A Theory of Fun for Game Design

Some time ago I read Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design, and recently I picked it up and had another look — as usual, curious about what it might have to say to me about interactive fiction design.

For one thing, this is a friendlier and more welcoming book (or, alternatively, fluffier and more informal) than most of the other books on game design I’ve encountered so far. The narrative voice is quite chatty and personal, and every page of text faces a page of cartoon.

It’s also more broader in scope: the chapters start with “Why Write This Book?” and end with “Fun Matters, Grampa”, a moral-of-the-story segment about the significance of games in our world. This isn’t surprising given the brouhaha around video games — do they rot our brains, do they make us violent, and is it conceivable that they have (or ever will have) any value as art or cultural product. Even Roger Ebert, for whose cultural insight I generally have some respect, has been seen to comment that he considers video games essentially a waste of time, unable to teach or persuade or make us better people the way a real art form (like cinema) can do. So in this somewhat embattled field it’s not surprising to find game designers arguing for the value of their work, as well as arguing about it. I think Koster is generally correct about the power of games, though more sentimental than I’d be; but that is not the part of the book I want to dig into.

Here’s the meat of it.

Chapter 2, “How the Brain Works”, gives a thumbnail description of how we learn things — how we practice something over and over in our minds even if we aren’t practicing it in life, until we get used to it. Chapter 3 goes in a fairly obvious direction with this: games, according to Koster, are limited practice systems that exercise our brains:

Almost all games… are limited formal systems. If you keep playing them, you’ll eventually grok them. In that sense, games are disposable, and boredom is inevitable. (38)

And that seems right, in general. Many video games are about grasping some kind of patterned behavior, and anyone who’s played much Tetris knows what it’s like to dream about the falling blocks and to see row configurations in the bathroom tiles. But this is precisely the kind of thing that interactive fiction tends to lack. Solving an IF game is usually not about this kind of learning. Except with the very most Rogue-like monster-bashing fests, you can’t play IF by routine; you can’t get into the Zone and have everything go well for a while. It’s not like Tetris or Solitaire or flOw or Flo’s Diner or Guitar Hero; not even like Scrabble or chess, where each turn involves more mental effort but it is still possible to get kind of in tune with the game, since the same mental behaviors (recognize patterns, anagram letters, predict future movements) have to happen over and over again and can be learned.

It’s true that when I get stuck in an IF game, I tend to act on autopilot, navigating back through rooms I’ve already visited, looking and taking inventory over and over. Other IF players have told me they do the same thing. When I read beta-tester transcripts, I can usually tell that the tester got stuck at the point where their behavior becomes more repetitive and even random: basically, one has run out of ideas, but it feels like it’s sensible to keep typing something (in order to remain engaged with the game), and there’s always the possibility that looking over all the text again will catch some clue missed the first time around.

One possible argument here is that interactive fiction is therefore not a game in the sense he intends. It might be a puzzle or a story, but it’s not a game. But other things Koster says do seem to fit:

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. (40)

And he goes on to argue that players are looking for a system that gives them fresh data about a given problem up until the point where they solve the challenge. This need not be motor-skills training; it could be solving a puzzle. All of which corresponds to accepted wisdom about IF puzzle design, namely that a good puzzle should give the player responses to partial successes, should provide lots of feedback, should be interactive enough that it’s worth toying with until the secret reveals itself.

The next chapter, What Games Teach Us, describes most of the current game market as a bit thin — stuff that teaches visceral skills (like how to move quickly) and reinforces old, not necessarily good attitudes (binary opposition of sides, the use of violence). It’s a chapter that can easily be read as an implicit encomium to interactive fiction, since IF is language-based; tends to prefer creative problem solving, thoroughness, and exploration over violence; and has at least the potential to draw in psychological factors and emotional concerns as well as the simplistic and physical. On the other hand, chapter 5 — What Games Aren’t — more or less pushes the element of story as such aside. Games are not the stories they tell, Koster argues, and the fun comes from learning and interacting with the rules rather than from the aesthetic appreciation of story.

