A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Ralph Koster – Book Review

Koster’s book isn’t written explicitly for user experience professionals, but it covers a subject in which we should be very interested – what is ‘fun’ in games, and what makes a game fun? Since we are involved in crafting a positive player experience, it is a topic that we should care deeply about, and A Theory of Fun for Game Design aims to deepen our understanding of what makes a fun game.

The most obvious thing that strikes you about Koster’s book is the tone, and the format – despite it being said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the cover of this book, a notepad covered in doodles, is a preview of the format of the book. The book is written in a personal, conversational tone, and every page of text has a corresponding picture page, with a hand drawn doodle, serving to summarise the text next to it. It’s immediately clear this is not an academic book, and this makes it all the more useful to people trying to understand fun in video games.

Reflecting the light tone, and doodled illustrations is the books approach to the subject. Koster is not interested in an academic definition of fun, instead he wants to know why it exists, why games can be fun (or dull), and how we can improve a player’s experience of fun with the game.

These guys are having so much fun, they don't even have to plug the controllers in!

To understand fun, A Theory of Fun for Game Design starts with cognition theory, explaining how the brain works, and what it enjoys. These chapters essentially condense down to an understanding that the brain enjoys challenge, and learning how to overcome these challenges (‘grokking’). Successful games give sufficient opportunity to learn, and then challenges the player by offering variations of application for the learnt skill. For an example of this, consider jumping in Mario – the player learns to jump over a hole, then many holes, then holes that spit lava, then holes where the landing space is moving, then holes where the landing area disappears, then all of the above together! By challenging the player to stretch their application of the new skill they’ve learnt, the game continues to be fun.

Games are an important medium, as they can offer this opportunity to challenge in a direct manner, which other mediums can only abstractly offer. Hence, games can be used to teach life skills – how to aim, how to gamble, how to win. Koster offers an explanation to why these are common goals in games due a cultural background of power and hierarchy – human’s have evolved needing to fight, and win, and games offer a way to learn and challenge these skills (as do sports).

So why are some games boring? Koster tells us that games fail to be fun either when we’ve learnt everything they have to teach, or we feel we are not learning anything from the game. Games that are too hard are ‘boring’, as the learning is above our ability. Games where all the main elements are learnt early on, without variation through the later levels, get boring early, as we’ve learnt everything. This can be seen in Assassin’s Creed, where reviews often commented on it being repetitive – you’ve seen everything there is to see in the first hour. As people interested in user experience, we can see the value here for longer play test sessions with real players, to uncover the long term appeal of games.

Pictured: Not Fun.

The latter half of the book considers the question of whether games are art, and what they need to achieve to become art. Currently the book identifies games as offering only a choice between ‘fun’ and ‘boredom’. When they move beyond this medium, and become open to interpretation, and a way to teach us about ourselves, they will become art. Perhaps we can see the beginning of this development in great introspective games, like Deus Ex, Half Life 2, or Lego Rock Band.

Ultimately, for user experience practitioners, this book will not change how you do your job. It won’t give you set rules on how to make a game more fun, or on what to do to discover whether something is fun. However it will give you a deeper understanding of why some games are fun, why some games are boring, and give an ethos for improving the player experience. And it might just change how you think.

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