An Overview of A Theory of Fun (Raph Koster)

October 30th, 2009


I’m not sure when exactly, but sometime in the next 6 months I will don the felt hat and graduate from university. Actually, I probably won’t be in Australia for the ceremony, in fact I’m planning on having a faux graduation ceremony involving a lot of sea food and karaoke, but anyways, you get the point. It’s great news by all means, except that this year I’ve rediscovered the usefulness of the student library and losing my privileges there will be a bit of a bummer.

You see, I live some way from my campus and as I commute via public transport, I’m left with a plentiful amount of time in transit. I’m not the kind of person to take the DS or PSP out with me in public though, since the noise, glaring sun and commotion de-immersifies the experience, so long as I don’t bump into a friend along the way I prefer to read.

This year I’m not flooded by course material to read over, so I’ve turned my attention to the library and have been enjoying the works of Erving Goffman, Xiaolu Guo, Henry Jenkins and a series of readings on Chinese communication theory and culture. I’ve actually found myself on a bit of a roll and have moved on to a handful of books on game design, before I then start on material written by former left-wing British politician Tony Benn, shortly followed by a slew of graphic novels. I’m kinda trying to squeeze it all into my final year media binge before I return to China for work.

Anyways, along with the rest of the media I’ve consumed this year, I hope to reinforce what I’ve learnt by sharing my summative thoughts here on my blog. Not all of it will go here, some of it—irrelevant to games—I shall post elsewhere, but for now let’s talk about A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster.

Theory of Fun is about more than fun, it’s the layman’s book for understanding video games—and considering where our understanding of this medium currently is at the moment, Theory of Fun is no less essential reading. I can’t recommend this book enough. I want to buy a copy for my brother and then convince my whole family to read it as it simply makes sense of what is often an over complicated topic. Raph asks the fundamental questions and answers them in a personal, insightful and humourous way. Every second page features a hand drawn comic further explicating his logic, usually in a humourous and highly effective manner.

That’s the mini-review, let’s unpack a couple of the ideas I personally found of interest. Keep in mind though that for some of these headings I’m adding my own additional thoughts or forming my own conclusion from what was said, separate from the book.

Games are Perhaps More Real than Reality

Cognitive processes ensure that our brain packages much of the world around us thereby making it easy to interface with. It ensures that many of our actions are routinely done without much use of brain muscles at all. Think of how you got dressed this morning, what steps did you take? Did you put on a shirt first and then your underwear? Don’t remember? Thought not.

This process, according to Raph is called “chunking” and with it it’s easy to argue that much like the film The Matrix, the reality we perceive may in fact not be reality at all, but instead a reality in which our brain has trimmed down to only what is serviceable. Video games then, represent a different kind of reality. Of course, when we play games our brain still chunks whatever is happening on screen, but more to the point: The reality represented in games are realities which are delivered pre-chunked by the game designer. That is, all games are designed to be interfaced with, and the way interfacing is conveyed to the player is a design choice made by the game designer. Some obvious examples of chunking might be: the distribution of platforms and climbable objects in Prince of Persia, the greying of the screen nearing death in Killzone 2, the distribution of light in Thief or the way terrain guides the player in Half-life. These elements are representative of their respective functions.

Games are Education, Game Designers are Teachers

In order to survive and grow healthily, the brain needs to crunch patterns. Patterns are infinitely available and can be accessed through almost any means, such as communication with people, photography, music, observing nature, writing, falling in love. In essence, the brain craves education, we actually enjoy learning and all of the above examples involve some form of education.

Video games have become such a successful medium because they are good educators. Video games are all about acquainting a player with a set of continually elaborate rules and testing the player on their application of these rules in a situated context. As I’ll discuss to greater length later on when I talk about James Gee’s Good Video Games and Good Learning, games are fundamentally education driven by nature and therefore very powerful. In this regard, game designers are teachers crafting the education process.

Players are Destined to Make Games Boring

Because players play games to learn, we consequently play games to reach the point in which we’ve learnt everything that the game can offer us. That is, we play games in order to make them boring.


A term in which someone understands something to the point that they become one with it and therefore fall in love with it. When we play a good game we grok the system of rules and mechanics of the game.

How Boredom Settles In

The player may grok the game too quickly, therefore finding the game “too easy”.

The player may not see value in understanding the rule system and complexity (see how Super Paper Mario avoid this drama)

The player might fail to see any patterns, they just see noise “It’s too hard”

Pacing may be too slow, the game may seem too easy too quickly

The game may do the opposite as above: become too fast too quick

The player beats the game

Players are Always Interested in the Win

Raph argues that people are naturally lazy (and don’t wish to learn) therefore they exploit the game’s weaknesses and blind spots and cheat if possible. He says that players ought to avoid doing this as it demeans the point of playing which is to teach and then test the player. In this regard, lazy players are bad students.

This is also why Super Metroid is such a fantastic title, it guides the player into the mentality of exploiting as much as they possibly can out of the environment, yet always stays one step in front of them. Super Metroid effectively straddles the player for all they’re worth. This is what makes Super Metroid akin to a good fitness instructor: motivating yet always pushing.

Game Design and Dressing

There are two core parts to a game: the design and the dressing. The game design is obviously the fundamental components of a game, including the core and peripheral mechanics and the way everything is designed and put together. The dressing is the context that the game places itself in as represented by the game’s presentation. Differentiating the two, when a player plays the game they primarily see the game design, but when an onlooker watches the game they often just see the context, particularly if the onlooker is unfamiliar with games in general.


Raph later explores this dynamic with the GTA franchise. He says that in GTA, players see picking up a hooker, participating in a drive-by shooting or beating up civilians as a way to make progress (the game design), yet people who don’t play the game (ie. parents) see the player committing acts of virtual terrorism.

When minority groups and the media protest against video games, they protest against the wrapping and not the game design. Game design and mechanics are really just an abstract system of rules, context is what frames a video game as being socially responsible or destructive.

Even though many people say that graphics and presentation don’t matter, they actually do because after all we’re visual creatures which receive pleasure by the visual and aural landscapes that video games so fruitfully provide. In saying this, the game design is always the crux of the experience.

Lack of Evolution from the Roots of Design

Nearing the end of the book Raph discusses how game design has become increasingly more narrow, expanding primarily from the branches and not from the roots. He cites shoot ’em ups as an example, saying that they’ve become completely irrelevant in today’s gaming society because the genre never evolved much beyond their original design.

Geometry Wars is a minor exception to his assertion, as I’ve discussed here before, through its use of technological capabilities the game managed to reignite interest in the genre by shifting the general design of arena based shoot ’em ups. It’s not a fundamental divergence though, so in perspective the shift is only slight.

The Difference Between Games and Stories

I’m just going to quote directly from the book here.

Games are not stories. It is interesting to make the comparison, though:

Games tend to be experimental 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, anyways) are internal—they are people’s emotions and thoughts. [Pg 88]

Rethinking Play Habits

In the same regard to his belief that players always want to cheat, Raph believes that players should not replay games as there is often little educational benefit in playing a game twice. I’m sure many would argue against his point here, myself included.

Self-serving Medium

I think most of us would agree with this one: video games have become too complicated and too arcane in their obedience to the core market. Players who enjoy games enter game development with the pursuit of making the games in which they enjoy, therefore the games industry is largely compiled of developers serving the interest of a small group of core players. This system doesn’t invite new players into the fold nor does it allow the medium to further expand.

The Next Step

According to Raph, for games to become designers need to design games which represent something of social importance. He says that games should begin to explore the human condition by representing and/or metaphoring game design as something of actual importance. Well said.

Additional Readings

A Modder’s Perspective: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster