Despite a growing interest in the field, books on game design can be jargon-filled textbooks too intimidating for the average game player. Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design takes an entertaining look at a subject that has, in some ways, been taken too seriously by other authors. The book is thoughtful as well, providing a groundwork for a discussion of games as learning tools, art, and societal shapers. Read on for my thoughts, and some commentary from the author, on this distillation of a designer's viewpoint.Raph Koster speaks often on the subjects of game design and interactive narratives. A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an approachable version of the larger body of writing and speaking Koster has produced in his years of design work. Its unusual accessibility is clear as soon as you open the book: while the left-hand page page contains text and observations, the right hand page makes (sometimes snide) commentary on design via comics drawn by the author.
Mr. Koster kindly agreed to answer questions when I was preparing this review. When asked about the audience of the book, he said "The book was intended in large part as something I could give to my parents, or to other relatives, or to non-industry friends, as a way to explain what it is that my profession is all about." As such, the comics and plain-spoken writing bring design concepts into focus for readers who may not want to spend the rest of their lives on these topics.
The chapters of Theory of Fun are not organized formally, but the book seems to fall into three sections. The first section sets the stage by discussing what exactly a game is. "Games are puzzles to solve, just like everything else we encounter in life." Koster's thesis is, essentially, that games are learning puzzles. In his experience, simple games are created by children to teach themselves useful skills. More formal games have similar goals, but modern games exist almost entirely to provide the elusive substance of fun to the player. This assertion resulted in a brisk discussion on the site Terra Nova. Exactly what people want when they pick up a joystick is very much in debate even by industry professionals.
The central portion of Koster's theory ruminates on the roles games play, why games are designed the way they are, and what matters in a game. The meat of the book is here, in discussions about why gamers cast aside the ethical quandaries brought up by games like Grand Theft Auto (they're playing the game mechanics, not the fiction surrounding the mechanics) and in the observation that the destiny of all games is to become boring. An amusingly astute statement about cheaters caps off a discussion of the tendencies players have to finding the optimal solution to a game: "When a player cheats in a game, they are choosing a battlefield that is broader in context than the game itself."
At the end of the midsection, the eternal discussion of games as art makes an appearance. Instead of equivocating, Mr. Koster makes his opinion very clear. "Art, to me, is just taking craft seriously. It's about communication (as I have said many times, in the book and elsewhere). Taking what we do seriously, *even if for frivolous ends,* just leads to better work. Considering what you are doing to be art tends to emphasize high standards, experimentation, expression, thoughtfulness, and discipline -- even if your goal is to make a gag-a-day newspaper strip or macrame hangings for your window."
To close his discussion on games and to provide a larger context against which to examine them, Mr. Koster steps outside the bounds of game design and makes some fairly dramatic statements about what games should be. While other media portrays the human condition almost as a matter of course, he argues, games rarely connect with the most basic aspects of our lives. To his mind, in order to truly achieve respect alongside the novel or the musical composition, games should "illuminate aspects of ourselves that we did not fully understand."
In his epilogue, Koster goes even further, arguing that -- as authors of art -- game designers should take responsibility for their creations. "I have little patience for those who hide behind the statement that 'it's just entertainment.' To deny our influence while simultaneously crowing about our financial success is at best naïve, and at worst irresponsible."
The book itself is well laid out, with the thoughtfully edited and often humorous text set amid plenty of whitespace on the right and the usually well-drawn comics on the left. The comics set the tone for the whole book, which in format resembles more of a collection of Far Side strips than it does a technical guide. The back of the book contains an extensive commentary section where offhand references and asides are explained in depth.
If you're planning on entering the field of game design, A Theory of Fun won't help you to storyboard a plot, model a texture, or develop a code base: if you're looking for the technical aspects of game design or deep academic consideration of the field, other titles will hold more for you. The intended audience of this book is quite wide, and Koster does an excellent job of making everyone feel included in the conversation that occurs between the pages. While game players and professionals new to the field alike can get a lot from what he discusses, the reader who may benefit the most from Theory of Fun is the seasoned game industry worker.
With the endless rehashing of game and design concepts currently in circulation and parent groups growing ever more shrill at the release of morally ambiguous titles, Raph Koster's book is a refreshing read. The book is an unpretentious examination of what it is that makes a game a game. He steps beyond the dehumanizing aspects of game mechanics to look at games and their designers in a broader societal context. If for no other reason that that, Theory of Fun is worth a look to read the opinion of someone who gives a damn.
You can purchase A Theory of Fun for Game Design from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.