January 4, 2005
A Theory of Fun
Looks like A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by game designer Raph Koster, is now out, as Andrew mentioned it soon would be. Perhaps that explains why Koster didn’t update his blog in 2004.
The book, which I haven’t yet gotten to ogle [Update, 2004-01-25: I’ve reviewed A Theory of Fun, after successfully finding it a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. See also the discussion below this post, for some of Raph’s comments.], is an enlarged and illustrated version of his 2003 Austin Game Conference keynote speech, [PDF] which is similarly named. His slides are laid out and illustrated in a pretty amusing way, can be read quickly, and do a good job of concisely expressing a philosophy of game design, and a perspective from which there is no divide between seeing “games as art” and “games as games.” It’s certainly worth taking a few minutes to flip through those. While Koster doesn’t distinguish all the different dimensions of gaming very well – collapsing “puzzle” into “game” in a way that loses some of the nuances of these two things, mixing the pure interpretation and resonance of art with the additional understanding and operation of a computer game – this clearly isn’t a work on the scale of Rules of Play, and such conflations aren’t fatal to it. The slides are more of a manifesto than a treatise, and they make an interesting statement.
Koster writes that the book’s ubiquitous penguin and alligator will soon appear on “t-shirts and mousepads,” perhaps in time for A Theory of Merchandizing.
January 4th, 2005 at 9:59 pm
I can’t help but react cynically to this one, given that his last foray into game design fell pretty short on the “fun” department for so many. Perhaps this is reflecting too directly on Koster what was perpetrated by an entire team, but it does seem that Koster is more concerned with creating new gameplay mechanics than in creating a game world to do the interacting in.
Galaxies had things to do, but it had no character, no beauty, no style. I don’t think a game can be fun without some form of beauty.
January 4th, 2005 at 10:31 pm
I got my review copy of the book last week and completed it this weekend. It’s a quick read. I’ll write a complete review of the book over on WCG soon, but one important point I plan to make is that Koster’s notion of “fun” is in fact rather unlike the loose and popular notion of fun that so many gamish types bandy about. In fact, in many cases Koster’s idea of “fun” seems very, well, not fun. Given my own propensities I naturally laud such a rejection of fun as first principle, but it is confusing and perhaps misleading that the book is titled A Theory of Fun. That said, others have objected that I’m getting Koster wrong, and he is indeed talking about fun in the ordinary sense.
Anyway, it’s a good little tome worth having around. A number of reviewers at Amazon have responded in the same way Josh does, but it’s really best to read the book first.
January 5th, 2005 at 12:08 pm
I should admit, I’m still bitter over having paid for a year’s subscription to SW Galaxies. I’m recovering, slowly.
That said, I’m hoping to borrow this book from our studio’s library, and until then I won’t extrapolate any further on what the author’s ideas of fun are. (I’ll restate my previous disclaimer – for all I know, Koster had nothing to do with the parts of SWG that left such a bad taste in my mouth. And production cycles can do horrible things to the best of us.)
The good side to this is that while mulling over how to phrase what my impressions were, I ended up making new connections between ideas that I didn’t expect. So, yay for constructive criticism. If those ideas aren’t reflected in his book, perhaps I’ll try to elaborate on them somewhere.
January 5th, 2005 at 2:44 pm
Whew, a lot to respond to–I usually just lurk here. :)
1) It’s been out for almost a month, actually.
2) As far as dimensions of gaming–my assertion is that all games are in fact forms of cognitive puzzles–that’s different from classifying types of games, which is by and large not something I get into in this book. I don’t really venture into classification because it’s a different topic, and frankly, a picky topic; the book isn’t really intended solely for the game-knowledgeable person.
3) The merchandise has also been out for a while. Some folks have even bought some. Honestly, I’m a little bit in shock over that one. ;)
4) A large part of the reason to write the book was because of a sense that I had lost track of basics. It was an exercise in rediscovering roots, basically. It’s very easy to lose sight of things like fun when you’re dealing with a 100 person team, with a game design that is in effect cobbled together by a dozen people, and so on.
5) More interested in mechanics than game world–by this latter phrase, I have to assume you mean stage dressing and content. No, I am not less interested in those–I simply have never gotten an MMO project (all of two of them!) to the point where I’ve been able to turn attention to the content. It’s been pointed out to me that this is perhaps because of a backwards approach to development–content first, systems later–which I think I agree with but also plead reality–in practice, starting the content is impossible. I’d also point out that all my background and training is in content, not in systems.
6) If SWG wasn’t fun, why did you subscribe for a year? Serious question. What is it that made you keep trying to like something you didn’t like?
