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Video: Raph Koster revisits his 'Theory of Fun' 10 years later Exclusive

[Note: To access chapter selection, click the fullscreen button or check out the video on the GDC Vault website]
October 24, 2012 | By Staff

October 24, 2012 | By Staff
More: Social/Online, Design, Exclusive, Video

Ten years ago, at the very first Austin Game Conference, online game pioneer Raph Koster (Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies) delivered an inspiring keynote that explored why games matter, how they teach players, and what fun is.

This talk eventually became the basis for Koster's popular book A Theory of Fun, and just a few weeks ago at the final GDC Online in Austin, Texas, Koster revisited this keynote to discuss how this "theory of fun" applies to game design a full decade later.

At its core, Koster explained that his theory still very much holds up, as it's largely supported by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

"If you've ever seen a kid first learn how to walk, the look of joy on that toddler's face -- it's fun. They're playing a game," Koster said. People feel compelled to learn and play "games" like this even if we have to work hard to accomplish our goal. We want to overcome the obstacles games put in front of us simply because we're having fun.

But where does this nebulous idea of "fun" come from? According to Koster, it's simple: fun is the brain's way of making us want to learn. We're constantly learning while playing games, and the chemical reactions in our brain become a "neurochemical reward to encourage us to keep trying," he said.

"A lot of people hate the idea that we can reduce all of this to something so mechanical," he added. "I hate to say it, but the more science that has come out over the last ten years, the more this entire thing has been validated. There's more and more evidence to show we do in fact engage in significant, difficult learning with games, that gamers are predisposed toward learning, that games have real therapeutic value... it's all come true."

Throughout the rest of his GDC Online keynote, Koster offered even more insight into why we enjoy playing games, and you check out his talk in full by watching the above GDC Vault video. (Please note that you may have to turn up your speakers, as the audio is a bit low.)

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC Online already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription Beta via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

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Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from other events like GDC China and GDC 2013. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Daneel Filimonov
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Epic talk by Raph Koster! Loved every bit of it and I admire his enthusiasm :)

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Jakob Gamertsfelder
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Raph, what a magnificent glorious bastard! Truly a master of game-fu. I feel a tingle of the cerebral when his ideas dance through the structure of my mind.

True fun.

Michael Joseph
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There is no thesis here. It is a rambling quagmire of statements. And he never clearly delineates where his thinking has evolved over the past 10+ years.

I took notes while watching this and maybe when i've recovered from all of this propaganda, I'll bullet point the issues I have with this talk. It feels like rebutting a tirade of misleading statements by a political candidate. I'm drained.

For starters I will say this, these types of talks which are all over the map and make false assumptions or draw false conclusions from the works or statements of others and never within itself gives any real direction should be regarded as junk.

EDIT: The end he references Athenian philosphers and talks about "heroes" and then somehow concludes that "fun is all that matters" in this life. Oy vey! Socrates would not approve. And I cannot dismiss that kind of talk even if it is in jest.

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (really just about the Athenians ca 450 BC worlds first demoracy)
cant find part 3, but it's on netflix

Michael Joseph
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Standing on the shoulders of giants

Koster Quotes (either from his talk or quotes on a slide from his book):
"The idea was, games are systems built to help us learn patterns."
"Fun is a neurochemical reward to encourage us to keep trying."
"In a sense we're being played. Our hind brain is playing us like a puppet to get us to do the hard work of learning how to survive."

Quotes by various people from the slides
"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." - Plato
"Play is the child's most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and it's tasks." - Bruno Bettelheim
"Play is the highest form of research." - Albert Einstein
"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning." - Mr. Rogers
"For a small child there is no division between playing and learning." - Penelope Leach
"Play is by it's very nature educational." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force..." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard." - Dr. Benjamin Spock
"Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." - Abraham Maslow
"Play is the answer to how anything new comes about." - Jean Piaget

Ok. I'm on board! Although, I think his early comment about being played like a puppet is a bit revealing as far as giving us a clue as to the position from which Raph Koster is coming from and the direction his talk will eventually veer.

