopsis of what constitutes "fun" and more importantly, why. Highly recommended for both professional game designers and people interested in working in the field.
Profile Image for Kent.
67 reviews3 followers
January 18, 2009
Delightful and very readable (i.e., not particularly academic) discussion of "fun" in the context of game design. Well-considered and should be on every game developer's shelf.
Profile Image for Luiz Guilherme.
7 reviews5 followers
August 12, 2015
Very nice book, easy to understand and with a lot of wonderful concepts about game design!
Recomend this book for non-gamers as well, it may make you see games in another perspective.
Profile Image for Ilib4kids.
1,100 reviews3 followers
March 5, 2016
794.81536 KOS 2014
2nd edition
Avery rate 2:

Games he design
ultima online(linux,windows)
LegendMUD (award-winning text-based virtual world)
Star Wars Galaxies

the game Will Wright design
The Sims, SimCity, SimEarth, Spore

the game portraying concepts like social good or honor by Dani Bunten Berry
M.U.L.E; Seven Cities of Gold

Essays
Declaring the Rights of Players
The Laws of Online World Design

Prologue: My grandfather wanted to know whether I felt proud of what I do
P178 A game like trellis, a trellis can shape how a plant grows
Game Type p65
Timing; Hunting; territory(Go game); aiming; projecting power.

Mu ha ha ha: common gloat heard in internet gaming.
p92 Social interaction
schadenfreude: the gloating feeling you get when a rival fails at something. This is, in essence, put down
fiero: the expression of triumph when you have achieved a significant task (pumping your fist). This is signal to others; that your are valuable.
Naches: the feeling you get when someone you mentors succeeds. This is a clear feedback mechanism for tribal continuance.
Kvell: the emotion you feel when bragging about someone you mentor. This is signal that your are valuable.
Social behavior: such as signal of intimacy, often representing relative social status. One example is feeding other people, which is a very important social signal in human societies.

p100 ...Games aren't stories. Games aren't about beauty or delight. Games aren't about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure from consequence, and that is why game matters.

p128 The lesson for designer is simple: a game is destined to becoming boring, automated, cheated, and exploited. Your sole responsibility is know what the game is about and to ensure the game teachers that thing. That one thing, the theme, the core, the heart of the game, might require many systems or it might require few. But no system should be in the game that does not contribute towards that lesson. It is the cynosure of all system; it is the moral of the story; it is the point.

Article
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two George A. Miller

Game topic
Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds by Jesper Juul (introduction to ludology)
The Art Of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford (a classic)
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen
The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith
Killing Monsters: Our Children's Need For Fantasy, Heroism, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones
Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill, Revised and Updated Edition: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence by Dave Grossman
Character Development for Game by Lee Sheldon
Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering by David E. Freeman
The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mind , Emotion topic
Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less by Guy Claxton (brain functioning at 3 levels)
Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B.
Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life by Paul Ekman
Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner

Gender
Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Geoffrey Miller
Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women by Deborah Blum
Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women by Anne Moir
The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (empathy quotient and systemising quotient brain;search essential-differnce-guardian for test)

others
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (a classic)
Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga
Victory Garden by stuart moulthrop (hypertext fiction)
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar (interactive fiction)
Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman
Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker by Jon Boorstin
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander (a classic, architecture affecting people)
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu

interesting games
Nomic: created in 1982, rule change game.
CoreWars: require a high degree of programming knowledge
Pokemon Snap, Beyond Good & Evil (Games about shooting with a camera)

