Curious for a taste of the book? Below are several excerpts, including all the forewords for the various international editions, and the entirety of the first chapter and its endnotes.
There's also a link to the entirety of Chapter Five, which was made available on Gamasutra.com.
Foreword by Will Wright
Japanese foreword by Masaya Matsuura
Prologue: My Grandfather
Chapter One: Why Write This Book?
Chapter Two: How the Brain Works
Chapter Three: What Games Are
Chapter Four: What Games Teach Us
Chapter Five: What Games Aren't (from Gamasutra)
Chapter Six: Different Fun For Different Folks
Chapter Seven: The Problem with Learning
Chapter Eight: The Problem with People
Chapter Nine: Games in Context
Chapter Ten: The Ethics of Entertainment
Chapter Eleven: Where Games Should Go
Chapter Twelve: Taking Their Rightful Place
Epilogue: Fun Matters, Grandpa
The title of this book almost feels wrong to me. As a game designer, seeing the words "Theory "and "Fun" in such close proximity instinctively makes me a bit uncomfortable. Theories are dry and academic things, found in thick books at the back of the library, whereas fun is light, energetic, playful and... well... fun.
For the first few decades of interactive game design we were able to blithely ignore many of the larger meta-questions surrounding our craft while we slowly, painfully learned to walk. Now for the first time we are starting to see serious interest in what we do from the academic side. This is forcing those of us in the games industry to stop and consider, "What is this new medium that we're working in?"
The academic interest seems twofold: First is the recognition that video games probably represent an emerging new media, a new design field, and possibly a new art form. All of these are worthy of study. Second, there are an increasing number of motivated students that grew up playing these games and now find themselves inspired to work in the field one day. They want to find schools that will help them understand what games are and how to make them.
One slight problem: there are very few teachers that understand games well enough to teach them, no matter how motivated their students happen to be. Actually it's worse than that because there are very few people working in the games industry today (and Raph Koster is definitely one of them) who understand games well enough to even communicate what they know and how they know it.
The bridges between the game industry and the academics that want to study and teach games are slowly beginning to form. A shared language is developing, allowing both sides to speak about games and helping developers to more easily share their experiences with one another. It is in this language that the students of tomorrow will be taught.
Games (both video and traditional) are tricky to study because they are so multidimensional. There are so many different ways you can approach them. The design and production of games involves aspects of cognitive psychology, computer science, environmental design, and storytelling just to name a few. To really understand what games are, you need to see them from all these points of view.
I always enjoy hearing Raph Koster talk. He's one of the few people I know in the games industry who seems to investigate new subjects that might be relevant to his work, even if it's not immediately obvious why. He forages across wide intellectual landscapes and then returns to share what he's discovered with the rest of us. Not only is he a courageous explorer, he's a diligent mapmaker as well.
In this book Raph does an excellent job of looking at games from a wide variety of perspectives. With the instincts of a designer working in the field, he has filtered out a treasure trove of useful and relevant nuggets from a career's worth of his own research in a variety of related subjects. He then manages to present what he's discovered in a friendly, playful way that makes everything feel like it's falling right into place; it just seems to make perfect sense.
For such a distilled volume of wisdom... I guess I can live with the title.
Dear Chinese readers,
It is indeed an honor and privilege for me to see my book translated in China. China is undergoing a true gaming renaissance, with a large games industry growing larger every day. China has a long cultural tradition of challenging games for the mind, and today we are seeing that the Chinese games industry is blossoming like never before.
I wrote this book because by and large many people tend to regard games as frivolous pastimes. Certain games, such as go or chess, are regarded as cultural icons and those who play them masterfully are accorded much respect. But most games are seen as primarily the province of children, something to keep the little ones entertained.
With the rise of electronic entertainment, we are seeing games reach a very prominent status in everyday life. Modern culture is increasingly dominated by electronics, and the new games that electronics have made possible are compelling creations that suck away huge amounts of time.
At such a time of adjustment, it's a good idea to go back to the roots of games, and think about why they exist in every human culture, why children of all ages play them, and what important role they play in the development of our brains.
Modern science has shown that far from being frivolous, games can be critically important teaching tools, incredibly immersive venues for story and entertainment, and a powerful mass medium. And yet there is a generational gap--the new electronic games scare many because of their very power.
It is my hope that this book can be the one that you give to your parents, your teachers, and your mentors, so that they can understand just why gaming has touched your heart. If you are a designer of games, then I hope it challenges you to look at games in a new way, with greater appreciation for their potential. And if you are a player of games, then I hope tat it gives you reason to hold your head high when you tell others than you are a gamer.
I hope you enjoy the book!
It's truly an honor for me to see this book brought to your country. My biggest fear is that you'll already know everything that it has to say.
After all, South Korea is probably the most videogame-savvy country in the world. In most countries, videogames are still something played mostly by the young, and are generally seen as a bit of a nerd hobby. This is changing, but there is nowhere else in the world where videogames are as massive a force in popular culture as in Korea.
In the United States, as I write this, there is a bit of a political backlash against videogames. There are people out there who say that they have no redeeming social value, that they are damaging to the mind, and that they are incapable of being art.
