Theory of Fun for Game Design Paperback – Nov 16 2004
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About the Author
Raph Koster (San Diego, CA) is the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment and author of the bestselling book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. For many years he has served as a lead designer for teams building online virtual worlds. His first job was as a designer working on persistent worlds at Origin Systems. His last project there was working on Ultima Online, opening the online persistent world market to the general gaming public.
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Perhaps more importantly, though, is that Raph has written a light, frequently humorous, and sometimes touching book that should make a great gift to those of us who have parents or spouses who DON'T understand why we're wasting all of our time with games. Rather than try to explain it to them, you can simply hand them this book, and they can come to appreciate the scope and depth of the subject without being overwhelmed.
And at times the book is quite poignant on a human level. You can see Raph's genuine pride and love for his children nearly pour off the page when he talks about them, and his mention of his grandfather passing away while he was at GDC is particularly touching to me since my own father died while I was at GDC in 2000.
The book can essentially be read in two ways. The first, simply by reading all the illustrations in sequence, is great fun all by itself. Nearly every drawing does its job in illustrating the point it tries to make, and quite a few have charming little extra details that a gamer will readily appreciate.
The second, and perhaps more proper way, is to read the text and the illustrations together. (I suppose one could also read the text by itself, but where's the fun in that?) To summarize very crudely, the book makes the following assertions:
1. The human mind enjoys processing information from the world around it into patterns, procedures, schema, etc. that it can later apply with less thought in identical or similar situations.
2. Games primarily feature a core pattern(s) and mechanic(s) which players learn via playing the game. This is fun for the mind.
3. If the pattern is too hard to discern, or the mechanic of learning the pattern too difficult, players get frustrated and stop playing. On the other hand, if players understand the pattern and master the mechanic too easily, they'll quickly become bored and stop playing. There are other issues as well (relevancy, matching expectations, presentation, etc.) that come into play.
4. Most games have traditionally taught very basic life skills. As children become adults, they've learned these skills, these patterns, and no longer play games since they are now out in the real world playing "for real".
5. Many of these skills, while useful when we were a primative people, are becoming less relevant, and even dangerous, in a modern society, where change is increasingly more and more rapid.
6. Game designers need to broaden their game designs, not only to encompass a larger range of patterns/skills/mechanics/lessons, but also ones which are relevant and helpful to modern society.
7. Game designers have an ETHICAL DUTY to do so.
(I've skipped over many other points of the book, which although unfair and regrettable, is necessary for the sake of length.)
Now, enough of the praise, on with a few (minor) criticisms.
I found the book paradoxically both too long and too short. The layout of the work is to fill (nearly) every right hand page with an illustration, with the text on the left hand page. This is great, because their are so many illustrations, but it means that the text on the left of many of the pages is often quite limited: 2 - 5 paragraphs, and usually short ones at that. However, I am not saying that there should have been more text; often it conveys just the right depth and meaning for the particular point it is trying to make on that page. But at times it does get a bit distracting; you get the feeling that these pages are only there because there are so many illustrations.
Yet at the same time, I felt the text sometimes got too repetitive, and should have gone deeper. But the problem is you couldn't really dwell on one thing too deeply, because it was on to the next page and on to the next point (and the next illustration). Really, the format constrains the book to a particular level, and I think part of this also comes from the fact that the book was largely original a presentation, where it is quite common for points to be made simply, and repeatedly, without a lot of additional exposition. And I think if you accept the book in that context, you won't be disappointed.
One point that I thought the book did not give enough attention to was the element of chance in games. Nearly every game features the element of random chance, yet the book explores this mechanic very little in relation to other core game mechanics. When it does -- all of 2 paragraphs on page 56 -- it's almost dismissive of it as little more than a way to teach people about odds.
I would contend there's a lot more to it than that. Introducing a random element into a game helps enhance the learning experience by prolonging the appeal of the game. Consider a game mechanic which, if mastered, allows a player to win 100% of the time. If the game is fairly deterministic, then once they've learned this mechanic, they'll quickly become bored with the game. Now, consider what happens when you add the element of chance. The player, even if they've mastered the mechanic, can still lose. This forces them to re-evaluate their mechanic -- do they REALLY have the best one, or were they mistaken? What additional patterns can they learn to help eliminate the effect of chance? Does this teach us that in life, even the best laid plans can fail due to unknown and unpredictable factors? And so on.
