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Koster: Why games teach lessons we shouldn't always heed
Koster: Why games teach lessons we shouldn't always heed
November 17, 2012 | By Simon Carless




In his packed GDC China keynote in Shanghai, 'A Theory Of Fun For Game Design' author and online game veteran Raph Koster gave a stirring discussion on the nature of games, philosophizing: "Games are more like an algorithm than anything else."

Koster's inspiring - if somewhat tricky to write up - talk focused on why games are such fascinating beasts. Along the way, he attempted to define the unique brain-altering and emotion-triggering nature of today's video games - with some evocative success.

A central tenet of Koster's talk is that humans are "better at solving problems intuitively than computers can ever be". And a lot of the problems in games are surprisingly action, puzzle, and conflict-based.

Conversely, most of the tropes of non-game media may involve learning and evolving from other characters - moral stories or outcomes. But Koster rightly notes: "In games, we really don't care about learning from the monster in the RPG. Instead we just kill them all."

There are other ways that games teach odd lessons. For example, you can retry as many times as you like in most games, and gradually improve your performance, with no ramifications. But, as the design veteran noted: "In the real world, you do get second chances. And [in some cases] the second try is harder."

Perhaps the most piquant example Koster gave was around what F2P titles might be starting to teach us. He joked that many of today's game titles seem to be giving the message: "Oh, you have a problem? You can buy yourself out of a problem."

So in microtransaction-driven games, you can always buy your way out of a problem. But Koster pointed out that in real life: "That isn't really honest…. you can spend a lot of money and not buy your way out of unhappiness."

Koster did not intend this talk to be negative. He noted that games continue to amaze, and still "create art and beauty". And games - as systems - teach us to focus on complex relationships between many factors. Systemic thinking helps us analyze the world so much better.

But most of all, "games tell us that problems can be solved". For most of human history, we believed that fate was behind many misfortunes. And "the idea that we can solve everything, because we've made a game [around] everything", means that games are fundamentally optimistic.

Koster ended, simply: "We should not be ashamed of making entertainment, because our games are preparing… our cultures for the problems of tomorrow. Games are the medium of this century. We will matter more than the literature, than the music, than the film, than the poems for the next 100 years. Games teach us to solve the impossible… What you do, every day, as you work [creating games], is to make joy."

Gamasutra is at GDC China 2012, bringing you all the latest coverage from the event. For all the lecture reports and news, head over to our main GDC China event page.


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Comments


Matt Robb
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I would say that a great many games simulate a portion of reality. Because of this, you don't learn (viable) lessons directly, but you can extrapolate bits of lessons back out.

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Richard Dare
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Many of the things that make games a fun experience are the aspects of reality that are left out or wilfully subverted. This might mean that some aspects of life cannot easily be represented in games since they require the hard limitations that necessitate such "life lessons". Perhaps designers can find configurations of gameplay that enable these strictures, but I bet it will be difficult.

For me, games have an enormous emancipatory and rebellious aspect in that they allow us to not pay heed to the limitations of ordinary life. They are an attempt at making the experience of imagining more real and more significant by presenting it to us in the physical world. In a way, games are not so much about representing aspects of life as they are about bringing it into contrast with the ever-present freedom of the imagination.

Michael Joseph
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""We should not be ashamed of making entertainment, because our games are preparing… our cultures for the problems of tomorrow. Games are the medium of this century. We will matter more than the literature, than the music, than the film, than the poems for the next 100 years. Games teach us to solve the impossible… What you do, every day, as you work [creating games], is to make joy."

--

Saying it's true doesn't make it so. This is the type of grand claim that needs a truckload ton of evidence to support. I mean just consider the mainstream games out there... I don't know how someone extrapolates from that something positive. And if it's something other thain mainstream games then in my judgement, those aren't the types of games Mr. Koster is promoting. Games as medium of the century in present context strikes me as tragic.

Roger Haagensen
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"For example, you can retry as many times as you like in most games, and gradually improve your performance, with no ramifications."

Not true, take Star Wars The Old Republic. It gets worse and worse (grind, grind, grind). And worst of all, cough up some extra cash and you'll get more xp faster. And do one mistake and you have to live with it or delete the character (virtual suicide) and start all over again.

And when it comes to single player games, not being able to roll back to an earlier save can be destructive to the enjoyment. As the player may end up with a non-satisfactory end or outcome. (nobody want to reach the end and feel like they got cheated out of their time and money)

And hardly any games are that big and well made enough to make it possible to play from the start again. As almost all of them at best only let you decide a few things which barely have any change on the outcome.
Or if they do change the outcome it is only the last few minutes of gameplay, leaving the other 99% identical to the first playthrough.