"Everything that is a system is something we can approach as a game. And since games are about teaching systems and we now intentionally create them and these systems literally modify the wiring in our brains, that means that we have an art form that rewires people's brains. We have the power. That means we have to be responsible."

Alright, no argument there. This represents approximately the first 15 minutes of the talk.

Tastey tastey fun
So he's discussed the importance of play. He's affirmed that fun is a result of learning and play. Next begins the narrowing of the talk to "fun." For the rest of this discussion, he is not really concerned with the other reasons people play. Some "non fun" reasons for playing games he lists - they are comforting, meditative/relaxing, they're practice. If he doesn't really want to talk about flight simulators or card games or other games that don't result in a dopamine release cycle that is tightly controlled by the game designer I suppose this is ok.

"Fun is actually the same thing as a cocaine hit. It's literally the release of dopamine."
"Dopamine is really interesting because first of all it specifically enhances learning and memory... specifically it relates to predicting rewarding outcomes."
"Curiosity itself is fun."

"We are learning the science of why you like one game better than another."

This statement winds up being the prelude to his talk about game grammar. And it's a bold and telling statement I find. And it sounds like it must be this really broad field of study, but it's not. It's a really narrow and focussed. And it stands to reason because actually doing what it sounds like on first reading would be impossibly hard. Not every problem has an analytical solution. All they're looking for are the ones that do and these have to be very specifc.

Game Grammar
Sounds really innocuous right? What could be wrong about formalizing a language to help us describe and design games? Nothing. However that's not what "game grammar" is all about.

Koster started by telling us that any system can be a game if it is approached with the right attitude. That brought to mind unlimited and grand possibilities of game design, but before you know it, the talk has narrowed into "fun" and "game grammar." The reason is we're not really talking about games per se. We're talking about people. And game grammar is a foolish attempt at figuring out formulas that allow you to specifically control dopamine cycles.

How do I know this? Because vanished from his talk suddenly are all the other things we humans derive from learning and play. He disregards the real world applicable benefits (eg. physical and social skills, knowledge) and focusses solely on the fun (aka the dopamine release). Game grammar is about rooting out those building blocks which can assemble into new games in a way that allows you to precisely create and control a dopamine release cycle in the consumer. It is the fast food scientists' method of creating new food-like substances to sell.

Koster the Nihilist Evangelist
Throughout his talk there is a subtle suggestion that if you're not having "fun" you're not really playing a game, you're doing something else. Games are supposed to be fun. Games are entertainment. Art game design is not really "game design." Ok, that's an ok position to have but if this is the case, again, a responsible presenter would make this clear from the start. All those broad quotes from various reputeable individuals at the start of his talk are talking about real world applicable benefits to play and learning and ultimately all Koster is promoting is "fun."

...basically the last 15 minutes of the video is his setup and pitch for why making frivolous fun games that don't really teach us anything is actually ok and therefore the research into figuring out how to manipulate these dopamine releases is ok. All those quotes from various individuals at the start of his talk are talking about applicable benefits to play and learning and ultimately all you're promoting is "fun."

Should we treat life as a game? According to Mr. Koster sure why not, we're all dust in the end.
p.s. Yes i do have Koster-phobia.

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Raph Koster
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Wow, this is an appalling reading of what I was saying! And I agree, if I were espousing those positions, you SHOULD have phobia! I can see how you got to your reading, though.

Some quotes from the book and elsewhere:

"It might be that games are just math. And that makes me really really unhappy."
"No other medium defines itself solely around a single effect on the user [such as fun]."

Above all, this talk is about reaching an *accommodation* with the fact that

- fun is designed to be for learning
- we're learning more about the mechanics of creating fun every day
- and you can bypass the art and learning & hijack the mechanism
- most people only care about fun, not the art or learning, which results in...
- a lot of fun is shallow
- a lot of fun is designed to manipulate.