I would also add that the addition of chance helps ameliorate the problem of players playing the same game at different skill levels -- the inferior player still has a chance to win, even if it is by luck, but by winning is encouraged to keep playing the game and, perhaps, learning what the superior player already knows.
The other point of the book that I take issue with is at the end, where there is a rather sudden appeal to a variation Pascal's Wager. This forms the basis of an appeal to ethical game design. I find the whole insertion rather jarring, partly because I feel Pascal's Wager is thoroughly debunked (particular when you consider the wager fails to mention any costs relating to belief), and partly because it doesn't seem to make much of a difference. If game's don't matter, than it doesn't matter if a game explores a particular behavior that is "bad". On the other hand, if game's do matter, then surely it is important to have games that explore such mechanics as a way of learning about ourselves, just as more "ethical" games may explore other mechanics. As Sister Wendy admitted, Serrano's _Christ in Urine_ was still valid art; it just wasn't particularly good (in the non-moral sense) art.
I also think it is difficult to expect games to illuminate the human condition and teach lessons at the same level as other forms as art for precisely the reasons cited earlier in the book. Games are about a core mechanic/pattern that is learned, and the very nature of gaming compells one to look past the story and other contextual trappings to focus on the central gameplay. Consider the moral of _Moby Dick_, which is about the dangers of letting one's obsession overtake them, or the destructiveness of the desire for revenge to others around you, or perhaps, according to some interpretations, the futility and hubris of denying God and trying to confront evil itself on one's own. But a game _Moby Dick_, even if it contained such themes, would ultimately teach you instead about optimal strategies for hunting whales, or perhaps a formula for determing the true costs of obsession in lives lost. And neither of which may be models that realistically describe reality, which calls into question their ultimate utility beyond the scope of the game itself.
But despite these lengthy criticisms, I can certainly recommend this book. As I said before, I think it's particularly useful as a gift to non-gamers who want to know more about what we do and why we do it.
Early on, the adjective "fun" is defined to basically mean "educational". This definition makes sense in the context in which it's presented, but it vastly changes the meaning of the title of the book. The reader who takes the title to mean "theory regarding the design of games to be generally more entertaining" will most likely be disappointed to find that the author's apparent intended meaning was, "theory regarding the basic cultural value of games and their potential for greater social/educational achievement".
The primary focus of the book is on examining and understanding the social and cultural role that games play, and the intrinsic value that they hold in that role. There is also commentary on the nature of art (in the sense of "high art" or "fine art"), and how games could be refined to further ascend to the levels of sophistication found in other media.
All of the material is very insightful, uniquely assembled, and both fun and informative to read. Unfortunately, in all the theory it covers, it doesn't touch on the topic of actually designing games that are fun to play in the traditional sense of the word "fun".
Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that understanding the underlying social and educational aspects of games will lead to the creation of games that are fun in the more traditional sense of the word (based on the notion that the two definitions are just different descriptions of the same idea). Regardless of its worth, the approach is significantly different from what one might expect from reading the title and the back of the book.
The author's journey starts by trying to convince his get-a-real-job grandfather (and perhaps himself) that a career in game design is of significance. In doing so the author winds down a *philosophical* road describing how game design can mature into an artform just as other mediums have. His arguments are well thought, intriguing, and convincing. Raph will enlighten novice game designers and deeply plant some ideas that will surely influence the growing field of game design.
Among his most influential ideas, the author suggests that games should seek to allow people to explore game mechanics that reflect tiny aspects life as to allow real-world lessons to be learned. He suggests that game designs should *not* have preconceived destinations aimed at supporting the designer's personal truths, but that the game should allow its participants to openly experiment and discover their own truths. Very powerful stuff!
My harshest criticism is that the book seemed "puffed up" like a term paper where a procrastinator (in attempt to fill the required number of pages) quadrupled the line spacing, fatten the margins, and increased the fonts. The author provided hand-drawn pictures on every odd-numbered page. Some pictures were useful, but many seem forced and in trying to properly pair the text with the related pictures, lots of content pages are predominantly white space.