This, I think, gets at a pretty common issue in the IF community. I have lost count of the number of reviews I’ve read that started out to praise a puzzle-oriented game by saying something like “the IF establishment only rewards authors for writing story-oriented IF these days, but I’m old-fashioned and I like my IF to be FUN…”. This irritates me a little. Not because I’m exclusively devoted to narrative IF or because I’m tired of references to the IF establishment as though there were an organized institution, but because the complaint is factually incorrect: in fact, there’s still way more puzzle-oriented IF being written than any other kind. Sure, there are a few pure-narrative works written every year, but if you go by the numbers, far, far more of it is of a fairly traditional sort. For that matter, it’s not even the case that the narrative stuff always wins out in critical acclaim. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. But I would say that IF is a medium in which both games and stories are presented, and if you are in the mood for one and get the other, you’ll probably be disappointed.

The several chapters that follow, I won’t try to summarize in full — they dip into a number of side avenues but argue that people can grow most by playing the sorts of games that teach things they find uncomfortable, and that the content of a game comes from what the player learns by interacting with the rules. This is unfolded a little slowly for my taste, partly thanks to Koster’s chatty style, but it ultimately winds up somewhere both interesting and right: that the possibility of art, complexity, and moral depth in a game comes from what the player learns in order to win.

In my review of Chris Crawford’s book on Interactive Storytelling, I praised Crawford’s point that the first element of any design is knowing what the player will do. That’s right: you can’t come up with a game without knowing the mechanism of interaction. Koster’s observation seems to be the obverse of this — that the mechanism of interaction, and the skills and approaches taught thereby, are the most morally and artistically significant aspects of a game. He doesn’t dismiss the significance of the surrounding trappings, or suggest that a violent spatial-skills game is exactly equivalent to an abstract spatial-skills game, but he emphasizes that it’s the whole that matters and that the learning arises most from what the player does.

I think the implications for IF here are split. For one thing, as I said above, some IF comes closer to being pure story-telling than being a game; in those cases, the player’s function is just to discover or even to endure. It can be a difficult thing to sit through an unpleasant play: in the audience, you’re aware you could, theoretically, walk out, or speak up, or disrupt the constructed artificiality of the drama, and by not doing so you are just a little bit complicit. It’s a slightly different thing from watching a movie, even if the movie covers exactly the same material. That feeling is intensified greatly in a work of IF, in which the player must take direct action to move the story forward, and several IF theorists have suggested that the element of complicity is what gives certain IF stories their special emotional force. The forward-moving element provided by the player, in this case, might be no more than following a trail of breadcrumbs laid by the author, doing a series of entirely perfunctory actions, so that there’s no learning involved, no effort, no challenge, and (perhaps) no fun. But there is commitment to following the story through, and sometimes that has its own aesthetic value. (On the other hand, there are certainly times when I have felt resentful of the author for making me trudge through his weary narrative, and quitting was an act of rebellion.)

Even if we leave aside more narrative IF, though, what can we say about the puzzly stuff? What does it teach? Close reading of texts, perhaps, and thoroughness; these are valuable skills in themselves but not deeply revealing. Beyond that, though, many puzzle games also involve a semi-consistent mechanic of some kind or other: learning to use a certain kind of magic, mastering a set of gadgets, discovering how to manipulate one’s fellow characters. Or research, investigation, getting to where you understand the world context. Moreover, a lot of IF is about mastering space, in some way or other; Peter Nepstad said of 1893 that navigating the territory is one of the puzzles: what one learns from playing it, more than anything about jewel thefts or the nominal plot of the game, is how the fair was laid out and what was on display. That’s factually educational, even if it doesn’t teach what you might call a life skill.

So what I’d take from Koster’s book, as an IF author, is the reflection that the game mechanics are just as much content as the story itself.

I’m not sure this was exactly news, but it’s useful to have it articulated this way.

