Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

Book: A Theory of Fun for Game Design
Author: Raph Koster, game designer on MUDs, MMOs, virtual worlds
Year: 2004, but I read the revised edition for 2014

Summary: A good introductory text on game design that briefly covers a gamut of practical topics in game design, but doesn’t go into much depth on any one of them. Good for students completely new to design, but I would not recommend it for professionals.

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When asking for a good book on game design, A Theory of Fun is usually pretty high on everyone’s list – and for good reason. It’s short at only 279 pages, but only about half of those have text – sometimes not even a full page. Each page has a matching illustration on the opposite, ranging from whimsical drawings to infographics. The writing is easy to read, full of personal anecdotes and a teacher’s patience rather than a dense academic book or one set out to evangelize a particular view of games. It has a personal but also very matter of fact tone that jumps right into the content.

This is not a how-to book: you will not get practical advice for being a better designer or designing a game within its pages. It starts off with the question of “what are games and why are they important?” and answers it with the meaning of games, what is fun, how games are used for learning, how people interact with games, and finally a call to action for games to take their rightful place among the arts. It provides a good informative basis for what design is and general issues designers must consider, such as player retention, skill, mastery, core types of games (dominance, territory acquisitions, etc.), the difference between systems and aesthetics. It’s the kind of book that I may hand to an outsider to explain what makes games different from other media, and why they should be considered art.

Keep in mind that the book is very short and despite its brevity it jumps between subjects so quickly that it can feel that you don’t really dig into any given one. However, everything it does cover is pretty meaty, if short. This is in contrast to other introductory books that are very, very long because they repeat information or spend a lot of time explaining the same concept in multiple ways. It’s well-divided, and uses plenty of bolding or bullet-points, so it’s also an easy book to skim for information.

I first picked up A Theory of Fun nine years ago – and I read about half before deciding that it was okay but a bit basic. Now that I know a bit more about design, I thought it was a good moment to reread this – all the way to the end – with a more critical eye. I personally like much denser texts, so while I appreciated the breadth of A Theory of Fun it left me rather unsatisfied and retreading ground I am already familiar with. I am not going to repeat everything the book covers here – if you want that, you should read the book – but rather just some points I found particularly interesting.

The author throws out most of the definitions of “game” because they aren’t very good at giving working designers a good model for making games. Instead, he offers his own – that the purpose of games is to exercise the brain, and you exercise the brain by challenging it to identify patterns. Games give players an opportunity to practice and understand patterns in a safe context, where stakes are not as high as in the real world.

Patterns require interaction and feedback, and this loop allows players to develop their own mental model of the game and its objects and, with iteration, improve that mental model. From this, Koster focuses on games as systems and most of his lessons on games, challenge, difficulty, interaction, feedback, and so on rely on this understanding of the relationship between games and patterns. His definition of games notably includes practice, training, roleplay, simulation, and drills.

One of the important arguments he makes is that games are, at their core, about systems and everything else – like aesthetics and narrative – are dressing. He argues that the value in games must be found in that interaction and feedback loop and this is what sets games apart from, say, a book. You could describe this as a two-way dialogue between the player and the system. He even says at one point that game systems by themselves do not contain morals – Tetris with a different dressing could be a game about mass murder, for example. Ultimately, he points out that we (as developers) have done a great job at improving the dressing in games, but a poor job of innovating on those systems.

This isn’t really new territory – people have been talking about how to evaluate games on their systems and aesthetics for a while, and practicing game designers mostly know that the hardest, most important, and most time-consuming part of making a game are its systems, rules, and mechanics and not the narrative dressing. A lot of students, aspiring designers, and amateurs avoid thinking deeply about the systems, copying them from other games without too much reflection, and instead put all their efforts into the dressing (see: all those 2D platformers). Of course, the same can be said of mainstream AAA games – a different skin, but the core mechanics are usually recycled.

My only misgiving with the book are its nods to scientific studies and evolutionary psychology, largely because both have been used all too often by non-experts to explain away culture as biology. These include topics like brain function, player psychology, how different genders play, and games acting as training for survival. As I mentioned the purpose of this book is to introduce, not dive fully into depth on any one of these topics, so I think it’s better to look at the source materials (he provides many recommendations for further reading) before accepting them at face value. (This is always my rule, regardless of author, and it’s why I have a lot of psychology texts in my reading list).

Much of the information in the book I already knew, but it was nice to have it spelled out directly, including some new vocabulary. The book covers several other topics – I particularly enjoyed the parts on how games are ultimately consumable, and how players are driven to exploit systems. There are a lot of really excellent charts in here for modeling games, including ways to compare them to other media, especially music, to show that all forms of art can be looked at as formal systems, metrics, rules, and mechanics.

I’ve read some of the author’s other writing and I find those more effective than this book, so I was a bit disappointed by A Theory of Fun. The fact that it’s broad in scope, written approachably with a lot of personal anecdotes, and full of whimsical drawings makes it a non-intimidating introduction to design, especially for those outside of the game industry.

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