My preference would have been to reduce the size of the book by favoring the content much more heavily than the pictures and by doing away with the excessive white space; the book could easily have been half its size.
Despite the criticism the book offered good insight and was a fair value having purchased it on modest discount.
This isn't necessarily bad, but the potential buyer should be aware of this fact. One certainly wouldn't deduce this fact by reading the gushing praise other game industry veterans have lavished upon the book. Everyone from Will Wright to Scott Miller insists that you must have this book if you want to learn about game design. Perhaps this says more about the integrity of the peer review process than anything else. But I digress.
The primary source of my disappointment with this book is how little it actually conveys regarding the process of game design. Once one discounts the cartoons (which appear on every other page, taking up a full page), the anecdotes, the jokes, the stories about music and children ... there really isn't much content remaining. And what does remain is often either obvious, redundant, or just plain wrong.
In the 'just plain wrong' area, Raph commits many errors. He states that with a book one cannot practice a pattern or run permutations on it (makes me wonder what all those math and programming books I purchased were good for). He states that humans cannot comprehend language that is 'too deeply nested' (which is completely false - any rule of language can be learned with practice).
In the 'obvious' camp, Raph informs us that games are 'puzzles to solve'. The only difference between a game and real life, he posits, is that 'the stakes are lower with games'. A good game is one that conveys 'everything it has to offer before the player stops playing'. And, in a head-smackingly obvious conclusion, Raph asserts that 'the more constraints your game has, the more limited it will be'.
Obviously any critique of anything, be it music, writing, or art, is considerably subjective. My opinion might well differ from yours in many areas. But I think I can safely say that this level of writing is below standard. I cannot imagine, really, what anyone could learn regarding game design from this book ... unless they came at it with no knowledge of what a game is.
And this is what leads me to my conclusion: that this book is intended for children, or for someone with a child's level of understanding of games - essentially, for an outsider. The level of writing, the amateurish cartoons, the dialogue itself, all seem intended for a person who has absolutely no knowledge of what a game is, why people play games, what fun is, what boredom is ... it's instructive in a manner that is entirely facile and pedantic; rather like a pop-up book about the solar system helpfully explaining that when the sun goes away, the sky becomes dark.
Perhaps in some hippie, 70's-culture fashion, this is meant to unlock the child in all of us. But I just found the experience exasperating. I don't expect a person with years of experience in an industry to speak to me about it as if he were cooing to a child. And I expect that, if someone with such experience were to write a book, they would have something important to convey - some information that I could not find elsewhere, or deduce myself. Otherwise, why would I purchase the book?
In the end, this book simply has very little knowledge to convey. Games are puzzles. People enjoy solving puzzles. People become bored with puzzles that they can solve too easily, and frustrated with ones that are too hard. Water is wet. The sky is blue. Et cetera.
Koster asserts his personal opinions about the definition and role of art, media, and gender as fact, when there is actually great controversy about these questions. To make things worse, all the right-sided pages of Koster's books contain his own baffling, amateurishly drawn illustrations which are supposed to illustrate his points in an amusing way. These illustrations are absolutely horrible and look like they were drawn by unskilled children..
Because one half of the book consists of these cartoons, I feel it is important to express another unpleasantry of Ralph's cartoons. Most of the drawings smack of a 1960's attitude about females-- angry wives threating their gaming husbands, all wearing dresses, often complaining about the gaming habits of the men in their lives. At moments it reminded me of The Lockhorns.
The illustrations are often baffling and confusing, to the point that they made reading the book quite difficult-- so much that I wished I could somehow hide them or tear them out.
One half the book, consists of these terrible illustrations. Minus the drawings, this book would make a decent $8 pocket book, good for a quick read but absolutely unworth of the title "theory of fun."
In sum, the book contained too much of Ralph Koster's own personal opinions, his cruddy cartoons, too much information about his own life and family, and not nearly enough information about implementing fun in videogame design.
There is simply not enough "theory" in "theory of fun." Frankly, I do not understand why it is getting such rave reviews.
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