7) Ian, I’d say rather that my definition of fun is intentionally narrow, because the word suffers badly from overuse. There IS no “ordinary sense.” The common usage of “fun” just means “pleasurable,” which is completely unhelpful given the enormous variety of pleasurable activities in the world. However, I’d be curious to hear about in what way my definition is not an enjoyable activity, as you seem to state.
8) None of the reviewers on Amazon who responded that way had actually read the book (and in fact, you’ll see most of their reviews were removed for that reason–they went away because they appeared prior to the book’s release). It’s unfortunate in some ways that I’m the public face for projects I am involved in, despite not having total control over them, ebcause it means that I get both the praise I do not deserve and the vilification that also I do not deserve (there is, of course, some deserved stuff on both sides of that as well). On the other hand, if I weren’t the public face, it’s far less likely that I would have been asked to write a book, or get the opportunities that I have had, so it’s a tradeoff. But I would ask that people read the book first, rather than conclude I know nothing about fun. :)
January 5th, 2005 at 4:34 pm
I feel like I’ve got my foot in my mouth now. Whoops!
“No, I am not less interested in those–I simply have never gotten an MMO project (all of two of them!) to the point where I’ve been able to turn attention to the content.”
This strikes me as a scoping issue, but we can point the blame for that at the DD’s, right? ;) Speaking as a new developer, I would hope that the production team would be spending equal time, as a whole, on both content as they do on systems.
I began typing something that’s just too large, in regards to why I kept playing for a year, which I guess is what happens when you try to recap a yearlong gameplay experience. I’ll try to summarize.
SWG offered the Star Wars universe, which also meant that I had a lot of friends playing. Friends being silly through Wookie avatars are a big plus.
It also had a lot of feature improvements over my last MMO experience, Everquest. The player-focused economy was well made and easy to use. Features like player cities, the scouting profession, crafting droids, and the Big Maybe of becoming a Jedi were appealing to me. Doing some exploring on all the remote planets was fun. Raid-level PvP gameplay through the GCW appealed to me, although everyday PvP ganking isn’t my thing.
So it was fun for a while, and sometimes I would be playing in search of an anticipated fun which never quite payed off because of thin content or broken features. The anticipated fun kept me going for quite a while. Someone helped me notice that I was never actually enjoying gameplay, just stubbornly trying to reach a goal which I expected would be enjoyable.
Wow, I need to watch where I toss around casual sarcasm next time. That just took me far too much time to write, and I still feel like I’ve misbehaved. My apologies for the finger-pointing, and I’ll make sure a copy of the book ends up around here and give it a read.
January 5th, 2005 at 4:40 pm
(“… never actually enjoying gameplay,…” being at a point where I wasn’t finding my friends online, after having played for close to a year, that is.)
January 5th, 2005 at 7:50 pm
Yep, scoping a huge issue there, and a lot of that lies directly at my door, undeniably. :)
Maybe WoW got to spend half-and-half on time but most games don’t. The platform and systems take around 2 years to get up and running for an MMO. SWG was done in around 2.7 years.
Alas, the “anticipated fun” thing is a common tale in MMOs. :(
January 5th, 2005 at 8:54 pm
I had forgotten you were a “creative director”, not a “producer”.
Now I’m curious how those titles were used in your project. I’m working on a sports title at EA Canada, and the projects I’ve seen here generally have producers (including associate producers) and development directors (DD’s for short), as well as technical director and game designer and that sort of thing.
From what I’ve seen, the DD’s fill the role of project management, in terms of mapping out tasks and setting milestones and generally making sure things are on schedule. Producers, on the other hand, have been the ones designing and specifying features, working with non-art data, basically the creative design side of things.
Did the director / producer titles have that sort of distinction of roles in your past projects, or is that entirely an EA thing? Or were those responsibilities mixed?
Partly I’m still trying to figure out if the industry has any sort of common terminology for these roles. I’m also curious if there are a lot of cases where the responsibilities are mixed, and if it causes problems (since it seems to me that it would).
January 5th, 2005 at 9:02 pm
Raph, thanks for the comments, not to mention the manifesto. Sorry I hadn’t noticed the book out earlier, but it’s been a busy month. And I think it’s quite fair for you to appropriate “fun” for your own purposes, given how little fun and computer gaming have been discussed.
Here I go plowing ahead without having read the book, but hey, I did read your slides a few times, and I’ll limit my comments to those, and to your reply, for now…
my assertion is that all games are in fact forms of cognitive puzzles
I guess reading Jesper Juul’s dissertation and reading bits of Rules of Play has put me in a different frame of mind. I don’t see, for instance, how a footrace is a cognitive puzzle, nor do I see how roulette is a cognitive puzzle, but these both clearly seem to be games to me.
