You’re going to hate me for saying this, but if I had to sum up the experience of reading Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design in one word, that word would have to be fun. It really was one of the most fun reading experiences I’ve had in quite a while.
Much like Koster, I feel the need to specify what I mean by “fun.” After all, reading some of the greatest works of literature can be life-changing experiences. But they can also be dry or difficult. But this is not a difficult book. In fact, it’s a deceptively easy book because the writing style is so casual and straightforward that it’s easy to miss the profundity of Koster’s ideas or the alarming breadth of his knowledge. I certainly don’t know many authors who can make you feel like you completely understand an argument while drawing on the language of film, dance, music, literature, and more esoteric branches of mathematics like logic, game theory, and graph theory.
Aside from Koster’s style, the primary reason it’s so easy to get lost in the book is that it’s framed as a conversation between Koster and his grandfather. He’s talking to you just as much as he’s responding to his grandfather’s challenge that he explain why his career is meaningful. A Theory of Fun for Game Design is required reading in most game design college programs, but it doesn’t feel like a textbook. Rather, it feels like an insightful and spontaneous answer to a question you might ask a friend. That is again perhaps the greatest triumph of this book – to both be incredibly informative (do you know the difference between the emotions of fiero and naches or that both those words exist?) and yet as approachable as a novel.
In regards to games themselves, Koster does an excellent job explaining how gamers see what they are on a fundamental level. For instance, he argues that gamers tend not to understand controversies about games (violence, gore, sexual content, etc.) because they see past the “fiction” or surface level to the mechanics below. This leads to an intriguing discussion about the surprisingly few types of games, such as those that deal with territory, timing, and power. Finally, near the end, Koster suggests fascinating new ways to construct games so that victory requires more than beating everyone else.
Koster obviously understands games, but he also understands fun and the fact that most fun is ultimately about learning. And if you think learning is boring, well, you’re probably a boring person.
So go read it. Now.