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Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, ten years on
Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, ten years on
October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Programming, Art, Design, GDC Online

Ten years ago, Raph Koster came to GDC in Austin to give a talk called A Theory of Fun, before it was ever a book that's fallen in and out of print multiple times -- it still sells 4,000 copies a year, which might make it the best-selling game book of all time.

Back then, MMO veteran Koster had just finished Star Wars: Galaxies, and the feedback was it wasn't particularly fun. Wondering if he'd lost touch with what makes games fun, he decided to look at psychology and cognitive science as his colleagues Dave Rickey and Noah Falstein had been doing, to explore the nature of play and what fun really is.

Science knows humans apply patterns to reality often unconsciously. Some behaviors, like nursing, we're born with, and others we learn over time. Playing games is a crucial education and practice tool over time not just for humans but for animals, who learn their basic survival behaviors by playing together.

"If you've ever seen a kid first learn how to walk, the look of joy on that toddler's face: It's fun. They're playing a game," suggests Koster. The brain releases endorphins in response to playful learning, and that basic concept is at the core of Koster's A Theory of Fun, which explores natural human patterns and systems to find what people naturally find compelling about games.

Some theorists separate "games" from "play," under the presumption that games are highly rule-bound while play is supposedly unstructured nd spontaneous, but part of what A Theory of Fun does was dismiss this idea. "When you're playing a tea party, it's just another system for you to learn," Koster says.

"If you're playing cops and robbers, or role-playing or making up another game with toys, it's a system with a lot more rules than Candy Land," he continues. "It has more rules, not less... games usually deal with small, constrained, tiny little rulesets you can write down. Ever tried to write down a ruleset for physics?"

Any system can be approached as a game, and since games are intentionally created to teach systems that modify the wiring in our brains, games can be viewed as an art form that re-wires people's brains. "We have the power, and that means we have to be responsibly... we actually get to engage in direct mind-control," Koster suggests.

The particular types of fun Koster is most interested in differ from flow states or pleasure-states like delight: "Art's challenging; art we have to work for. Something that's pretty and delightful... isn't the unexpected moment. That's delight, but it isn't what I would call 'fun'."

Koster sees fun as very dependent on the neurotransmitter of reward, dopamine. "Dopamine is really interesting because it specifically enhances learning and memory. Specifically it relates to predicting rewarding outcomes, which funny enough, is a lot of what we play games for," Koster explains. "It is a teaching signal to the brain. It gets dumped in you when there are unpredictable situations as well, in order to encourage you to solve them. It also decreases inhibition."

In other words, dopamine is associated with the thirst for knowledge: "Maybe fun isn't 'learning,' it's 'being curious about life,'" Koster suggests.

People do play for other reasons besides fun: To focus meditation, to explore a story, to gain comfort instead of fun per se, or for "deadly serious" practice to win a tournament. These are valid reasons to play games but separate from Koster's theory of fun.

"A lot of people hate the idea that we can reduce all of this to something so mechanical," suggests Koster. "I hate to say it, but the more science that has come out over the last ten years, the more this entire thing has been validated. There's more and more evidence to show we do in fact engage in significant, difficult learning with games, that gamers are predisposed toward learning, that games have real therapeutic value... it's all come true."

But that creates, now, a funny issue with the word "game." Abstract games that are nothing but challenge, art games that have no challenge at all, yet all are called "games." What, then, does that mean? According to Koster, game design means the creation of systems, not any of the visual or created elements.

"Every game consists of being presented with a problem, preparing to start it -- setting up the chess table -- a topology in which the problem exists, because shooting at a space invader from behind the shield or behind the field is a different problem... and a core mechanic," says Koster. "Then you get told how you did."

Look at Portal, for example; there's the macro-level of beating the game, a smaller level of beating one stage of the game, all the way down to the subtleties of positioning the gun and understanding the game's grammar. This "atomic" view of games helps explicate and illustrate the gap between what a game is, and the game's surface (what Clint Hocking refers to as "ludonarrative dissonance").

Of course, many designers are running over games with a fine-toothed comb. Independently of Koster, Dan Cook came up with "skill atoms" in his Chemistry of Game Design; Ben Cousins measured the amount of time you spend in the air jumping in a wide array of games and found that an optimal time exists. Designers research games closely, define their science, and diagram them.

Yet what is the black box at the core beneath it all? There are only four core mechanics in games, Koster theorizes: Solving problems heuristically. understanding other people and social relationships, mastering your physical relations, and exploiting the natural human difficulty in estimating probability.

At games' core, they're entirely about math -- but as someone with a Master's degree in poetry, Koster has a hard time accepting this. "It seems to me that math has real problems expressing a whole bunch of stuff. How do you write a game about the taste of a peach? How do you touch the ineffable?"

Yet so many art games -- Rod Humble's The Marriage and Jason Rohrer's Passage -- were derived directly as responses to A Theory of Fun. Koster sees a spectrum with accessible entertainment at one end, and art that requires literacy at the other.

Entertainment is conservative and familiar, while art is risky, challenging patterns we don't yet understand. It enforces -- sitcoms help us do social norming and understand how our culture works. It provides the delight of pattern recognition. But art is challenging and offers new systems to master (a bit of info you can use if you ever get into a "games as art" debate).

More and more we create games that create lots of surface and very little "black box," games that become button-presses leading to events, one after the other. "It's so much easier to express art through story and movie-making than it was through game mechanics," he says. But does that mean games like Dear Esther are really games?