Perhaps you’d reply that these “games” aren’t the sort you’re interested in, and aren’t very useful for computer game developers to think about, but there are certainly computer games that involve a lot of skill, even if they aren’t games of pure physical strength and skill. I guess one could think of Space Channel 5 and PaRappa the Rapper as being cognitive puzzles, but it seems a bit of a stretch. It’s even harder for me to imagine gun-interface games such as the House of the Dead series as being cognitive puzzles rather than footrace-style tests of skill. There are some computer games that, like roulette, involve chance to a large extent, too, although interesting examples don’t come as easily to mind.
However, many of the games that interest me most, and the sort of games that I work to create, have cognition, puzzling out, figuring out, and other similar sorts of activity as pretty central to them, so I’m still quite interested in your perspective on games as cognitive puzzles, even if I think that perspective leaves out a few interesting aspects of computer gaming.
The slide of yours that I “quoted” in my original post makes an interesting point related to emergence and complexity – “games will never be mature as long as the designers create them with complete answers to their own puzzles in mind” – but I wonder if that point, as nice as it sounds, isn’t really a bit mystical? I like a lot of interactive fiction works that seem to me to be pretty mature as games (although they might not be mature as multimedia experiences, if that’s what someone is looking for), and they were designed by people who did have complete answers in mind. At times, some elements come together in unexpected and pleasing ways that surprise even the designers – Robert Pinsky has spoken about one of these moments, when he was watching someone play his venerable computer game Mindwheel – but the experience of the game doesn’t really rely on such occurrences. They’re a bonus.
My own reaction is that games with “complete answers” already figured out can actually be mature and interesting, because the presence of a “complete answer” doesn’t limit what the experience of the game can mean to someone; it doesn’t limit how the game experience resonates with the player’s experience of the world. Emily Dickinson wrote the poem “A narrow fellow in the grass,” which clearly has a particular “complete answer” to it. It’s a riddle with the answer snake. But the answer isn’t the end of a person’s experience of the poem; there’s still more to learn. Maybe games will be mature when they are so rich and compelling that we want to re-solve them, to remember the challenges they posed the first time, reflect on what the experience of the game means, and connect the game to the rest of our lives?
January 5th, 2005 at 9:52 pm
Whee, another long answer coming!
Josh, I have noticed little consistency, except that in the console world, a producer tends to be the closest thing to the “director of the game” that there is. They tend to be heavily into the design. In the PC world, producer often means much more of a management-only role, and a design director or lead designer is the equivalent “director of the game.”
On SWG we had an executive producer (who was concerned with managing budgets, the team, the studio proper, the relationship with upper management, the relationship with the publisher, etc); the producer & assistant producers, who dealt with “making sure things got done” and with scheduling and personnel issues and day to day facilitation; a technical director, art director, and creative director (me)–the latter managing the design team; leads for server code, client code, character art, world art, game content, and game systems (ultimately, these two were combined into one “lead designer” because of personnel reasons); and then the team.
For most creative content decisions, it came was mostly me arguing with the producers. We used to say that it was a bad day if any one of us won all the arguments. :) I SHOULD have also been supervising the work of everyone, but that’s basically impossible with that many people, but definitely my failing.
Nick, as it happens, a footrace is an example I use in the book. A footrace is indeed a cognitive challenge–you have pacing of mvement, breath control, who to pace as you race, what path to take on the track–there’s a lot of variables there to juggle, and “solving it wrong” will lead to loss of the race. Trust me, I ran track a bit when I was a kid. :)
I do make the distinction between learning skills and exercising mastery over them. Exercising mastery over skills you already know is enjoyable, but not what I call “fun” in terms of games.
Roulette and other gambling games also come up briefly in the book, though not very much. I would suggest to you that the huge number of people who put together “systems” for winning at gambling suggests that people do perceive these as cognitive puzzles, whether they are or not.
Space Channel 5 and PaRappa also strike me as being cognitive puzzles. They are presenting patterns–fairly simple ones, it’s true–and then demanding that we demonstrate our mastery of those patterns. They both gradually increase the difficulty of the pattern. If you say that these games are not cognitive challenges, then you’d also have to say that learning how to play piano is not a cognitive challenge–really, it’s very similar.
The first portion of the book spends a fair amount of time on “chunking” and “schemata” and other such cognitive terms, which may help put this into context. Basically, I argue that games are abstract patterns that closely mimic the “chunked” version of reality that our minds typically operate with. Fun is the process of internalizing or chunking a ruleset, something for which we are rewarded with endorphins.
On yourlast paragraph, I tend to agree with you–however, one of the points I make in the book is that most games as gameplay fail to resonate with the real world. Yes, we should strive for games that want re-solving, revisiting, that reveal new aspects. I am simply calling for that to happen through formal abstract systems — not cheating by adding story or art into the mix — and for games to actually have concepts like ambiguity in them. Right now, they mostly don’t. They rarely “connect to the rest of our lives.”
