Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Critique of A Theory of Fun for Game Design

I realize that I’m coming a bit late to the party. Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design came out in 2005 and it’s based on a talk he gave at the Austin GDC in 2003. Still, better late than never.

There’s a lot to like here. Raph’s writing is engaging, his illustrations are amusing, and his discussion of how the underlying structure of a game can be analyzed separately from its wrapper is informative and thought-provoking.

Unfortunately, I think his basic thesis about the nature of fun is wrong.

Raph argues that games are essentially teaching tools. Human beings enjoy learning new skills and new ways of looking at the world and games provide us the opportunity to practice these new survival techniques in a safe environment. Games are fun when they are teaching us things, and when they stop teaching us things, they stop being fun. Here’s a significant quote from the end of Chapter Three:

“The definition of a good game is therefore ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.’

“That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”

The first problem with this definition of fun is that it’s very difficult to determine what many games are supposed to be teaching us. You can say that first person shooters are fun because people like learning how to aim at targets, but how does this analysis apply to games like mancala? Is it teaching us about counting? Warfare? Proportion? Pattern recognition? What?

You could answer that it teaches all of these things. If learning is inherently fun, what does it matter what’s being taught? The problem with this approach is that if you look hard enough at any activity you can come up with some way that you can learn from it. Sitting in a waiting room for hours teaches you about patience. Changing a flat tire teaches you about the physics of levers. Hitting your hand with a hammer teaches you not to hit your hand with a hammer.

If a “theory of fun” is going to be of value to a working designer it needs to make useful distinctions between what is fun and what is not fun. Mancala is fun, but it’s hard to articulate exactly what its teaching. Working page after page of long division problems is not fun, but it’s very clear what lesson is being taught. The fact that the theory can’t explain this discrepancy suggests that it’s somehow broken.

This brings us to second problem with the book’s definition of fun: A lot of the time learning is no fun at all.

Back when I was in college I took a course in fencing. The instructor, who was very good at his job, started the course with a firm grounding in the fundamentals, which, in the case of fencing, means footwork. For the first few weeks we didn’t even pick up a sword. We just practiced moving backwards and forwards in the proper stance and learning how to keep our center of gravity over our feet so we could quickly response to an attack. It was very instructive, very useful (in the long run) and intensely boring.

Learning is often boring. Memorizing the capitals of states. Practicing piano finger work. Reading critical theory. In fact, we’re so used to being bored when we learn something that it often comes as a pleasant shock on those rare occasions when it’s actually fun.

The third problem with A Theory of Fun is that, frankly, it just doesn’t square with my own experiences as a game player. Sometimes I enjoy mastering new skills and expanding my boundaries, but other times I just want to get into a familiar groove.

A few years ago I was playing a lot of Diablo II. I was working long hours and in the evening I just wanted a bit of mindless diversion. Now it’s possible to approach Diablo II as a strategic challenge – you can play an assassin or a sorceress and continually shift your tactics to adapt to each new set of monsters. But that’s not how I played it. I always played a barbarian and I always used a very particular build path that emphasized doing as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. The advantage of this particular build was that it was utterly mindless. No matter what enemy I was up against correct strategy was always the same: Run in, hit things. It was brain-dead, it was stupid, and it kept me entertained for several hundred hours at least. In fact, I never really got bored with it. If I had Diablo II installed on my laptop I'd probaby be playing it right now.

There have been lots of times I’ve played games just to get into that groove. I’ve spent hours skating idly around levels I’ve already mastered in Tony Hawk. I’ve spent hours cruising aimlessly in Grand Theft Auto. I’ve spent hours happily grinding in World of Warcraft.

In A Theory of Fun this approach to playing games is acknowledged but dismissed. For example, in Chapter Eight the following passage appears:

“And yet, people choose the same characters to play, over and over. I’ve got a friend who has played the big burly silent type in literally dozens of games over the decade I have known him. Never once has he been a vivacious small girl.

“Different games appeal to different personality types, and not just because particular problems appeal to certain brain types. It’s also because particular solutions appeal to particular brain types, and when we get a good thing going we’re not likely to change it. This is not a recipe for long-term success in a world that is constantly changing around us. Adaptability is key to survival.”

Notice what’s happening here. Because this particular player isn’t playing in a way that’s consistent with theory, he's doing it wrong.

A similar and stronger passage appears on the next page:

“Engaging in an activity that you have fully mastered, being in the zone, feeling the flow, can be a heady experience. And no one can deny the positive effects of meditation. That said, the point at which a player chooses to repeatedly play a game they have already mastered completely, just because they like to feel powerful, is the point that the game is betraying its own purpose. Games need to encourage you to move on. They are not there to fulfill power fantasies.

“Ah but it is seductive! Because games exist within the confines of ‘let’s pretend,’ they also offer a lack of consequences. They are libertine in their freedoms. They let you be a godlet. To the person that perhaps does not get enough sense of control in their real lives, the game may offer something rather … persuasive.

“Making you feel good about yourself in a pretend arena isn’t what games are for. Games are for offering challenges, so that you can then turn around and apply those techniques to real problems. Going back through defeated challenges in order to pass time isn’t a productive exercise of your brain’s abilities. Nonetheless, lots of people do it.”

This one passage undermines the thesis of the entire book. It’s a perfect example of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy:

Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Reply: “But my uncle Angus, who is a Scotsman, likes sugar with his porridge.”

Rebuttal: “Aye, but no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”


Argument: “Fun is just another word for learning.”

Reply: “Lots of people continue to play games even when they’re not learning anything.”

Rebuttal: “Well, they shouldn’t. That’s not what games are for.”

Fundamentally I think what’s wrong with A Theory of Fun is that it anchors its aesthetics of gameplay within the Aristotelian idea of mimesis: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In the Aristotelian tradition the worth of a work of art is determined by how well it relates to and informs our understanding of the real world.

I would argue that with non-mimetic art forms like games and music the enjoyment comes largely from the interplay of elements within the formal system itself and not from the relationship between the artwork and the real world. Constructing an aesthetics that puts real-world utility ahead of other considerations is missing the point and puts an artificial constraint on what constitutes an interesting play experience.

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