http://www.igda.org/ (international Game Developers Association)
Profile Image for Jason.
338 reviews5 followers
July 4, 2021
My brother got me a copy of the first edition of this book in 2005 or 2006, and I have no idea what happened to that copy. Kindly enough, he got me a copy of this 2nd edition this January, 2021, for my birthday, along with some other books on game design that I had on my birthday list. When he got me that first copy, I had not much interest in game design, and I don’t think I made it past the second chapter, in spite of it being an easy-to-read book with every other page an illustration. Since then, I have become very interested in game design and I was glad to get another chance to read A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Koster makes a few central arguments in this book. First, he argues that we have fun when our brains are learning, specifically when we seek to “master{} a problem mentally” (90). Next, he argues that games are defined by the fact that they have something to teach their players, and that in playing the games, the players practice the lessons that the games teach. Hence, a good game is ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing’ (46). Koster uses these foundational arguments to look at the difficulty of designing good games in the face of all our human impulses running counter to what games want to help us achieve. But all of this is really in service of his larger argument, which is that games are worth making, and more importantly, that games are art, with all the goals, promise, and possibilities of other more established and recognized art forms.

There is this quote on the back cover from Cory Doctorow: “Does for games what Understanding Comics did for sequential art.” That makes sense to me as a reading of the book, and it does a lot to place the book in its historical moment. Here in 2021, I’m sure there are still plenty of people who dismiss the idea that games can be art, but that’s certainly not the case in any circle in which I run. The punch of this argument might have been fierce in 2004, but it’s certainly not now. My lack of excitement over Koster’s focus was stymied still more by Koster’s limited view of what art is and does, and what games need to be and do to rise to that criteria.

There is a lot of great stuff in this book, and I made a lot of notes and found myself thinking about a lot of the challenges of game design in different ways while I read it. The middle hundred pages (specifically chapters 4 through 8) of the book are wonderful, and even if his focus is on video games, he always speaks broadly enough for his thoughts to apply to all games.

I didn’t love the writing itself. Well, that’s not exactly true. The writing—the sentence structure, tone, pacing, and flow—is all competent and easy. It’s something deeper than that that rubbed against my sensibilities unpleasantly. The only adequate words I can find at the moment are attitude and posture, as in, his attitude and posture bother me. His use of other disciplines, like psychology, to bolster his points are so casually and authoritatively thrown out that all my cautionary alarms went off. I’m not skilled in the field enough to know how well he used the theories he relies on, but I am wary to say the least. (Additionally annoying is that such reliance is not at all necessary to make his larger points.) I feel like an entire essay could be written about Koster’s use of endnotes in this book--their frequency, their nature, and his use of asterisks (and hand-drawn-looking asterisks at that!) instead of numbering. And certain sections of the book were perfectly painful to read, such as his extended meditation on the differences between men and women in game-playing. There will be some percentage of readers that absolutely love Koster’s style in this book, but I am certain that there is an equally large percentage of readers who feel as I do.

The good news is that the undesirable parts of the book can be met with some snarky marginalia and eyerolling and you can get to the good and useful stuff with relatively little pain.
Profile Image for Chris.
64 reviews4 followers
October 31, 2022
I can’t sing the praises of this book enough.

For too long, games (and not ONLY video games) have been lumped into a pile known only as entertainment, junk, or a waste of time and life.

I recently read Lost in a Good Game by Pete Etchells and I think reading Theory of Fun for a 2004 burgeoning perspective and also the former from 2019 helps to paint a comprehensive picture of the landscape of gaming and the public perception of it.

In a world where games are often seen as time-wasters, I pause. Like Koster argues, games can be more, and it’s worth working hard to help them find their place in the world, just like the works of Shakespeare, Mozart, or Spielberg.

The problem is they are seen as the underlying cause of a school shooting, the source of thousands of wasted hours and dollars on micro transactions, or even worse: the addiction that prevents young boys from becoming men.

My experience?

Thanks for asking.

I have come to build lifelong and MEANINGFUL relationships through games. They allowed me to meet people and step out of my comfort zone.

I have found truly satisfying competition in games. I’m pushed harder to practice and get better. This makes me a better leader who strives to continue to learn and push harder in life, looking for input and suggestions on how to better live my life.

I have learned to consciously critique the game I’m playing. To look beyond the progression systems and monetization practices to find the meat and the thematics that makes a game more than an entertainment device. It’s helped me to learn to listen to people. To ask thoughtful questions and to engage in ways I never thought possible before.

Are games the primary reason I’ve grown in these areas? Of course not. But they’ve played a very significant role.