January 5th, 2005 at 11:49 pm
There IS no “ordinary sense.” The common usage of “fun” just means “pleasurable,” … However, I’d be curious to hear about in what way my definition is not an enjoyable activity, as you seem to state.
Raph — what you call the common use is what I was referring to as the ordinary sense. In my reading, your understanding of fun decouples the outcome of gameplay with pleasure in this ordinary sense, enabling other kinds of responses to it.
January 6th, 2005 at 12:31 am
I am unsure how to respond to that. There are many times when gameplay does not provide any form of pleasure, and there are many forms of pleasure provided by gameplay that have little to do with the game itself (social reactions, for example).
So yes, I decouple them to that degree. But in the sense that fun is intrinsic to gameplay and what games are about, that I most definitely do not decouple. To me, games are learning challenges, and fun is the positive feedback from learning. That said, broadly speaking, many media also pose learning challenges, and none of them define themselves strictly around a single effect on the user.
It’s important here to make the distinction between what I ended up crudely calling “ludemography” in the book, which is formal abstract system system, and the overall game experience, which is an art form that involves a lot more than just ludemography.
January 6th, 2005 at 1:45 am
So yes, I decouple them to that degree. But in the sense that fun is intrinsic to gameplay and what games are about, that I most definitely do not decouple.
True, but in my reading you’ve reconfigured the notion of fun. So, while you don’t decouple fun from gameplay, you seem to have changed the stakes without changing the terms. I was going to save this point for my own review, but since we have a dialog started here I’ll bring it up: why use the word “fun” at all? Doesn’t the repetition of “fun” reinforce the fundamental idea that gameplay always returns to the realm of amusement? Does your rhetorical use of “fun” undermine the ways in which gameplay actually challenges this assumption, returning it to the realm of the same?
January 6th, 2005 at 4:12 am
I wouldn’t say reconfigured so much as I would say honed in on a particular aspect, made the word more precise, at least in my usage.
As you say, it’s partly a rhetorical device. Part of the reason to use the word fun is to point out that it’s an important sensation–the device of using the very word that we typically use to refer to the trivial makes it more jarring and therefore something to think about more. That doesn’t leave out the other sorts of enjoyment that I list in the book, nor render them less important. They are just not what the bulk of the book is about.
Were I to invent words for these various sensations, I am unsure that it would actually work for readers, to be honest. For example, you say that I may be inadvertantly reducing gameplay back down to amusement–but amusement is an imprecise word again. I most specifically do not reduce it down to amusement, but rather to a word that I spend a few chapters pinning down a bit more precisely. If someone feels that I reduce it to “amusement” then they probably missed the point of the book, I guess is what I am saying. That’s entirely possible, though–I am far from being a perfect writer.
The second question, whether it undermines the ways in which gameplay can provide more than fun, is a tougher one. Again, in the context of the whole book, I have difficulty seeing how someone would emerge with that impression, given the later chapters. In terms of a summarization of the argument, yes, I can see how the summarization could lead to that misimpression, particularly if the reader is only looking at the original PDF, which doesn’t really go into this much (my verbal speech that accompanied it went into a bit more detail, but not that much).
That said, I do think that gameplay is aiming at learning; fun is merely the feedback for doing that successfully. That suggests that fun is unlikely to be sustained, and can be intermingled with other feelings brought about by what is being learned.
January 6th, 2005 at 3:41 pm
People perceiving some layer of complexity and that layer of complexity actually existing are different things. That is, both roulette and running can allow people to attempt to engage complexity, but in running the complexity is there while in roulette it’s just an illusion.
So on at least some level with your definition, roulette is a degenerate sort of game. This isn’t entirely unreasonable; some gambling experts might call roulette a sucker bet rather than a game.
However, in many games having the illusion of complexity for some elements is important. Interactive fiction uses handwaving over anything involving complex NPC interaction. A massive multiplayer game may appear to mimic a natural ecology while simply resorting to a simple ‘spawn every x minutes’ routine.
You might call the difference (as a cognitive puzzle) between roulette and a footrace and Chess and Star Wars Galaxies a matter of degree. This makes “cognitive puzzle” feel more like an attribute of games rather than a definition to me. In the case of some gambling games, that attribute can be set to 0.
January 6th, 2005 at 6:08 pm
I got a review copy a couple weeks ago, and have yet to read it. Not that I’m unenthusiastic about reading it, of course, but I have a lot of other stuff on my plate. On the other hand, if it’s a quick read….
This discussion on cognitive puzzles is interesting. Lately I’ve come to view games as a form of rationality experiment, which may be a way of saying the same thing. Probably depends on how one interprets ‘puzzle’. Though I’m not sure that there’s a one-to-one relationship between all cognitive puzzles / rationality experiments and games: your average multiple choice test seems to fit the description pretty well (arguably for Jesper’s and Salen & Zimmerman’s definitions, too).
