Book Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

As part of our exploration and learning about Game Design and starting our studio, John and I have been reading a lot.  I'm currently reading two books on game design and one book on iPhone app marketing.  No matter how great you are at ideas and programming, there is still a lot to learn when you jump into a new field.

So, as we learn things, and especially when we read relevant books, we're going to start putting our thoughts about them here on the blog, to spread the knowledge with others and let you know what works and what doesn't.

"A Theory of Fun for Game Design" by Raph Koster is an interesting book.  It was absolutely not what I thought it was going to be when John handed it to me the week I was at our HQ.  I assumed by flipping through it that it was going to be a lot about game patterns, successful algorithms for path-finding, gaming theory, and so on.  What I wasn't prepared for was a lesson in game PHILOSOPHY and what "fun" really means.

Mr. Koster talks about heady topics, such as how fun actually works, what games actually mean to humans, how they interact with our brains and what makes us want to play or put down specific games.  We learn that games are really a teaching tool, no matter how mundane or brutal, that are teaching our brains new skills.  When we learn those skills or those lessons, we get bored.  This makes a lot of sense, because its how I've experienced games too.

We learn a bit about the different types of games and how players interact with them.  We learn that the bones of the game should be fun before applying whatever the skin should be.  (The author writes an interesting description of a gas chamber murder game which could be a repulsive skin that describes the gameplay of Tetris.)  In short, the author talks about all of those soft parts of game design that we never quite hear anyone else put into words.

It's obvious that the author has read a lot, and has a vast appreciation and deep knowledge of all types of art.  In fact, the author goes through many pages near the end of the book to explain and satisfy his belief that games are art.  He makes this argument as if this is some personal pet peeve of his and really spends a lot of time defending his position.  Personally, I already know that games are art, just like any other art-form, and frankly had thought that the argument had been settled by now.  This part of the book really bogged me down, but thankfully it was near the end so I persevered.

In fact, the entire book reads as one long argument towards the author's grandfather who seemed to have a hard time thinking of games as art or a worthwhile pursuit for his grandson, especially after the Columbine shootings.  Its an interesting pole to hang the idea of the book around, but I'm not sure it helped him much.  As a game developer I'm already sympathetic to the author's disagreement with his grandfather, I don't really need to be convinced that games are fun, or that they are a valid source of artistic expression.

Another gripe with the book is the format.  The text of the book is on the left hand page, and then the right hand page is taken up by a full page cartoon panel.  Usually these illustrations have something to do with the text, but not always.  Furthermore, some of them have sentences of their own that continue from one page to the next, so you'd read one illustration then have to go to the next page to finish the thought.  

I'm not sure why these illustrations were thought to be a good idea.  To me, having an illustration on the page while I'm trying to read kept distracting me from what the text was saying.  This would be ok if the drawings were always relevant to the text, but they aren't, so half the time I'd read them and not really process them. Its really a terrible way to get information across.

So, in conclusion, I think the book has a LOT of valuable information that has never been put together in this sort of way.  This makes the book priceless for game developers and designers who want to understand their craft more.  It's a must have book.  

But sadly, the presentation of the information could have been a lot better, with more concise writing and better illustration of key concepts - rather than drawings for cuteness sake.  I completely understand where the author is coming from, but it fell flat for me.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars - with all four stars for the excellent and thought provoking content.

Reader Comments (1)

I agree with much of Dave's assessment of the book, but I had already read a few reviews before picking it up, and knew it was more of a philosophical discussion of what "fun" really means. And I also appreciated Koster's defensive posture. When describing my career change, I have occasionally faced some puzzled looks and some questions that seemed to ask "is game development really a job for grown ups?". It was empowering to read a reasoned defense of the field, as well as a fairly solid case for games as a necessary facet of human development.

On the other hand, Dave is spot on about the illustrations. Not only do they distract from the running text, they are so poorly executed, they almost undercut the entire premise -- to look at games and fun as a serious pursuit. I can appreciate a style that is simplistic and childlike (see XKCD), but these illustrations are just weak, and rarely add anything to the text.

Please read this book. It's an important and often personal work. But ignore the artwork.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Talarico
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