Developers do not wish to waste their time, and neither does players.
Reduced saving or no saving is suited nicely to hardcore or "insane" gameplay modes.
Normal should be well balanced for the average and easy or beginner or story mode should be just for that.

There are games that never get finished, out of frustration (dying at he same spot the n'th time), or because they made the wrong choice and realize that they need to re-play several days worth of gameplay to get back to the same spot so they can make the other choice.

It may seem nice from a storytelling point to make the player "live" with the choice, but it's no longer fun is it. And is it really the intended effect if the player never finish the game but instead goes on youtube to watch the ending instead?

They also become jaded towards the developer and publisher and their future games.

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Matt Robb
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Comments like this always make me think of Super Mario Bros. You died. You died a lot. Each time you died a few times, you started over. And yet somehow people went ahead and played again. And we liked it that way, uphill both ways in the snow.

Jeremie Sinic
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As much as I love games, I hope people don't count on games to learn lessons about life. Whether it be Carmageddon or Bejeweled, Final Fantasy or Street Fighter, Myst or Farmville, I don't think that's ever the purpose.

"In games, we really don't care about learning from the monster in the RPG. Instead we just kill them all."
That's the most interesting quote in the article I think, and another reason why The Witcher is an exceptional game (it does put players in such situations).

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Michael Joseph
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sometimes simple monsters can be given deep meaning through the game's narrative

http://the-binding-of-isaac.deviantart.com/gallery/38210265

Christopher Moller
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Yes "Monsters are just ideas though." Do any games present ideas as monsters? Recently read this in a videogames patent:

"The "Ideas Have Consequences" (IHC) video game engine and present invention will allow the player to fight for the foundational ideas of the classical liberal tradition. Throughout history the most grotesque monsters have not been individuals nor physical monsters, but ideas contained in collectivist, tyrannical, and statist philosophies which oppose the individual's natural rights and freedoms; and which exalt kings and the elite above the common rule of law. While modern video games allow one to fight grotesque monsters rendered with stunning pixel counts, they fail to grant insight into the monster's souls. Thus modern games lack deeper dramatic action, epic stories, and character development; along with heart, spirit, and soul--the games lack exalting philosophy and enduring art. As words are the spirit's vessel, monsters that espouse ideologies--in words as well as deeds--will be far more realistic and will lend deeper meaning to games. For it is not the semblance of the creature that is so terrifying in the greatest horror films and thrillers, but it is the soul. And too, it is not the countenance of thugs and dictators--not their singular physical presence which deprives freedom and massacres multitudes; but it are their monstrous ideas. So it is that the player will be able to become a "hero" in IHC games, and defeat the deniers of freedom by battling their ideas; witnessing graphical game-world depictions of their high-stakes successes and failures. Players may fight for entities including the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, private property rights, intellectual property rights, taxation without representation, the freedom of religion, equal justice for all, the gold standard, and more. "

The game was discussed here:

kotaku.com/5896004/player-encounters-hooker-this-might-be-the-most -epic-video-game-patent-application-ever/gallery/1

neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=366448

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Alan Barton
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I can't help feeling I've just been listening to an evangelical snake oil salesman. Is this a sales pitch to sell his book? ... Its the only way I can explain how he can be so far off, because there are so many points I disagree with in this article. Its hard to know where to start, as it could take hours of writing to deal with it all. So instead, I think I will pick one point...

@"Systemic thinking helps us analyze the world so much better."

I can't help but say, then try reading your own article more closely!!!

But before you do, first read this and then apply it to your article!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_logical_fallacies

Especially the logical fallacy an "Appeal to emotion", plus a few others like e.g. "Denying the antecedent".

Jose Striedinger
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Beautiful article!

I must admit I really agree with the last phrase. I find video games t be such an amazing medium to inspire people in the right know. I mean is all the media of self expression, combined, and made interactive...is amazing and limitless. I guess that's why I love games than are just more than mindless fun, that have some meaning into, like Braid or Limbo.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree in taking games too seriously. There should be a balance. Video games can not relate 100% to real life and, most important, the player MUST know it does not relate 100% to real life. but, I admit is curious to think of game design in these issues. Like, say a game tries what you said, to be way harder as you keep losing, would that be a good game design choice? wouldn't that encourage player to quit the game? does that says that we, as game designers, are "spoiling" the game player community without even notice it???


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