Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

10.29.2012

What Are Games? What Is Fun?

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster: A Review

From playing cops and robbers to playing house, play is about learning life skills.
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Fun, as I define it, is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes.
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Games aren't stories.  Games aren't about beauty or delight.  Games aren't about jockeying for social status.  They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable.  Fun is learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

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Before I put these ideas into my own words, I want to first share some information about my perspective as a reader.  I am neither a hardcore gamer nor part of the game industry, the intended audience this book addresses.  This is the first thing I've read about game design and/or game theory, so I have no idea how well it represents the field or fits into the conventional conversations.  And since this is over six years old now, I'm not sure if more recent developments would impact the claims the book makes.

I'm a youth services librarian and I read this as the beginning of my explorations into the idea of "gamification," which is a recent buzzword in the library world; the idea that we can incorporate game design mechanics into the library patron experience, into their interactions with seeking and learning information to make it more motivating and fun.  A speaker during a recent webinar I attended made the claim that schools, libraries, museums, and the like "do play" as a learning tool well with preschoolers and younger children, but don't have much appreciation for play with older children, teens, and adults.  I'm interested in exploring how we might bring more play into the library user experience.

So I was very pleased to learn that Koster emphasizes play and the nature of fun.  In his theory, the brain is a big pattern recognition machine; we get through life by clumping the input our senses receive into patterns to help us process all the raw data we're with which constantly bombarded.  Since pattern recognition is so crucial, the brain rewards itself each time a new pattern is recognized and mastered or new data is identified as part of an existing pattern by releasing pleasure chemicals like endorphins.  That pattern recognition is the brain learning, so learning is a fun activity due to the pleasure felt as a reward.  And games are artificially created situations that simulate real experiences to help the brain practice learning in safe, controlled contexts.  Games are fun because they are risk-free (thus relaxed, playful) learning.

And since we dislike tedium, we'll allow unpredictability, but only inside the confines of predictable boxes, like games or TV shows.  Unpredictability means new patterns to learn, therefore unpredictability is fun.  So we like it, for enjoyment (and therefore, for learning).  But the stakes are too high for us to want that sort of unpredictability under normal circumstances.  That's what games are for in the first place--to package up the unpredictable and the learning experience into a space and time where there is no risk.

Games are only fun when the challenge level is appropriate.  If they're too hard, no patterns can be discerned, no learning can take place, and no fun is to be had.  If they're too easy, no new patterns are discovered, no learning  takes place, and no fun is to be had.  Thus, games need to be matched to the learning needs of the players, and games are not infinite--the goal of a game is to teach everything it has to teach until the player masters it and becomes bored, then moves on.

Koster develops this basic idea in lots of different ways; for instance, that it is natural for players to seek loopholes and cheats since that's the brain being efficient, so games need to account for those possibilities.  He also makes a distinction between the underlying mathematical structures that games have and the trappings they're clothed in.  The same basic game--the same pattern recognition training--can have characters that are military or peaceful, can be set in the past, present, future, or fantasy, and can be altered by many other factors and overlying stories.  He considers these implications in a number of ways, including the ethics of the stories chosen:

The bare mechanics of the game do not determine its semantic freight.  Let's try a thought experiment.  Let's picture a mass murder game wherein there is a gas chamber shaped like a well.  You the player are dropping innocent victims down into the gas chamber, and they come in all shapes and sizes.  There are old ones and young ones, fat ones and tall ones.  As they fall to the bottom, they grab onto each other and try to form human pyramids to get to the top of the wall.  Should they manage to get out, the game is over and you lose.  But if you pack them in tightly enough, the ones on the bottom succumb to gas and die.

I do not want to play this game.  Do you?  Yet it is
Tetris.  You could have well-proven, stellar game design mechanics applied toward a quite repugnant premise.  To those who say the art of the game is purely that of the mechanics, I say that film is not solely the art of cinematography or scriptwriting or directing or acting.  The art of the game is the whole.

I found Koster's development of ideas throughout the book to be engaging and fascinating.  He shares those ideas in very plain-spoken, conversational language and tone, yet I could recognize the academic scholarship informing what he had to say; I found it completely accessible, even though he is obviously immersed in the world of games and is writing for his peers.  What do I think about his ideas?  I'm not ready to say whether I agree or disagree, since this is just exploration for me at this point.  I'll be curious to find out how they hold up as I read more in the field.  One thing to realize, though, is that this is a book of theory--there isn't much about application or how to make use of these ideas in practical ways, which worked for me but might not for all readers.

One other area of particular interest to me as a librarian was his chapter on what games are not, as he contrasted them against other mediums and arts, particularly that of stories.  I've been a big advocate of stories as teaching tools for a long time and believe we all live within narratives that inform our identities and define our beliefs.  Stories teach us empathy, help us learn about and from other perspectives, and connect us to each other.  Here is Koster's comparison of games and stories:

Games are not stories.  It is interesting to make the comparison, though:
 - Games tend to be experiential teaching.  Stories teach vicariously.
 - Games are good at objectification.  Stories are good at empathy.
 - Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify.  Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
 - Games are external--they are about people's actions.  Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal--they are about people's emotions and thoughts.
In both cases, when they are good, you can come back to them repeatedly and keep learning something new.  But we never speak of fully mastering a good story.

I don't think anyone would quarrel with the notion that stories are one of our chief teaching tools.  They might quarrel with the notion that play is the other and that mere lecturing runs a distant third.  I also don't think that many would quarrel with the notion that stories have achieved far greater artistic heights than games have, despite the fact that play probably
predates story (after all, even animals play, whereas stories require some form of language).

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