book review

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, a review

Raph Koster has delivered an interesting book about video games, even though it is not always as thorough as I would want it to be.

At a first glance I did not take the book very seriously. Almost half of its 244 pages are reserved for cartoons that seem to remediate the text in nice bite-size chunks. The text itself is devoid of references, and written in a way that it accessible to even the most dull-witted nerd. The notes that can be found in the back give the book more substance, and there Koster takes time to name his sources, but one of the problems of the books design (apart from the question whether or not you find Koster's cartoons amusing or not) is that the links between the main text and the notes are invisible. When you read something in the text that raises your interest, you need to flip to the back and hunt for a note that might elaborate on the subject. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing how the note might be titled and there is no way to be sure that an entry is even there. If it had not been for a colleague recommending the book I would have never picked it up. (In fact, I had flipped through it once or twice before in my local bookshop, but always put it back on the shelf in favour of other books).

But I am glad I eventually did. There are some concepts from the book that are worth salvaging from its poor design. Koster's grasp of art and the way art connects to games is interesting. Perhaps his opinions ate not very original, they are well stated and will reach an arguably wider audience than books that purely cater for full-blood academics. Although I would never dream of calling Minesweeper an example of an Impressionist game, not for the love and respect for both games and art.

The core of Koster's 'theory of fun' is build on cognitive science. We feel fun when endorphins are released in the brain, and endorphins are released as a reward when we learn something new. Fun games triggers the endorphin feedback often by giving us enough moments of revelation. In short fun games are teaching us stuff.

Video games, however, are mostly teaching us how to be better cavemen, as most non-video games also do. Hence, there is a rather primitive focus on hunting, sneaking and killing. Games have evolved only a little even though the history of games is longer than any other form of art. The same can be said for the development of video games over the last few decades. Most game rules and system have not really changed since the beginning of the eighties. What has changed is the package in which they are delivered. Koster calls to our attention the essential "ludemes" that make up games, and urges game designers to focus on these instead of the window dressing.

Unfortunately, Koster does little to shed more light on these ludemes themselves. (And it took me a laborious hunt through the notes to discover that the concept of ludemes was taken from an unnamed article in Developers Magazine by Ben Cousins.) On only two pages (120 & 122) Koster lists some elements that make up good game design or that facilitate the endorphin feedback loop that makes games fun. I would have loved to see a more thorough analysis of games based on these ludemes and systems of fun.

Lack of thoroughness plagues the book on more occasions. From the pictorial misrepresentation of the game Go (page 65) to the curious representation of some gender issues (chapter six), and from stereotypical cartoons to statements on role-playing based on a single observation: It might be one thing to have a friend that always played a similar role in various games over the last ten years, it is something completely different to claim that people generally do (page 132). I for one, have several friends who do switch roles, one of whom informed me of his observations of progressive stages of role-playing that includes, but not ends with, reiterating the same character over and over. Those observations seem to me at least as intelligent and grounded in empirical reality as Koster's are.

Despite these problems, A Theory of Fun is still a book that is worth reading, for some of Koster's insights are valuable indeed. More importantly, I do sincerely hope that it will inspire game designers world wide to think about their games and develop new systems ludemes and fun. I think this is exactly what Koster aims for, and from that perspective the book is solid and successful.