Raph Koster‘s Theory of Fun for Game Design is, as its title implies, less a “how-to”guide for game designers than it is a critical reflection on what games are (especially contemporary computer games), how they work, and why they appeal to people — with only very general pragmatic advice on how to design games, based on these reflections. Koster himself is a celebrated game designer, who has been involved in the creation of such massive multiplayer games (online worlds) as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.
I had some particular reasons for reading this book. Although I am fascinated by online virtual worlds (and spent a lot of time at one of the old text-based ones, LamdbaMOO, back in the mid-1990s), I’ve never been any sort of a gamer. I don’t like either competitive games, or puzzle-solving ones. The problem is, precisely, that I never find them fun. With competitive games, I feel every bit as much humiliation and pain from losing that anybody does; but unfortunately, I get no pleasure or gratification whatsoever from winning. For me, it’s a bit like the old Groucho Marx line (“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member”): anything competitive that I can do successfully seems to me trivial and stupid and not worth doing. The same goes for the solo games where you play against the machine. As for puzzles, they similarly strike me as trivial and inane if I can solve them, and unbearably tedious if I can’t. So I’m literally in a no-win situation when it comes to games. I don’t have the patience to play them, and I don’t ever get the emotional rewards most people get by mastering them. The result is, that I don’t know anything about games. This bothers me, because games are indubitably where the most interesting and innovative things are happening, when it comes to new media, or even to aesthetics in the world today.
But I want to write about Koster’s book, not my own neurotic dilemmas. Koster is a smart and personable guy, who has thought long and hard about the meanings and implications of what he does as a game designer. The book is appealing, too, because it’s both intelligent and highly accessible, making its arguments with clear prose on the left-hand pages, and amusing cartoons on the right-hand ones. The cartoons are not just illustrative, but actually contribute to the ongoing argument. Since Koster is not an academic (though he is very interested in what academics have to say about gaming), he is able to make his book a multimedia experience, even though we never leave the printed page.
Koster basically sees games as “exercises for our brains” (38), artificial, abstract spaces in which we learn and practice, and (hopefully) end up mastering, various skills. (By mentioning “brains,” he is not opposing ‘mental’ skills to ‘physical’ ones; games can cover everything from abstract logical reasoning to motor skills; they involve not just ‘thinking’, but responding to sensory cues). Games are “limited formal systems,” which is part of what makes them different from real life; but they are not escapist, because they provide training which can be useful, or even vital, in real life. Games are fun, Koster says, because they provide the pleasure — the endorphin high, perhaps — that comes from “that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task… In other words, with games, learning is the drug” (40).
Koster draws a rich and complicated series of consequences from these (seemingly simple) premises. I won’t attempt to summarize these consequences here. But Koster discusses such varied and deep matters as: what makes games boring, and how to avoid that; the relation between the underlying formal structures of games, which is where their puzzlement, challenge, and satisfaction lie, and the narratives in which games are almost always, and necessarily, embedded; the advantages and disadvantages of games in comparison with other media (like verbal fiction); and the potentialities and limits of games as works of art. Along the way, he also touches on such subjects as the moral responsibilities of game designers, and the need for games to become richer, and more emotionally complex, than they have been heretofore.
I feel I learned a lot from Theory of Fun in Game Design; Koster provoked me to think a lot more than most academic books tend to do. (I hope that doesn’t seem like too backhanded a compliment). It’s only against this background of general enthusiastic approval that I will note what seems to me to be the book’s major limitation. That is its overall assumptions based on cognitive psychology: which increasingly seems to be the “common wisdom” of our society today, much as Freudianism was fifty years ago. In line with this common wisdom, Koster overemphasizes cognitive skills, and gives short shrift to emotions (or, as I prefer to say, affect). In fairness, he does say that games, as abstract formal systems, are limited in comparison to novels and movies precisely because they are all about puzzle-solving skills, but are not so good at rendering the nuances of emotion. But when Koster comes to talk about the emotions, he describes them, in the standard cognitive terms, as markers of our efforts — as social primates — to attain higher social status and prestige.
As I’ve argued many times before, this sort of approach — not Koster’s in particular, but that of cognitive psychology itself, and of today’s “common wisdom” in general — is that 1)it is too narrowly functionalist; and 2)it makes the fundamental error of assuming that how something evolved or came into being is the key to understanding its meaning and usage now. But as Nietzsche said, “the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart.” Whatever their evolutionary origins, our emotions today are florid, ambivalent, multivalent, and often perverse, dysfunctional, or simply divorced from (positive or negative) function. Even if we really knew how they evolved (which we don’t; all we have are hypotheses that are grounded more in coherence with other dogmas than with any sort of empirical evidence), that would tell us very little about how they work, how they drive us, now. In their excess and gratuitousness, our affects are highly ludic — even when, and perhaps especially when, experiencing them isn’t much fun. And so, as cogent as I find Koster’s cognitive description of games (which includes his acknowledgement of how they often reward violence, aggression, and paranoia, at the expense of empathy and interdependence), I still think that something absolutely crucial is missing: the affect of games and gaming. Of course, if I understood that I might have a greater degree of insight into my own aversion to games, and my preference for other, equally (or more) sterile ways of subverting utility and wasting time.