When I first read A Theory of Fun, I thought Koster’s conclusions about deeper, more morally responsible games were interesting, but couldn’t think of many cases where games seemed to be moving that direction. This time, I could. Not all self-identified serious games or political games have impressed me very much, since some of them seem to trade on their message to excuse them from having to be fun; and in some cases the messages have been quite trite or simple. Recently, though, there have been some examples that pushed the envelope: Ernest Adams’ latest Gamasutra article is about a game about resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and though I haven’t played it myself, Adams’ description reveals that the designers have definite prejudices in mind and an agenda to put forward. It might not be an agenda that glorifies one side over the other, but it’s certainly an agenda about how conflicts can and should be resolved, and that agenda is written into the rules of the game. By contrast, Super Columbine Massacre, despite all the recent controversy it has generated, sounds as though it turns very much on player complicity to make the story happen, using a fairly standard set of rules which the player may already be able to apply easily. But any way you approach it, there are more and more games of serious purpose (as witness also this article by Joe Blancato) where the message is not just “here is my simple political message” but “here, try experiencing this situation or this worldview for a while and perhaps you’ll share my view”.

That’s not an easy kind of game to write. I kept wondering about that Palestine game: are the solutions in its rules at all realistic? Do the game designers really know how to resolve this problem (since it seems like no one else does)? If the game offers some solutions but they strike players as hopelessly naive, won’t that diminish its impact or undermine its message?

But this isn’t a problem unique to games. The same can be said about books or movies or any medium in which persuasion is possible in the first place.

The recent game that has made me think most about the morality of its rules is Jenova Chen’s beautiful abstract freeware game flOw. And what follows might be described as a spoiler, if that is imaginable in a game with no story.

The game is almost free of semantic meaning, though the main mechanism appears to be eating, so we assume that we control a small aquatic animal and that our opponents are also small aquatic animals. We can eat or be eaten, but — unlike many another game — flOw is paced and designed so that if we want to just hang out for a while, unthreatened, we can. But since eating things makes us grow and provides variety and change and interest, it is more or less inconceivable to forego it and still play flOw at all.

As I started playing this, I felt a pang of guilt the first time I got past eating the apparently unsentient single-celled floaters and started preying on animals that also had the ability to eat. Some of these were creatures like myself, which seemed awful and cannibalistic. I felt better about killing off the more dangerous beings. As the game got harder, I met more of them and felt better about what I was doing in eating them. Since they were monsters, I mean.

Then one day I ate something that not only made me longer or gave me legs: it changed my form entirely and made me into one of the other kinds of being.

From a game-design perspective this is perfect. I had mastered what you could do as a long skinny organism with a mouth at one end. By changing my shape entirely, flOw kept game-play fresh: now I was a beast with an mouth at the middle and exposed parts around the outside — harder to defend — but also new abilities. However, I also found the experience rather moving. Those monsters I had felt most satisfied in eating were in fact the more evolved, enlightened forms of my own kind…

Well, I’d stayed up late playing it and was sleepless, and so perhaps easily moved. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that flOw hints at a point about parochialism and ignorance and willingness to dismiss those unlike ourselves, using nothing more than its quite simple, quite abstract rules.

How much more can we accomplish in a game medium based in language?

10 thoughts on “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”

  1. Found this via Koster’s site. Great stuff, Emily. I felt the same way about flOw, or at least I do now that I’ve read your excellent explanation of the vague uneasiness I felt as my character evolved.

    I’ve used Koster’s book twice in order jump a class right into a discussion about games. Since my students are almost all English majors and few have any programming experience, I found the informal tone perfect for moving students from “Games are fun. Period.” to a place where we can have a more critical discussion.

    I mentioned both the Columbine game and Koster in a talk I gave at a Holocaust conference a few months ago…

    Have you read Jesper Juul’s Half-Real?

  2. An interesting review & interesting thoughts.

    I’d put it to you that the reward in playing classic interactive fiction (apart from one’s response to the story) is identical with the reward in solving riddles. In this, IF is different in kind from system-y games like chess or poker, where the rules are given before contestation begins. In IF, as in riddles, uncovering the rules is very much what is in play.


  3. Since my students are almost all English majors and few have any programming experience, I found the informal tone perfect for moving students from “Games are fun. Period.” to a place where we can have a more critical discussion.

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