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A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster.
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Humans play a wide variety of games, from basketball and chess to video games and poker. Why are we so enthralled with these games, even when they don’t really have an impact on our lives outside the game?

Theory of Fun for Game Design, by veteran game designer Raph Koster (lead designer of Ultima Online), discusses why games are fun, what games teach their players, and ultimately how to make a meaningful game.

Why Are Games Fun?

Most people play games to have fun. But what exactly is fun?

On a neurobiological level, fun is a boost of dopamine when we learn something or master a task. We are evolutionarily programmed to enjoy learning, just like we enjoy sex, because learning improved our chances of survival.

So why are games fun? Fun from games comes from learning, comprehension, and mastery.

Learning in games is different from learning in reality. Games present an environment where you can learn and have no pressure from consequence.

Games get boring when the player has learned the pattern, and there is nothing new to learn. They also get boring when they’re too trivial (you’ve mastered the pattern) or when they’re too difficult (you might not even identify the pattern).

What Do Games Teach?

So games are fun because they teach patterns. But what are these patterns? The author offers these:

  • Calculation of odds, prediction of events
    • This applies to any game involving probability, such as games where you roll a dice, Monopoly, dominoes, and card games.
  • Social power and status
    • Playing “house” with a group of kids is about jockeying for social status.
    • Games involving force projection and territory control, like chess or Starcraft, are about social status as well.
  • Spacial relationships— examining the environment
    • In these games, you understand how the environment reacts to change, so that you can exercise power over it.
    • This is true of Super Mario, chess, and sports games.
  • Memory—recall and manage complex chains of information
    • Counting cards in blackjack
  • Visceral responses
    • This includes shooting games, where you aim, shoot, and move in response to what’s on screen
  • Teamwork
    • This is true of games as wide-ranging from basketball to Counter-Strike.

These are universally helpful patterns to learn and have been helpful in evolutionary history. Consider how useful teamwork, memory, and social status were when humans were cavemen.

Many games we play today thus existed to train us to be better cavemen. But many skills we learn today are no longer immediately relevant, such as archery or running marathons.

The holy grail is a game that provides never-ending challenges, requires a wide range of skills to succeed, and has a difficulty curve that perfectly adjusts to your skill level over time. This is a lot like life.

Games Can Do More

We could use more games that teach relevant modern skills that might be counterintuitive and possibly against our nature.

For example, the game Simcity teaches large-scale network building and resource management, in ways that cavemen wouldn’t have needed to be concerned with.

The author suggests these counterintuitive behaviors that would be useful in the modern day:

  • Avoiding xenophobia—empathizing...

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary What Are Games?

Games involve thinking, and so a good place to start understanding games is to understand how we think.

On Cognition

When we think about things, it seems as though we’re generating novel thoughts all the time. In reality, cognition mostly uses your memory—your brain pattern-matches what you see with past experiences. It recognizes a situation as “just another one of those.” The purpose of this pattern-matching is to conserve energy. Your brain is evolutionarily programmed to enjoy learning patterns.

The author argues that the value of art is to shake up your brain’s pattern-matching. Art forces you to see things in a new way, rather than what you remember them to be. A poem about a tree forces you to reconsider the ruggedness of bark and whimsey of the leaf.

Noise is any pattern we don’t initially understand. You can, however, learn to find the pattern underneath the chaos. For example, bebop jazz sounds like noise, until you understand the underlying patterns in tempo and musical chord progressions.

As we’ll learn, games are puzzles designed to teach your brain new patterns.

Varied Definitions of Games

There is a huge variety of games, from chess to basketball to videogames. There have thus been lots of attempts to define what a game is. Here’s a selection of definitions:

  • Game designer and theorist Jesper Juul defines a game as “a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”
  • Game designer Sid Meier, creator of the game Civilization, defines a game as “a series of meaningful choices.”

The author defines games as puzzles that teach underlying patterns for future use by providing live feedback to your actions, in an environment with lower stakes than reality.

Games and Reality

Games are obviously not...

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary What Is Fun?

Most people play games to have fun. But what exactly is fun?

On a neurobiological level, fun is a boost of dopamine when we learn something or master a task. We are evolutionarily programmed to enjoy learning, just like we enjoy sex, because learning improved our chances of survival.