The ‘problem’ or the ‘puzzle’ of roulette is basically this: how do you decide what choice to make in a situation where your decision process doesn’t really matter? (Although, at a minimum, your decision must correspond to the given possibilities. Obviously, ‘cat’ isn’t a valid choice, nor is burping a valid response.) Every person who plays roulette is faced with that problem, and the only way through it is cognition.
The interesting thing is that roulette basically decouples outcome from cognition.
January 6th, 2005 at 7:25 pm
Jason, yes, I do consider most games of pure chance to be degenerate in that sense. The pattern they are teaching is that of learning basic probability–as it happens, unbiased probability assessment is something that the human brain has severe trouble with. So we keep coming back to those games even though from a mathematical perspective they are pointless.
The illusion of complexity is a very important part of games, I think, because games are a form of practice for real-world cognitive situations. Games train you to see underlying patterns rather than the noise; many games will therefore supply noise along with their cognitive lesson. Shooters are a good example–a core mechanic in them is about clicking on an object on a 2d plane, yet much noise is applied to that, including the illusion of 3-dimensionality at the moment of firing (modern shooters went further and actually included 3-dimensionality in terms of range mattering, but that’s not how the genre got started).
I definitely don’t agree that cognitive puzzle is a matter of degree–I can’t think of a game that ISN’T a cognitive puzzle.
January 6th, 2005 at 8:45 pm
What I mean by ‘matter of degree’ is that some games have more layers than others. On arcade scoreboards (like twingalaxies.com) there are certain games called ‘trivial’ in that anyone can get a maximum score with very little effort; these games are intentionally omitted from the scoring boards. On the other hand, Starcraft has professionals with their own trading cards and there are strategy arguments that have raged since the game first came out.
So, I would call complexity an “aspect”, rather than a form. If a “cognitive puzzle” is the basic formula for all games, roulette would have died long ago.
As an analogy, it’s like you said all stories have the form of a character when it should be all stories have the form of a plot, and those plots contain characters. There’s a higher level one can step to, I think.
In any case, I distrust a definition that tosses the physical aspect of games altogether. Sometimes the difficulty is in training one’s physical reflex; while there might be some mental aspects to fixate on, if the physical one predominates that can hardly be discarded. (Maybe it’s just the word “cognitive”. Just “puzzle”? That doesn’t scan well and is easy to misconstrue, though. Hm.)
January 6th, 2005 at 9:15 pm
Hmm, Jason, have you read the book yet?
I do not understand why you are linking “complexity” (which is a matter of degree) and “cognitive puzzle” which is a matter of type. You seem to assume that a cognitive puzzle must be complex, and this is not the case. Your analogy does not, to my mind, represent what I am saying in the book at all.
A better analogy to what I am saying is that all stories (games) have the form of a narrative (cognitive puzzle).* It may be a complex one or a simple one.
The (better, I think) analogy that I use in the book is that all games have abstract formal systems (e.g. cognitive puzzles) at their core, in the way that dance has choreography at its core.
The extended definition (which is the first third of the book) does not discard the physical. However, training a reflex in and of itself is not fun by anyone’s definition. Fun is heavily contextual.
I also have to warn you that I don’t make a huge distinction between the physical and the mental; for example, there’s research showing you can mentally practice physical activities involving fine motor skills and get a measurable improvement.
The original PDF used just “puzzle.” But really, what is going on is a cognitive process, the process of grokking a pattern and chunking it for later use. Fun is the positive feedback the brain gives for working on that cognitive task.
*(I hesitate to say plot–not all stories have a plot).
January 6th, 2005 at 10:57 pm
Thanks for continuing the conversation here, Raph. I wasn’t able to find your book in either of the two bookstores where I checked today, but I’ve berated them about that and will try to check another one tomorrow.
I can see how a footrace can be a cognitive puzzle, but I still see a problem with using that term to define games, and as a total theory. If Justin Gatlin beats me in the hundred meter dash, as he certainly would, it would true, but rather inadequate, to explain that he had bested me at a cognitive challenge. As a game designer, I can’t particularly see how I’d be able to make the footrace more fun by making it a better cognitive challenge, leaving everything else about it the same.
So, even if I can think of every game as a cognitive challenge, that doesn’t mean that doing so will explain everything interesting about the game. For instance, to understand why people enjoy running track, we might need to understand how the cognitive challenge of a footrace combine with physical fitness and training.
Nevertheless, I’m interested to see what you have to say about cognitive challenges in more detail, even if I sense that this topic by itself doesn’t exhaust all the interesting things there are to say about games.
January 6th, 2005 at 11:37 pm
I am not convinced by the definition, but it looks like I am only getting 1/8 of the story. I will need to track down that book. I will return later.