It's about saying "games are really powerful learning tools, but that's not how we tend to build them, we tend to build frivolous or exploitative stuff." And the accommodation I arrive at is "it increases player happiness, which is a worthwhile goal in itself."

That was the journey that the book and its aftermath took me on, and that I tried to share in the talk. It is kind of the opposite of nihilism.

But i can totally see how that ending and accommodation is one you can disagree with. I would be curious as to what your particular accommodation with those uncomfortable facts is.

On some of the individual notes you made:

Flight sims and card games cause dopamine release. In fact, the case I made was that many of the varieties of fun (social, visceral, etc) cause dopamine release *in addition to* to the specific reactions they trigger.

But the statement about "the science of why you like one game better than another" was tied to Jason VandenBerghe's stuff on personality types, not dopamine release.

Game grammar is not about controlling dopamine cycles. I suppose you could choose to use it that way, but I would suggest that says more about you than about me. The folks who work on game grammar aren't all out there trying to find ways to get you hooked. Game grammar is about learning, above all (see Dan Cook's Chemistry of Game Design article here on Gamasutra as an example). Game grammar is just as capable of diagramming soccer or Werewolf as it is of diagramming a social game of chess.

Raph Koster
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Christian, I read your article when it came out.

I actually think that there is massive overlap between it and what Theory of Fun and game grammar say.

My answers to the questions at the top of your article would be:

Where does it come from? - dopamine release

How can it be produced? - creating learning situations where players THINK they are mastering systemic relationships

Is fun exclusively subjective? - it's subjective, but there are generalizations to be made

Is it possible to create something fun for everyone? - no, because everyone has different cognitive skills and pattern libraries

Is fun all about learning something new? - no, there is exercise of mastery, anticipatory curiosity, and a few other elements. You can keep elaborating on a pattern without learning all that much new. On top of that, there are many mechanics that hijack the neurochemistry to provide fun without the learning.

Why do I still enjoy older games more than the most recent ones? - I can only guess but these are typical reasons: newer games present less systemic learning; newer games present complex systems for which you lack literacy; newer games aim at different personality types; you prefer the comfort of playing in systems you already understand.

Are we losing our understanding of fun? - No, the opposite. We may be getting disappointed in it as we learn more about it.

Is engagement the same thing as fun? - absolutely not. One can be engaged by any number of things, many of which are not enjoyable. Rubbernecking a car wreck is an example that jumps out at me right now.

What is the future of video games? - completely out of scope. :)

Could a unified theory of fun exist? - it could, but it is not likely to be simple.

As far as the rest of the article, it has quite a lot of commonality with other work. Context, emotion, and mechanism sounds a lot like MDA theory. The whole structure sounds rather like a game atom. The entire second page basically describes a skill atom, albeit (IMHO) with extra parts that are superfluous or minor. (Don't get me wrong, if having these parts helps you, or anyone, in their work, go for it). You even mention the recursive quality that is at the heart of game grammar.

Look, my work isn't prescriptive. I'm just sharing my learnings and thoughts on it all. I think we're all touching the same elephant, so if someone else's way of looking at things helps them, great. Hopefully what I have said just adds to the conversation.

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Michael Joseph
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Just on the subject of simulations vs other types of entertainment softare. Of course simulations are going to results in the release of dopamines, but the more pure a simulation, the less CONTROL the developer/designer has over that event. It is this CONTROL you and I are talking about. Arguably simulations result in a more natural release of dopamine, and highly directed games result in very precicely controlled releases of dopamine.

As for the word fun? I'm pretty much sick of it. It's worse than a meaningless word in the hands of someone who is concerned with creating it. This type of reverse engineering of fun (triggering of dopamine releases) I think is something we are not ready for apparently because the only people trying to figure it out are the ones looking to exploit it for commercial gain.