This is the crux of A Theory of Fun.

A book that takes the high road and looks honestly at the landscape of game development and asks the question, “can we do better?”

The answer is yes.

For every thoughtful game that addresses and honesty explores the battles of mental health, there are 100 people who will preorder the newest Call of Duty and spam the voice chat with slurs.

Call of Duty is junk food though. But it’s no different than rewatching The Office for the tenth time.

Both have their place.

But again, Koster asks, “can we take it further and can we do better?”

In the decades after the book was published, I have only seen growth. We still have plentiful Call of Duty’s, but we also have Celeste, Persona 5, Automachef, Hexcells, Elden Ring and more.

Games that challenge the persisting norms of platformers, RPGS, puzzle games, deduction games, and Action RPGS.

So many things we never thought possible, but these games continue to push the boundaries. They aren’t all museum-worthy.

But I implore anyone to read this book who considers themselves to fancy the idea of fun and how it intersects with life and its meaning.

For fun, if you want a followup to the progression of this book and more ways the culture has battled against games, check out Lost in a Good Game afterward.
13 reviews
December 12, 2022
In Defense of the Book, in defense of the Genre

I shouldn't have read the blurbs at the end of the book before writing this review because they always end up corrupting my own. Anyway, it's a classic for a reason, and deserves to be re-appreciated by a new generation, not only in academia.

Raph Koster writes like your favorite English teacher, and in temperament seems to match that as well. It's a simple read that is more like a work of philosophy or popular criticism (I don't suppose this genre exists) than game design.

He has a wide cultural appreciation and a seemingly complete frame of reference to classics of literature, dance, music and popular psychology — which I see has irked some reviewers. But I never found the use pretentious or shoehorned. Rather, it informs his confidence in turning games into an artform.

And what's so bad about pretention anyway?

But Koster does present a theory of fun eventually, which is the mastery of tasks, and contrasts it to feelings of "delight," which lack challenge and might occur from seeing a pretty face, or environment. But then he challenges players/designers to identify different modes of experience, and not only "fun" or "boring," which is holding games back from being an artform. He never loses sights that games have their own limitations and advantages, so can never mimic the successes of other mediums, but must explore their own, an open question at the writing of this book.

There are comics, Sunday funnies penciled in every few paragraphs that are actually pretty useful, and drawn well-enough. They have failed the cover, unfortunately.

I even don't think the male and female brain section is very out of date, as the audience sales tend to correlate with what those genders are good at. It does not need to be sexist to make this observation. And I appreciate that Koster says we need to *challenge* our own types, anyway. But the point is you are allowed to consider this possibility, especially when it comes to audience design, and think about how that can reflect on the game you are playing, or hope to make.

Okay, I'll give some criticism. Since it relies on cognitive psychology, like flow, and Simon Baron-Cohen's theories of emotion, it may miss the nuances of those studies. They were new in 2006 when the book was written, but have come under increasing criticism in the field.

Still, since the book is from someone with a Poetry MA, and its core expression and ideas are literary, and not always conclusive, then it will have lasting powers, since it does not need to rely on the dabbler's psychology as much. I think this is what has made it surprising to me, and disappointing to others. At the very least, Theory of Fun is perhaps more interesting than instructive and will be easy pull off the shelf for a quick dose of inspiration, and easy to recommend.

The reviewers who basically accuse Koster of cronyism are wrong: the blurbs are accurate, but also read my review because I am more so.
Profile Image for Chris.
1,813 reviews72 followers
October 29, 2012
From playing cops and robbers to playing house, play is about learning life skills.
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Fun, as I define it, is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes.
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Games aren't stories. Games aren't about beauty or delight. Games aren't about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

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Before I put these ideas into my own words, I want to first share some information about my perspective as a reader. I am neither a hardcore gamer nor part of the game industry, the intended audience this book addresses. This is the first thing I've read about game design and/or game theory, so I have no idea how well it represents the field or fits into the conventional conversations. And since this is over six years old now, I'm not sure if more recent developments would impact the claims the book makes.

