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A Good Book For Both Gamers and Non-Gamers
on January 20, 2005
Raph Koster's _A Theory of Fun for Game Design_ is certainly a book worthy of a place on any game designer's shelf. For those who attended the original lecture that spawned the book, there isn't a whole lot that is new, but it's great to have it in book form. For those who did not, the book can be quite revealing, particularly for those who have struggled to adequately define just what games and game design is all about.
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.