So why are games fun? Fun from games comes from learning, comprehension, and mastery.

Learning in games is different from learning in reality. Games present an environment where you can learn and have no pressure from consequence. As a result, games can be unpredictable without causing the player anxiety.

  • In normal life, where there are real consequences, we like predictability. We like the legal system, pasteurized milk, and lightning rods.
  • We like unpredictability only when it’s confined within an enclosure of predictability, like games on a tabletop or TV shows on a television.

Humans are natural learners. Babies instinctively play games like hide-the-object. They are learning patterns, such as how the physics of the world work (hence why they knock over cups gleefully).

But somewhere in adulthood, society starts to stigmatize games as frivolous. This is a shame, since there’s a lot that can be taught through games.

Yet even still, we continue learning from abstract models of reality. For instance, we practice speeches in front of mirrors, or we run fire drills to prepare for a real fire.

Boring Games

Boredom is the opposite of learning. The brain is constantly looking for new data to reinforce existing patterns, or new patterns to learn. When there’s nothing new to learn, boredom results.

In games, boredom can arise in these situations:

  • The player understands how the game works before the game ends. This causes the game to be dismissed as trivial.
  • There is depth to the game, but this is below their level of interest.
  • There seem to be no patterns whatsoever. A game that is too chaotic is unenjoyable.
  • The game reveals its patterns too quickly or too slowly.
  • The player masters the game entirely. There is nothing new to...

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary What Games Actually Teach

So games are fun because they teach patterns. But what are these patterns? The author offers these:

  • Calculation of odds, prediction of events
    • This applies to any game involving probability, such as games where you roll a dice, Monopoly, dominoes, and card games.
  • Social power and status
    • Playing “house” with a group of kids is about jockeying for social status.
    • Games involving force projection and territory control, like chess or Starcraft, are about social status as well.
  • Spacial relationships— examining the environment
    • In these games, you understand how the environment reacts to change, so that you can exercise power over it.
    • This is true of Super Mario, chess, and sports games.
  • Memory—recall and manage complex chains of information
    • Counting cards in blackjack
  • Visceral responses
    • This includes shooting games, where you aim, shoot, and move in response to what’s on screen
  • Teamwork
    • This is true of games as wide-ranging from basketball to Counter-Strike.

These are universally helpful patterns to learn and have been helpful in evolutionary history. Consider how useful teamwork, memory, and social status were when humans were cavemen.

Many games we play today thus existed to train us to be better cavemen. But many skills we learn today are no longer immediately relevant, such as archery or running marathons.

Skills for the Modern Day

We could use more games that teach relevant modern skills that might also be counterintuitive, and possibly against our nature.

To use an analogy, we’ve evolved to find certain types of things revolting, such as green, slimy, smelly things. We’ve learned these rules because green slimy things were often toxic to humans. However, in today’s world, there are many more dangerous things that we haven’t evolved a reaction to. Take cleaning fluid—it’s a clear, attractive blue color. We haven’t evolved a visceral reaction to this, yet drinking it would be incredibly damaging!

Likewise, there are plenty of skills that would be useful in...

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Shortform Exercise: What Does Your Game Teach?

Think about what a game you’re developing, or your favorite game, teaches.


What is the core lesson that your game teaches? What skill are you better at that can apply to real life?

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary On Game Mechanics

Games are composed of building blocks, or “ludemes.” Examples of ludemes include:

  • Preparation
    • Before facing a challenge, the game has you make choices that affect your odds of success.
    • Without this, a game relies on chance.
  • Sense of space
    • The landscape of relationships between objects or players
  • A solid core mechanic
    • This is the intrinsically interesting rule set or puzzle to solve. It often involves estimating probability, matching, balancing, or classifying.
    • Example: moving a piece in chess
  • A range of challenges
    • This is content in the game, rather than the abstract rules of the game. The content operates within the rules and does not change the rules.
    • Example: enemies in a game that progressively get more difficult, but all behave according to the rules of the game
  • A range of abilities
    • Many games reveal your abilities over time, until at the end you have many possible strategies to choose from.
    • Higher difficulty levels may require utilizing multiple abilities at once.
  • Skill required in using the abilities
    • Bad execution by the player can cause failure in the challenge.
    • Without a skill curve, the game becomes tedious or boring. Not employing skill is a cardinal sin in game design—they fail to exercise the brain.
    • Unfortunately, a lot of people prefer games that take no skill because these games are comfortable.
  • Variable feedback
    • The result of the game shouldn’t be predictable.
    • Greater skill should lead to better rewards.
  • Failure must have a cost.
    • At the least, failure should have an opportunity cost, or require another try.
    • In more extreme games, failure can cause you to start all over again, as in rogue-like games.