I'm a youth services librarian and I read this as the beginning of my explorations into the idea of "gamification," which is a recent buzzword in the library world; the idea that we can incorporate game design mechanics into the library patron experience, into their interactions with seeking and learning information to make it more motivating and fun. A speaker during a recent webinar I attended made the claim that schools, libraries, museums, and the like "do play" as a learning tool well with preschoolers and younger children, but don't have much appreciation for play with older children, teens, and adults. I'm interested in exploring how we might bring more play into the library user experience.

So I was very pleased to learn that Koster emphasizes play and the nature of fun. In his theory, the brain is a big pattern recognition machine; we get through life by clumping the input our senses receive into patterns to help us process all the raw data we're with which constantly bombarded. Since pattern recognition is so crucial, the brain rewards itself each time a new pattern is recognized and mastered or new data is identified as part of an existing pattern by releasing pleasure chemicals like endorphins. That pattern recognition is the brain learning, so learning is a fun activity due to the pleasure felt as a reward. And games are artificially created situations that simulate real experiences to help the brain practice learning in safe, controlled contexts. Games are fun because they are risk-free (thus relaxed, playful) learning.

And since we dislike tedium, we'll allow unpredictability, but only inside the confines of predictable boxes, like games or TV shows. Unpredictability means new patterns to learn, therefore unpredictability is fun. So we like it, for enjoyment (and therefore, for learning). But the stakes are too high for us to want that sort of unpredictability under normal circumstances. That's what games are for in the first place--to package up the unpredictable and the learning experience into a space and time where there is no risk.

Games are only fun when the challenge level is appropriate. If they're too hard, no patterns can be discerned, no learning can take place, and no fun is to be had. If they're too easy, no new patterns are discovered, no learning takes place, and no fun is to be had. Thus, games need to be matched to the learning needs of the players, and games are not infinite--the goal of a game is to teach everything it has to teach until the player masters it and becomes bored, then moves on.

Koster develops this basic idea in lots of different ways; for instance, that it is natural for players to seek loopholes and cheats since that's the brain being efficient, so games need to account for those possibilities. He also makes a distinction between the underlying mathematical structures that games have and the trappings they're clothed in. The same basic game--the same pattern recognition training--can have characters that are military or peaceful, can be set in the past, present, future, or fantasy, and can be altered by many other factors and overlying stories. He considers these implications in a number of ways, including the ethics of the stories chosen:

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 wall. 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 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 quite 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.

I found Koster's development of ideas throughout the book to be engaging and fascinating. He shares those ideas in very plain-spoken, conversational language and tone, yet I could recognize the academic scholarship informing what he had to say; I found it completely accessible, even though he is obviously immersed in the world of games and is writing for his peers. What do I think about his ideas? I'm not ready to say whether I agree or disagree, since this is just exploration for me at this point. I'll be curious to find out how they hold up as I read more in the field. One thing to realize, though, is that this is a book of theory--there isn't much about application or how to make use of these ideas in practical ways, which worked for me but might not for all readers.

One other area of particular interest to me as a librarian was his chapter on what games are not, as he contrasted them against other mediums and arts, particularly that of stories. I've been a big advocate of stories as teaching tools for a long time and believe we all live within narratives that inform our identities and define our beliefs. Stories teach us empathy, help us learn about and from other perspectives, and connect us to each other. Here is Koster's comparison of games and stories:

Games are not stories. It is interesting to make the comparison, though:
- Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
- Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
- Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
- Games are external--they are about people's actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal--they are about people's emotions and thoughts.
In both cases, when they are good, you can come back to them repeatedly and keep learning something new. But we never speak of fully mastering a good story.

I don't think anyone would quarrel with the notion that stories are one of our chief teaching tools. They might quarrel with the notion that play is the other and that mere lecturing runs a distant third. I also don't think that many would quarrel with the notion that stories have achieved far greater artistic heights than games have, despite the fact that play probably
predates story (after all, even animals play, whereas stories require some form of language).
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