However, training a reflex in and of itself is not fun by anyone’s definition. Fun is heavily contextual.
there are a good number of people who find exercise “fun”, but I suppose it isn’t the same fun that games provide.
Beh. Enough of this and before long we’ll have to resort to using untranslated German words to define 10 different types of fun.
January 7th, 2005 at 1:55 pm
Uh, define “better.” You could easily argue that footracing could be made “better” for a large group of people if you flattened the playing field so that Justin Gatlin would only beat you “fairly” if he outplayed you based on skill, as opposed to “cheating” by having a genetic leg up, for example. You could argue that footracing would be made “better” by being more accessible, so for example by providing heads-up displays for oxygen in the blood, rate of heartbeat, length of stride, etc, so that you could do analysis on what you’re doing as you do it. Footracing actually fails to meet two important tests of “good games” — a level playing field and clear feedback.
I didn’t say I had a theory of games. I said I had a theory of FUN in games, which is different. ;)
More seriously, yes, there’s a lot to games as a medium beyond the “ludemography” of them, and that is what the latter half of the book is about. :)
BTW, you will have better luck ordering it online than finding it in stores, I suspect. Please do feel free to ask every bookstore you come across to order it however! ;)
They are almost certainly finding exercise fun because of the context. Few would say that physical therapy is fun, and yet it consists of exactly the same sort of exercise. If a machine was yanking on your legs for you, rather than you doing it yourself, I suspect that you would not find it fun even if you found exercise to be fun.
In my formulation, the core requirements for fun to exist are that there be a pattern you are trying to grasp, and that there be no undue pressure on you to grasp it–that it not be a high-stakes situation.
January 7th, 2005 at 3:25 pm
Footracing fails the test of a level playing field only if the cognitive aspects of the game are all that’s considered. I think that’s sort of begging the question. ;)
January 7th, 2005 at 7:16 pm
Were I to invent words for these various sensations, I am unsure that it would actually work for readers, to be honest.
Certainly inventing or coopting a wholly inappropriate word would indeed confuse readers. But that’s not what I’m suggesting. Rather, I wonder if a better strategy would be to expand the types of conditions games can engender in players into multiple states, rather than one.
The second question, whether it undermines the ways in which gameplay can provide more than fun, is a tougher one. Again, in the context of the whole book, I have difficulty seeing how someone would emerge with that impression, given the later chapters.
Having read the book, I agree (I especially liked the James Joyce reference) but I’m still confused as to why you would want to use “fun” to frame the arguments for a broader possibility space in games. Recasting fun to include responses that seem contrary to fun seems far less productive to me than working to expand our receptivity to game artifacts. Likewise, arguing that all those responses are in fact a particular kind of fun strikes me as counterintuitive at best and counterproductive at worst.
January 8th, 2005 at 12:36 am
Er, no, you have it backwards. It’s not the cognitive aspects that result in a lack of a level playing field… it’s the fact that success in footracing is largely predetermined.
I guess you’ve lost me. Where did I include responses that seemed contrary to fun? Where did I conflate multiple types of responses into one particular kind of fun?
January 10th, 2005 at 2:05 am
Let me try to rephrase what I’m thinking. Most of the world sees nothing inherently unfair about a footrace, despite the fact that some of the racers are more physically capable of winning than others. On the other hand, if a championship Starcraft match was held where one player was given access to more resources than the other, all other things equal, it would be considered an unfair match. I think this demonstrates that not every game, and not all gameplay, is purely about cognitive ability. Different games will, and should by design, test different abilities – some cognitive, some reflexive or intuitive, some physical, some social, etc.
January 10th, 2005 at 1:23 pm
This is inaccurate. They see nothing unfair amount it as long as the contestants are fairly evenly matched. There would many cries of unfairness were one of the racers an Olympian and the other a Special Olympian; or one of them a Olympian and the other a twelve-year-old; or one of them male and the other female.
And of course, the direct example that is comparable is giving steroids to one of the racers and not to the others. This boils down to “one of the racers being more physically capable.”
There’s a heavy load of assumptions that goes into “fairness.” For example, competitive games of all sorts make use of leagues and handicapping in order to try to make things “fair,” and we take those for granted. In the case of athletics such as our hypothetical footrace, our hidden assumption is that training is part of the race, and training has rules that cannot be broken. And interestingly, training is a heavily cognitive task.
If training were not part of the race, then doping would be acceptable. But the magic circle clearly does not encompass only the moments between the starting gun and the finish line.
As an sf-nal sort of gedankenexperiment, consider the world where everyone is genetically enhanced to maximize human potential. To keep professional sports alive, we might well need a class of citizen who intentionally refuses all such enhancements.