The holy grail is a game that provides never-ending challenges, requires a wide range of skills to succeed, and has a difficulty curve that perfectly adjusts to your skill level over time. This sounds a lot like life.

This is why many great games with enduring popularity are...

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary Different Games are Fun for Different People

People with different natural strengths will gravitate toward puzzles they can solve.

This is why some people prefer sports over Scrabble.

Matching by Intelligence Type

One model of how people vary in their capabilities is the different types of intelligences. These include:

  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Spatial
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

People with strengths in a particular intelligence tend to enjoy games that cater to that intelligence.

Matching to Personality

People may play games that match their personalities. For example, social people play games that interact with others, such as Farmville. People who enjoy aggregating resources and building up abilities may enjoy role-playing games.

Differences Between Genders

Research shows that genders differ in their preferences and strengths, and this suggests they may also enjoy different games.

Note that the differences between genders are shown in population averages. Variations between individuals are greater than the variations between population—even if men show a stronger trait than women on average, there are plenty of women who show that trait more strongly than the average man.

Research has shown these trends by gender:

  • Males are worse with language skills. Females are worse with certain types of spatial perception.
  • Men generally tend to have systematizing brains; women have empathizing brains.
    • Some argue that boys suffer disproportionately from the autism spectrum because these are extremes of the systematizing brain.
  • Men tend to learn by trying. Women tend to model others’ behavior.
  • Women have faster reactions to stationary objects, whereas men have faster reactions to moving objects.

Many of these gender differences are disappearing over time, so they may be an artifact of culture and how we raise kids of each gender.

Games have historically been associated with males. This might be because it suited their brains, and games were designed by people with the same bias.

Female...

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A Theory of Fun for Game Design Summary The Dressing on Games

We’ve talked so far about games in abstraction—what they teach, a game’s building blocks, and why they’re enjoyable.

Many games, however, are more than just abstract rules—there is more “window dressing” on them. Games may feature characters, a story, and images.

Games use these fictional metaphors to add variations to an underlying game. However, the metaphor is often ignored by players to focus on the underlying pattern.

  • For example, checkers has a metaphor of royalty: there is a “king me” move, and the pieces have crowns.
  • But games are largely about getting people to see past the superficial variations to understand the underlying patterns. Hence the author says, “gamers are good at seeing past fiction.”

The best test of a game’s fun is playing with no graphics, music, sound, or story. If this is fun, then all the dressing will amplify the fun. If it’s not fun, then no amount of dressing will make it fun.

This is why gamers disagree with criticism of games as teaching bad values or having gratuitous violence. In the game Grand Theft Auto, gamers don’t see the action as “run over a prostitute,” they see “get a powerup.”

But the author argues that the visual representation and metaphor are still part of the experience.

  • A game where you throw contorted humans down a pit, and they eat each other when you form a line, is like Tetris, but the experience is different.
  • This is similar to how we consider dance to be choreography plus costuming plus narrative. Or that Picasso’s Guernica as a painting would be perceived differently if it weren’t about Guernica.

A mismatch between the core of the game and the dressing can result in problematic conflicts. For example, an aiming-shooting game about social cohesion would be confusing.

So game designers have a responsibility, like all media creators, to avoid transgressing social boundaries.

Differences Between Games and Stories

Games feature stories, but the author argues that games and stories are different:

  • Games tend to teach by direct experience. Stories teach...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • What Are Games?
  • What Is Fun?
  • What Games Actually Teach
  • Exercise: What Does Your Game Teach?
  • On Game Mechanics
  • Different Games are Fun for Different People
  • The Dressing on Games