It’s pretty unusual to read a book that makes a person feel smarter and completely unintelligent at the same time, but such is the scope of A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster.
Whereas The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is filled with practical advice on creating a game, Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a philosophical treatment on games. Based on the cover”s cartoon doodles, I was expecting a lighthearted read about, well, fun. Instead I encountered a vision for games that challenged me intellectually in a way that was pleasantly unexpected. Koster’s intent as an author was to model the type of journey a person might take while playing a game.
The book is both intimidating and welcoming. I think this is by design. Immediately after starting the book I realized that the author, Raph Koster, is one of those people that thinks deeply about things most people take for granted. Every page on the left of the book contains Koster’s ideas, and every page on the right contains an illustration that simplifies and supports the text it resides next to. It’s almost like the book has its own CliffsNotes. Anyway, it works, especially when you realize it cuts the number of pages to read in half.
Koster also devises his own reference system. There are asterisks embedded in his writing that invite the reader to visit a Notes section at the end of the book. The Notes contain interesting sidebar comments about whatever thing Koster referenced while presenting his ideas. It’s not anything formal like a works cited section, but it provides an avenue to dig deeper and learn just a little bit more. Koster is willing to have this thought process explored by the reader.
I’m almost afraid to attempt to summarize the lessons found in A Theory of Fun for Game Design because it’s heady stuff and I’m just not sure I’ve got it right, but here goes:
Koster proposes that people have used games throughout human history as a way to learn. However, culture has compartmentalized games as a thing for children. Which is unfortunate, to Koster’s view, because games provide a welcoming format for people to experience things that help them survive when they encounter real life challenges. Still, Koster is at odds with the current state of games.
Koster puts forward that most games today are based around themes of power and conquest, that were quite useful in mankind’s early struggle to survive, but do not teach lessons that will best equip people to succeed in a modern world that requires collaboration and consideration of others. Games therefore offer untapped potential as game designers discipline themselves to create games that stretch players to adopt strategies that optimize behavior for the modern world.
That stretch matters to Koster. Koster wrestles with the idea that the the human brain constantly seeks more data, but doesn’t necessarily seek new experiences. In a similar manner, people will gravitate to the familiar, and Koster believes that all people have a tremendous amount to gain and learn by playing games that work against their assumptions and mental cheat codes.
And the mechanism to encourage that growth is the fun that only games can provide. Koster pinpoints fun as the sensation one experiences as they overcome something that had been just a little bit out of reach. Koster seems to view games as a medium that has not yet matured. Perhaps the fun inherent of games now may be that maturation is just a little out of reach, but will be mastered in the future.
I felt smarter writing that, but I sure felt like I have a lot to learn too. Good on you, Raph Koster. I think that’s exactly where you’d like the reader to be.
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