As you'll find through the course of this book, I disagree pretty strongly with those notions. At a guess, so do you, since you picked up this book in the first place!
We have seen some of the true strengths of games manifest in Korea. We have seen the blossoming of gaming as a spectator sport. We have seen the strong communities it can build thanks to advances in online gaming. Most importantly, we have witnessed how valuable games can be as a part of popular culture, as a medium for telling stories and learning lessons. As of yet, in the rest of the world, these developments have not yet reached the mainstream.
Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of academic research into games. The result has been that games have garnered new credibility in a number of fields. Research into pedagogical applications of games and simulations has proven what gamers have known all along--that there is no better way to learn certain types of skills. Research into cognition has shown that games tap into something deep and primeval in the brain. Writers and academics have begun to truly explore the possibilities that games offer as a storytelling medium.
In all of this, we should never lose sight of fun. Fun should not be a guilty pleasure. It is core to being human, and games are an incredibly important part of human development. We as gamers should hold our heads high.
If you are a designer, it is my hope that this book can serve as an inspiration and as a new way to look at your craft. For everyone else, it is my hope that this book can serve as the explanation you can point to when someone asks why you play games. Give it to your mothers, your fathers, your aunts and uncles, when they wonder if games are a waste of time. Share it with your teachers, your mentors, and your bosses, as evidence that games can provide new ways for them to impart their wisdom. And most importantly, share it with yourself in those moments when you wonder about why games are so important to you. There are good reasons why. Eventually, the rest of the world will catch up to you, and games will take their rightful place in human culture.
My grandfather wanted to know whether I felt proud of what I do. It seemed a reasonable question: there he was, aging and soon to pass away, though at the time I didn't know that; a man who had spent his life as a fire chief, raising six children. One of them followed in his footsteps, became a fire chief himself, and now sells bathtub linings. There's a special education teacher, an architect, a carpenter. Good, solid wholesome professions for good, solid wholesome people. And there I was--making games, rather than contributing to society.
I told him that I felt I did contribute. Games aren't just a diversion; they're something valuable and important. And my evidence was right in front of me--my kids, playing tic-tac-toe on the floor.
Watching my kids play and learn through playing had been a revelation for me. Even though my profession was making games, I often felt lost in the complexities of making large modern entertainment products, rather than understanding why games are fun and what fun is.
My kids were leading me, without my quite knowing it, towards a theory of fun. And so I told my grandfather, "Yes, this is something worthwhile. I connect people, and I teach people." But as I said it, I didn't really have any evidence to offer.
Our kids took to games at a very early age. Games were all around them, and I brought home a crazy amount of them because of my work. I suppose it's no surprise that children model their parents. But my wife and I are also voracious readers, and the kids were resistant to that. Their attraction to games was more instinctive. As babies, they found the game of hide-the-object to be endlessly fascinating, and even now that they are older it elicits an occasional giggle. As babies there was an intentness about their alien gaze as they tried to figure out where the rubber duckie had gone that showed that this game was, for them, in deadly earnest.
Kids are playing everywhere, all the time, and often playing games that we do not quite understand. They play and learn at a ferocious rate. We see the statistics on how many words kids absorb in a day, how rapidly they develop motor control, and how many basic aspects of life they master--aspects that are frankly so subtle that we have even forgotten learning them--and we usually fail to appreciate what an amazing feat this is.
Consider how hard it is to learn a language; and yet children all over the world do it routinely. A first language. They are doing it without assigning cognates in their native tongue and without translating in their heads. Recently much attention has been paid to some very special deaf kids in Nicaragua, who have managed to invent a fully functional sign language in just a few generations. Many believe this shows language is built into the brain and that there's something in our wiring that guides us inexorably towards language.
Language is not the only hard wired behavior. As babies move up the developmental ladder, they take part in a variety of instinctual activities. Any parent who has suffered through the "terrible twos" can tell you that it's as if a switch went on in their child's brain, altering their behavior radically. (It lasts longer than just the age of two, by the way--just a friendly warning).
Kids also move on from certain games as they age. It's been particularly interesting to see my kids outgrow tic-tac-toe--a game I beat them at for years until one day all the matches became draws.
That extended moment when tic-tac-toe ceased to interest them was a moment of great fascination to me. Why, I asked myself, did mastery and understanding come so suddenly? The kids weren't able to tell me that tic-tac-toe is a limited game with optimal strategy. They saw the pattern, but they did not understand it, as we think of things.
This isn't unfamiliar to most people. I do many things without fully understanding them, even things I feel I have mastered. I don't need a degree in automotive engineering to drive my car. I don't need to remember the ins and outs of the rules of grammar to speak grammatically in everyday conversation. I don't need to know whether tic-tac-toe is NP-hard or NP-complete to know that it's a dumb game.
I also have plenty of experiences where I stare at something and simply don't get it. I hate to admit it, but my typical reaction is to simply turn away. I feel this way often these days now that there's some (ok, a lot of) gray at my temples. I find myself unable to relate to some of the games that everyone tells me I should be playing. I just can't move the mouse quite as fast as I used to. I'd rather not play than feel that inept, even if the other players are friends of mine.