Trying to find a game that is purely cognitive is a waste of time; it’s impossible to divorce, say, presentation, from the experience (cf the go example in the book).
However, I think that it is safe to say that you will not find a game where there is no cognitive process. I cannot think of any games which are “purely reflexive” or “purely physical.”
My personal take on your argument is that you are conflating execution of choices with the making of choices. The locus of the game lies in the making of choices, not the execution.
As another sf-nal hypothetical, consider the kid who is paraplegic, but who can play soccer in a perfectly faithful soccer virtual game, via some sort of total-immersion interface. Whether he is a good or bad soccer player is a mental question, not a physical one. The varying degrees of execution of the kicks are important, but knowing where and when to kick is more so. Being unable to physically kick the ball could arise from a myriad of circumstances, from an unfortunate gust of wind to a charleyhorse to a glitch in the software. Kicking the ball is a matter of interface to the system.
January 10th, 2005 at 7:00 pm
What do you mean by the “making of choices” in a case like this? When someone plays DDR and has horrible rhythm, is that a function of what you’d call his decision-making process?
I’ve got this distinction in my head between rationalization and reaction. Perhaps you’re applying the term cognitive to both, but to me it maps more directly onto rationalization.
Or to fall back to a geeky AI analogy, cognitive thought would be Prolog and logic-based AI. Reflexive, reactive sorts of behaviour are like neural networks, on the other hand. The brain uses both, but some types of problems call for one more than the other.
January 10th, 2005 at 7:21 pm
DDR is a good example. Let’s consider the cognitive challenges in DDR:
– There’s a language, a new form of writing/reading to learn. It’s a notation system for both rhythm and position. New versions of DDR have introduced more signs into this language (triplets, freeze arrows, etc).
– There’s mastering rhythm itself, which at more complex levels is quite difficult for many people. This is not an instinctive movement it’s a cognitively learned skill–which is why musical training has you learn it by counting until you can internalize it.
– There’s a spatial challenge to the positioning that requires analysis. Beginning DDR players return to the center after every step, for example. Mastering the space is a cognitive challenge you have to overcome to get better.
Quite aside from those challenges, there’s
– stepping on the arrows when you want to step on them, which involves motor control.
You can be a fantastic DDR player and still lack the motor control (maybe you’re exhausted from playing too much; maybe you’re drunk and dizzy; maybe you stubbed your toe and are limping).
There’s the cognitive dimension there, and the execution.
Reflexive, reactive behaviors are almost all built BY cognitive processes that occur first (there are some that are purely instinctual, but not many). And it is a huge mistake to think that cognition or decision-making is conscious or “rationalization” as you put it–that’s not how the brain works at all. For most things, you practice until you build the autonomic response, the reflexive response, the physical skill.
I am simply saying that “the game” lies in the practicing process.
Once you have internalized and rendered automatic the movements and also have no cognitive challenges, then the game is frequently boring or at best meditative. It’s almost certainly not “fun” in the traditional sense (or the chemical sense, in terms of which endorphins get released).
January 10th, 2005 at 7:48 pm
To start a different thread on discussion (hoping it won’t get lost) I wanted to comment on Raph’s statement (in the slides, I haven’t read the book):
[G]ames will never be mature as long as the designers create them with complete answers to their own puzzles in mind.
I entirely agree, at least in my personal measure of what makes a games fun. There are two games that to me have infinite replayability: Any title from Sid Meier’s Civilisation Series, and Nethack. I think one of the reasons for this replayability and continued enjoyment is exactly what Raph states. They both have enormous complexity which presents the player with interesting novel situations every time they player. And they both allow users to come up with their own ways of solving these problems without being any less challenging for doing so.
Compare this with another game I recently purchased: Neverwinter Nights. This game frustrates me a great deal because it very much tailored to a single style of gameplay: you run it, kill everything in sight, take the treasure and move on. The frustration is amplified because the game engine provides a perfectly good alternative: the thief character can sneak, steal, bribe, persuade… but the quests and the XP system are designed in a way which hobbles this approach and makes it unviable. This is Not Fun.
But I didn’t mean to just post a rant, I have a legitimate question. I am here at GTxA not because I’m interested in games, but because I’m interested in Interactive Fiction. I want to build things like (the mythological) Facade. My question then is this: what ramifications does Raph’s comment quoted above have for building IF?
It seems to me that every piece of IF ever written intrinsically falls victim to the “complete answers” criticism. Even works like Emily Short’s Galatea (wonderful as it is) are just collections of MANY “complete answers”. Is it even possible to build IF which has answers the author hadn’t imagined?
This seems to me to be related to the Emergence/Design argument. To have “unanticipated answers” is somehow to advocate games built as emergent systems, with sufficient complexity that they are not entirely predictable even to their authors. But obviously not just any system will do. A great deal of design needs to go into such a system to ensure that it produces interesting/dramatic/challanging/fun results.
