Sunday, November 12, 2006

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

Summary: This mistitled manifesto examines games as an artistic medium, describes their capability of combining both entertainment and art, and encourages designers to create more artistic games.

Raph Koster wesbite.
A Theory of Fun website.


This book attempts to tackle the idea of what makes games fun. It begins with Raph's attempt to validate his chosen profession (game designer) to his grandfather and progresses through: boredom and noise in games; facing, avoiding, and mastering challenges; theme's overlay onto mechanics; and where games fit in comparison with other forms of media as entertainment and art. It asserts that "fun" in games is mastering challenges, and therefore game designers play the role of teachers, presenting their audience with lessons that should have some applicability in the real world. It provides an exhortation for game designers to produce quality games that not only challenge players but also reach some level of artistic quality.

The Mistitled Book

I have now read through this book three times, and have enjoyed it each time. However, it was clear to me even after the first reading that something was wrong. It took a while before I hit the eureka moment as to what this was.

The book is not written as an academic book; there are no formal footnotes or endnotes, no bibliography, no sources. Raph writes many observations and assertions with no supporting data. Of course, it is not hard to write many things that seem to make sense even without supporting data, but several times I disagreed with his assertions. There were no real grounds to argue with him, either for or against.

Instead, the book is like a series of excellent blog posts, clearly written, and generally sensible. Half the book - each facing page - is illustrations, which, with little exception, are not necessary. I understand from some comments that Raph has made that he deliberately made the text less "heavy" and more reader-friendly and has been surprised by reactions that the audience wanted a more thorough, academic, "boring" book.

The first time though the book I understood the ideas and agreed or disagreed with them. The second time, the things I disagreed with I now disagreed with even more. Raph had thought of many of the counter-arguments and noted them in the book, but not dealt with them. It wasn't all fitting together.

The book is supposed to be about "fun" in games. Was I unfairly bringing my own ideas about "fun" into my reading and therefore not giving him a chance to explain it? Or was Raph not cogently arguing his ideas? Furthermore, while a lot of the book is sensible, it doesn't address the main idea of the book, namely "fun". Instead, the book talks about purpose, cognitive function, "fun", education, art, patterns, social responsibility, and so on.

The third time through the book I used a highligher, finding the main assertions of the book, as well as my main disagreements. I emailed Raph at one point when I was totally stuck on one of his assertions: that games are "puzzles", presenting challenges to be overcome.

Raph insists that not only the game mechanics but even the self and the opponents are patterns to overcome. Even luck is a challenge, in that it involves learning odds. This contrasts with my own ideas about challenges in games. Could we be arguing semantics?

But no. I can't - don't - accept that self, opponents, and luck are patterns to overcome. There is more to games than simply finding and mastering patterns. So what is really going on in this book?

Raph defines fun as mastering challenges. He acknowledges fulfillment, enjoyment, and so on in games, but doesn't categorize these as "fun" in order to concentrate on a manageable definition. He then goes on to assert that this definition is all that games are about. It's circular reasoning. But he uses this definition in order to present the rest of the book, which is about art and a comparison of games to other media. Again, all of the pieces don't fit together.

I finally figured out how to fit the pieces together. I think Raph started with one idea for a book and it morphed along the way, but he never really noticed. The book is called:

A Theory of Fun for Game Design

But his theory of fun isn't really more than an assertion of what he wants to talk about. So it doesn't work. If you change the title to:

A Theory of Art for Game Design

Then the whole thing falls into place. This book is about games and art, not games and fun.

Fun, Art, and Games

The parts of the book that talk about games and art hold together cohesively from one end to the other. He defines fun only because he wants to talk only about that aspect of games, the challenge. If part of a game is mastering challenges, that is also what art is: presenting challenges to be mastered.

The difference between entertainment and art is that entertainment (or craft) presents something comfortable and pleasurable to the audience, while art presents something challenging and therefore growth-inducing to the audience. Raph covers all of this. He acknowledges that people are lazy and want entertainment without art. But he obscures this by trying to dissuade you from recognizing comfort and pleasure as fun.

If you toss out that part of the book - if you allow that comfort and pleasure are also fun along with challenge and mastery - you are left with a neat manifesto about games and their artistic value.

Raph asserts that games present an artistic pallet like any other media. Therefore, presenting hateful images and crying that what you have done is "only a game" is indefensible. Also, presenting the same games over and over, without adding real human challenges, relevant challenges for modern man, is like producing endless pop music records without artistic content. We should be able to find a balance between unchallenging and valuelessly offensive, just as we do for other entertainment/art forms.

The book ends before exploring just how to do this, however. Games are defined variously by many people, but seem at their heart to have an element of competition and an end result of mastery. The activity process of a game seems to require not only general interaction but specific interaction in a form of challenge/overcoming. Therefore, unlike painting, dance, music, or architecture, where the artist is leading you and can present any path along which to travel: sadness, happiness, glory, etc., the game designer appears to be limited by the form imposed on the interaction: one of challenge and overcoming.

Sonnets and Haiku are also restrictive in their formats, but an artist can use these to present very powerful art. Surely we can do the same with games. For one, are games really only about challenges and overcoming them? Or is that simply the only type of game we currently recognize, much the same as we may once have only recognized a specific type of painting style or music?

Unfortunately, I haven't read a tremendous amount of other material on play and games - my wishlist on Amazon is long, and you're welcome to assist my studies :-) . Otherwise, I will get to these books eventually.

In the meantime, A Theory of Fun (Art) is a book full of nice ideas on the subject and a clear manifesto to bring more art into our game designs.


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