That's not just me saying, "I can't cut it in Internet play! Damn 14 year old kids." My reaction isn't mere frustration; it's also got a tinge of boredom. I look at the problem and say, "well, I could take on the Sisyphean task of trying to match these guys, but frankly, repeated failure is a predictable cycle, and rather boring. I have better things to do with my time."
From everything I hear this feeling is likely to increase as I age. More and more novel experiences are going to come along, until sometime in 2038 I'll need the assistance of my smart-ass grandkid to flibber-jibber the frammistan, because I won't be able to cope with the newfangled contraptions.
Is this inevitable?
When I work on games that are more my speed, I can still crush them (mu ha ha ha). We read all the time about people who play Scrabble or other mentally challenging games delaying the onset of Alzheimer's. Surely keeping the mind active keeps it flexible and keeps you young?
Games don't last forever, though. There just comes a point where you say, "You know, I think I've seen most everything that this game has to offer." This happened to me most recently with a typing game I found on the Internet--it was a cute game where I played a diver and sharks were trying to eat me. Each shark had a word on their side, and as I typed the words in, the sharks went belly-up.
Now, I am a terrible formal typist, but I can hunt-and-peck at almost 100 words a minute. This game was fun, but it was also a piece of cake. After level 12 or 14, the game just gave up. It conceded. It said to me, "You know, I've tried every trick I can think of, including words with random punctuation in the middle, words spelled backwards, and not showing you the words until the last minute. So hell with it; from now on, I'll just keep throwing the same challenges at you. But really, you can quit now, because you've seen all I've got."
I took its advice, and quit.
Games that are too hard kind of bore me, and games that are too easy also kind of bore me. As I age, games move from one to the other, just as tic-tac-toe did for our children. Sometimes I play games with people who crush me and afterwards explain kindly, "Well, you see, this is a game about vertices." And I say, "Vertices? I'm putting down pieces on a board!" And they shrug, as if to say I'll never get it.
That's why I decided to tackle the questions of what games are, and what fun is, and why games matter. I knew I'd be going over well-trod ground--a fair amount of psychological literature has been written on developmental behaviors in kids, for example. But the fact is that we don't tend to take games all that seriously.
As I write this a lot of people happen to be exploring these questions. Games, in their digital form, have become big business. We see ads for them on TV, we debate whether or not they make more money than the movie industry (the answer is no, right now, by the way), and we agonize over whether they cause violence in our children. Games are now a major cultural force. The time is ripe for us to dig deeper into the many questions that games raise.
I also find it curious that as parents, we'll insist that kids be given the time to play because it's important to childhood, but that work is deemed far more important later in life. I think work and play aren't all that different, to be honest. And what follows is why I came to that conclusion.
Cognates: Word equivalents in another language that derive from a common root. Languages frequently borrow words from one another and thus similar words in different languages can be found. Often, the meaning, pronunciation, or spelling can diverge to the point of being unrecognized.
Deaf children in Nicaragua: Many articles have been written on Nicaraguan Sign Language, also called NSL or ISN (after the initials of the phrase in Spanish). Deaf children in Nicaragua did not have access to each other, nor to training in sign language, until 1979, when schools for the deaf began to be opened. Over a few generations the children developed a fully functional sign language that enabled them to communicate. This is believed to be the first time in history that scientists have been able to observe a language spontaneously created (as opposed to created intentionally like Esperanto). A good overview of the story can be found here.
Tic-tac-toe: Also known as noughts and crosses. Tic-tac-toe, and its cousins go-moku (a game where the board is variously 13x13 or 15x15, and you have to get 5 in a row) and Qubic (a 4x4x4 cube) are all amenable to mathematical analysis. Tic-tac-toe in particular is fairly trivial, since there only 125,168 possible games. If both players employ the optimal strategy, the game will always end in a draw.
NP-hard and NP-complete: These are terms from complexity theory, the field of mathematics that studies how hard it is to solve a given problem (as opposed to whether it can be solved at all, which is called "computability theory"). Other types of complexity include P, NP, PSPACE-complete, EXPTIME-complete, and so on. Many abstract boardgames are classifiable as terms of their mathematical complexity in this way; for example, checkers is EXPTIME-complete, and Othello is PSPACE-complete.Rendering games obsolete is a favorite pastime of mathematicians. They have proven that for optimal players, the first player to move will always win tic-tac-toe and also games such as Connect Four and Pentominoes.
Sisyphean task: Sisyphus was condemned to roll a heavy stone uphill in Hell. Every time he got it to the top, it would roll back down again, and he'd have to do it over. In modern videogames, this is called "restoring a save."
Mentally challenging games and Alzheimer's: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2003 indicated that this was indeed the case. Games weren't the only mental challenge studied; playing musical instruments, learning new languages, and dancing also had similar effects.
Mu ha ha ha: A common gloat heard in Internet gaming.
Games as vertices: Many games that require you to place one piece adjacent to another can be expressed as problems in graph theory, a field of mathematics that studies points and links between them. Each node is called a vertex, and each link is called an edge. Analyzing games in this highly abstract way can reveal many fundamental characteristics about how to play them well.