This alone is not prohibitive, and some game designers have indeed achieved it with some success. My question is: can it be done in a text-based medium like IF? There is an intrinsic difference between a graphical game and a text-based one, which is about the level of internal representation. As an AI researcher, I understand it as the Signal/Symbol problem.
Graphical games typically represent the state of the game at a low level of abstraction, largely numerical: unit positions, strengths, etc. Actions likewise are numerical: movement, timing etc. This allows a great richness of representation. A simple design can represent a very large number of possible scenarios and responses to them. Done well, this richness allows a great variety of unanticipated problems and solutions.
Textual games (like IF) on the other hand represent the state of the game in more abstract symbols. Your location is a discrete room. Other actors are either with you or not. You can unlock the door if you have the key from the well, or else you can’t. It is much easier to represent and direct a story in this fashion, but there is little room for emergence as the interesting symbols/patterns are ones designed into the system, not ones which emerge from the underlying complexity.
Roleplaying games (like NWN) show this disparity most profoundly because they fuse elements of both styles together (usually poorly). So if you don’t have a key, you can hack or blast away at every door you encounter instead — except one which is an Important Door, and which is Magically Protected, ie which cannot open until you’ve performed a particular plot event.
So my question is this: can this dichotomy be overcome? Can we produce systems which have sufficient complexity to have unanticipated solutions while maintaining some direction over the narrative process?
January 10th, 2005 at 8:20 pm
Re: Raph’s post:
Ok, it’s definitely just semantics then, and I should go read the book. =)
January 10th, 2005 at 10:17 pm
Well, Malcolm, I think the answer lies in taking a step back.
Does fiction, the old-fashioned ink on paper kind, manage to meet this challenge?
I would say yes.
The part of IF that seems immediately subject to interpretation is the fictional part. The part that you seem to focus on not being that way is the interactive part.
January 11th, 2005 at 4:40 pm
For IF with answers the author hasn’t anticipated, try Verb! by Neil deMause.It has more actions and points possible than the author originally anticipated.
This is because it is set in a wordplay environment where any new successful command will score a point.
Also, I would say argue even with a distinct number of results, it isn’t trivial to have varying methods of getting there the author never anticipated. Emily Short comments about this in her article Multilinear IF; sure, there are discrete ending texts, but who is to say that’s the complete meaning of each ending?
As a thought experiment, take a work of IF with a single ending: the PC dies. The text is always the same. However, on the way the character can have a varying number of accomplishments. Perhaps the PC gets drunk, or brings world peace, or falls in love. In each case the ending would be essentially different, even if the text was the same. Perhaps in one variation it was justice, while in another it was tragedy.
This can be compared to a film experiment of Kuleshov:
Now, I understand regarding the point IF doesn’t have emergent gameplay; text is crafted, and when it is not the effect can be tedious (taking the “simulation” parts of Amnesia as an example — sure, you can travel across all of Manhattan, and 99.9% of the intersections look the same). What we can do with our current technology (while maintaining good prose) is make our “cuts” faster (see Facade).
January 11th, 2005 at 7:58 pm
I think this is true of regular fiction as well. ;)
January 11th, 2005 at 8:05 pm
I think this actually illustrates my point well. The symbols that “emerge” are at a level of abstraction above the symbols you put into the system. So if you program a collection of moving objects as in a graphical game, the emergent symbols are how they congregrate and interact. If you program a series of “beats” in a dialog like Facade, then the emergent symbol is the story that emerges from combining these beats.
I guess I just want some unit of input smaller than a “beat” so that beats themselves can be emergent and not designed. Chris Crawford would have the characters and their attributes be the designed units, and so the events emerge from their interactions. I like this, but I see great difficulty in turning it into readable text. I’m not really clear on what Chris’ answer to this is.
I’ve been working on a little project to make an IF Billiards/Pool game, which has a realistic pool simulation as the underlying event engine, but with a text-only interface. The tricky part, of course, is converting numerical outcomes from the engine into interesting english descriptions – which tell not just what happened, but what it “means” in the context of the game.
January 11th, 2005 at 10:31 pm
I have to admit that when I played with the Erasmatron and Laura Mixon’s project using it when I visited Chris’ home several years ago, it came across as feeling exactly like an adventure game with slightly more autonomous characters. I am sure it has evolved with the years, though.
January 25th, 2005 at 12:57 pm
Thanks, Raph, for being kind enough to discuss your view on fun and its role in games. I did find your book in a nearby bookstore and finally got to read and review it. I know some people feel odd replying to reviews of their work, but it’s an esteemed tradition on Grand Text Auto – feel free to comment there, if you want to.
October 24th, 2005 at 11:53 am
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