"It might be we're creating a new kind of entertainment that isn't 'game design'... we might need a new name, because a designed game is an interactive experience, but not all interactive experience are designed to be games. And maybe there's such a thing as "ludonarrative consonance," where some associations -- like uni-directional platformers and the meaning of life, or colonialism and MMOs -- just naturally fit.

"Am I seeing everything as systems because that's the way the world is and that's what games are? Or... am I approaching it all this way because games trained me to see everything as systems in the first place?" wonders Koster. "Because we design either through intention or accidentally by omission, we are changing a brain."

But the things that make us the most happy are the things that games do really well: Social connection, gratitude and generosity, optimism and striving for goals.

In the end, if fun is joy, and the grand pursuit of happiness, that's enough for Koster.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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Keith Burgun
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Firstly, I've read Raph's book, and while I don't agree with a lot of it, it is certainly a good read and I do recommend it to others as a good starting place.

One thing I have learned since reading his book, in a few interactions I've had with him, is that he's a sincere person really working towards understanding these systems in a useful way. If he were to put out another book on the topic, I'd certainly be picking it up.

Obviously, one of the big bones of contention I have is with his definition of the word "game", especially with respect to the field of "game design". If "Game design" is merely "system design", then what can we actually say about it, beyond technical stuff such as programming advice?

We will never move forward until we understand that there are underlying forms inside of what we currently call "games". We have to find out what those forms are, identify their essential properties, and from there we can begin the process of building functional theory.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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That seems to be exactly what Koster is trying to do. I'm genuinely curious about your point here, what is the difference in your mind between a "form" and it's properties vs. the types of systems Koster is trying to describe and analyze?

I understand the fear that this kind of analysis sort of de-arts game design in a weird way, but just because he's using the word "system" doesn't mean his advice is only useful for programming. A system can be described equally in terms of it's emotional impact and it's efficiency.

Mark Venturelli
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Raymon, you missed his point by a mile. Obviously games are systems, but Keith's gripe (and mine) is including almost ALL OTHER systems on the equation (even life itself, it seems, since Koster goes on to say 'Ever tried to write down a ruleset for physics?').

Michael Baker
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I have found no other books or design methodologies so widely applicable to the practice of game development as this one - particularly when prototyping or building a game from scratch. It is my text book of choice for the game design classes i run for a Bachelor's program in the US.

Regardless of the word we choose to assign (games, systems, interactive applications, ...). When my students embrace the idea that games teach and that players (users?) must be able to recognize the underlying patterns in order to meaningfully manipulate the system, their projects immediately improve and they feel a bit more like designers and a bit less like players.

They also learn that this process does not automagically inject "art" or "content" into their creations, and that a playable interactive application containing shapes and colors does not by-default produce a compelling experience.

There is indeed much useful definition yet to be discovered, theorized, and proven; but Koster has, in my opinion, advanced the practice in a useful way.

Michael Joseph
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RE: "If you've ever seen a kid first learn how to walk, the look of joy on that toddler's face: It's fun. They're playing a game," suggests Koster.

Is the implication here that after mastery a game loses it's fun factor and folks will get burnt out or bored with certain genres after a time? With the average age of the population getting higher, maybe there will soon come a time when typical 3d action games and shooters become too small a market?

RE: "We have the power, and that means we have to be responsibly... we actually get to engage in direct mind-control," Koster suggests.

I'm glad to see Mr. Koster acknowledging this. "Mind-control" may be a bit over the top but if a creator is able to do things such as introduce or reinforce stereotypes, influence user purchasing behavior or other behavior outside of the game, or hypnotize users into a state of mindless grinding, then that is at least mind shaping.

This is why integrity and honesty on the part of the developer matters. Media makers may shirk this responsibility but first they must at least be aware that it exists before they can decide on a path.

Are games a system? What is fun? Do these questions really matter? If games are a system then everything is a system and that revelation is saying nothing. How does this tell me what systems I should be making? Seems to me that particular question only leads back to a discussion about mechanics which is where we have always been.

Knowing what fun is in terms of chemical processes or states within the brain can not help you to be a better designer. If it's all just "learning" then again, beyond the realization itself, it yields no practical knowledge.

What I think does matter is what is the design philosophy of the creator. Do they care about what their games say or whether they say anything at all? Do they put the player first or monetization? Do they respect their users? Are they innovating and taking risks or are they cloning and suffering from sequelitis.

This is where Mr. Koster's "mechanical" theory falls short. He puts himself in the impossible position of trying to formulate those things which ultimately cannot be fully understood. The day they are fully understood is the day we've created an artificial human being. People have been trying to place the arts & humanities in with the sciences for a long time and they still haven't succeeded. We can produce crude models of human behavior and psychology and we can recognize certain attributes in good art, but we cannot formulate them.

What is the hope and purpose of formulating game design? What is the hope and purpose of formulating art? Are we talking about creating "perfection?" That sounds like madness. So what are we trying to accomplish there? Trying to reduce these things to cold mechanical formulations is equivalent to trying to reduce human beings to cold and mechanical formulations. These sorts of generalizations are inherently dehumanizing. The purposes for even wanting to do so don't seem good.

FormAlization yes. FormUlation no.

Raph Koster
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I have posted up the slides for the talk, which may answer some of the comments above.

Joey Green
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Your book is great. Inspired me to learn more about cognitive science and how it can apply to game design. I would love for a sequel to this book.