Book Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

Theory of Fun for Game Design* is a deceptively educational book on the topic of fun and game design. Less on game design and more on fun. In 244 pages, Raph Koster provides his definition of fun, and outlines the importance of games for learning. Koster explains that we find learning fun, specifically, we enjoy problem solving and skills development. Games are a great vehicle for both, and they have been used since the beginning of time as a means of passing on survival skills — but times have changed.

Koster is a game designer and was responsible for developing the Ultima Online series and the Star Wars Galaxies series. He was driven to write this book because he was trying to understand why his kids found a game fun one moment and boring the next. He determined it was all about recognizing  and mastering the game patterns. Once they figured out the game and solved the problems making up the essence of the game, they then become bored. We tend to follow the same pattern.

Across twelve chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, Koster provides stories and details about what makes games fun. He leverages all his experience as a game designer and fun maker. Koster looks at the topic from a number of different lenses. In chapter 2, he points out all the different definitions focusing on games. He stresses that no one can agree on a definition, and all of the definitions lack the element of fun. Koster also introduces the subject of patterns. He explains we try to find patterns in everything as a means to simply problems that we are trying to solve. Once we discover the patterns, we then use them in processes. The hunt for patterns and the practice of processes are what makes games fun. Once we have mastered the task and pattern, we become bored. We “grok” something when we have mastered the pattern to the point that it is intuitive. A game like tic-tac-toe is easy to grok because the pattern is easy to identify. However, a game like chess is harder to master because there are infinite patterns.

Koster stresses that games teach us survival skills. Historically, we started with running, throwing, and jumping games because our survival depended upon it. Many of the games on the market have similar core mechanics relating to survival skills such as aiming, timing, hunting, territory, and projecting power. Koster points out we must develop new games relating to survival skills that we need in these times such as understanding issues of social responsibility and working as a member of the global community.

Koster also touches on Gardner’s multiple intelligences, and points out that people gravitate towards different games because of the patterns they recognize. If they do not recognize a pattern, they then consider it noise. Some people prefer physical games while others prefer role playing games, and still others enjoy word games. We need to consider this when making educational games.

This book is written in a very conversational manner, yet it is packed with details that makes you want to find out more. All the even pages contain prose and all the odd pages have insightful illustrations that should not be glossed over. Each page provides a wealth of valuable information. Reading the book was like peeling back the layers of an onion; there was always something new to explore. The last section of the book contained detailed notes that helped define terms and concepts.

This book was recommended to me, and I am glad to have read it. This is another book worth putting on your bookshelf if you are interested in gaming and gamification.

“Fun is just another word for learning” (Koster, 2005, p. 46).


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

  • September 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm
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    People seem to be more comfortable with what they know, therefore, they are absolutely drawn to patterns…. there are more big words in this reading that i do not know. I hope that I get used to the big words being used in all of the texts that I am reading so that I get used to and drawn to the pattern of good writing, and can use verbiage in my own writing. This was an enjoyable piece of literature, although I did become bored,

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