A Theory of Fun

Ralph Koster

An early book on basic ludology. Koster posits a theory that fun is inextricably linked to nuance and the process of learning. While his theory has some basis, with some very true implications, it is ultimately too subjective to look at as anything other than a theory.

Possibly the one take-away from the book is that good games will cease to be fun eventually and that existence and abundance of fun levels is part of the natural life cycle of any game.

Some critics, however, posit good reason to disagree with Koster. I know Ian Bogost wrote in one of his books, Unit Operations, a very harsh critique of the theory in light of Koster's work. The criticism is serious enough that it would posit a danger to rely on Koster's theories to the exclusion of others, so I will quote it in full:


Raph Koster, Sony Online Entertainment Chief Creative Officer and lead designer of popular massively multiplayer online games Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, offered ... a unique book of cartoon sketches and semi-aphoristic insights called A Theory of Fun for Game Design. The book’s title already implies Koster’s adoption of “fun” as a yardstick for games, but, in an attempt fraught with hazard, he tries to recuperate the term for broader purposes than the production of anonymous desire.

In his attempt to preserve “fun” at the center of the experience of games, Koster musters loose principles from cognitive science; fun, he argues, is the sensation of “our brains feeling good.” Koster opposes critiques of fun like [Niel] Postman’s, arguing that we “migrate” fun into contexts. In particular, the primary kind of fun that games produce comes from mastery of a task. In their representational form, what I call unit operations Koster calls “abstract models of reality.” For Koster, fun is very nearly a pedagogical category, “the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes.”

This general approach allows Koster to mount a welcome argument in favor of expanded purposes for games. Like [Johan] Huizinga, Koster argues that games structure cultural behavior, but Koster explicitly maps such behavior to practice-oriented mental mastery of problems of a general kind.

Unfortunately, Koster’s reliance on fun as a first principle for games forces him into a corner. On the one hand, he makes a convincing call for games that fulfill goals beyond mere entertainment. This call is especially constructive given Koster’s relative celebrity in the game design community. On the other hand, he argues that the effect games produce in their players—all games, and all players—is “fun.” This reliance on a single output for games contradicts his earlier, apparently reproachful observation that a singular expressive goal limits the medium. The reliance on fun poses a conceptual problem for Koster, who must retrofit the revolutionary potential of games to mate properly with the concept of fun that serves as his engine.

Koster’s understanding of fun decouples the outcome of gameplay from pleasure in the ordinary sense, enabling other kinds of responses. But in the same gesture Koster insists that these outcomes still entail fun, albeit fun of a different kind. We might call Koster’s alternate fun′ (fun prime), a kind of alternate-reality fun that entails the social, political, and even evolutionary critique that [Marxist scholar Walter] Benjamin first envisioned for mechanically reproducible art.

A useful example of fun′ at work can be found in Raph Koster’s games. Upon the publication of A Theory of Fun for Games, many players of his most recent game, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), reviled the book in public forums and online bookseller reviews. Most of these critics responded not to the book but to Koster’s design of SWG. Along with many other massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), SWG was criticized for the tremendous amount of work required to successfully develop and advance (“level” or “level up,” in MMOG jargon) a character. This attitude is perhaps best summarized in the first comment posted alongside popular website Slashdot.org’s review of A Theory of Fun: “If Raph Koster is an expert on anything, as many Star Wars Galaxies players can attest to, it’s making a game NOT fun.”

In their analysis of sociability in SWG, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Robert J. Moore, and Eric Nickell analyze the game’s attempt to engineer social interactions. In particular, SWG attempts to recreate the “corner bar” in the form of a cantina, an abstraction of the recognizable Tatooine bar first introduced in George Lucas’s first Star Wars film. Ducheneaut et al. describe the principal function of the cantina in the game:

In the many cities of SWG . . . there is always a cantina to be found. These locations serve an important instrumental game function. Indeed, they are one of the few places where the “entertainer” character class can perform their services. Entertainers dance or play music mostly in cantinas. And as watching a dancer, or listening to a musician, are both the only ways of recuperating from “battle fatigue,” most players have to visit cantinas on a regular basis.

Koster and his team designed the cantinas to encourage downtime, requiring injured combatants to stay in the cantinas while they solicit the healing services of entertainers. But inevitably, many players use the game’s built-in macros to automate healing rather than engaging in conversation. Ducheneaut et al. call these “instrumental” players and contrast them with the “social” players who come to heal and to converse. The researchers perform an intricate quantitative analysis of unique utterances in these cantinas, finding that the majority of players use the cantinas like “battle fatigue drive-thrus,” utilities for recovering from combat.

In addition to entertainers, SWG offers another character class devoted to a noncombat profession, the artisan. Artisans are craftspeople, able to advance to professions like armorsmith, architect, tailor, or droid engineer. To create basic items, artisans must first find and extract resources and then use tools to craft artifacts. Finished products can be sold at a bazaar to other players who need armor, weapons, and the like to perform combat tasks. The bazaar serves the whole galaxy of SWG, but players do not have access to it whenever they want. To buy or sell items, players must access special terminals inside SWG cities. Brawlers and marksmen might often find themselves in SWG cities, but artisans spend much of their time searching for resources or assembling artifacts on remote planets. Artisans then must commute to cities to get their wares into the bazaar. Likewise, when a customer wants to purchase an item, he must travel to the terminal on which the item is being sold to retrieve it. In either case, artisan crafts create incentives for players to traverse the galaxy. Like the cantinas, then, the bazaar is intended as a social engineering tool, facilitating otherwise unnecessary player interactions. In practice, however, buying and selling at the bazaar requires a great deal of empty transit time, especially for artisans.

Since MMOGs often function as social spaces as much as games, it is tempting to call the cantina and bazaar design defects, failed efforts to create meaningful social spaces. The tedious, empty play that healing and commerce require seem to emulate work, not play, thus eliciting comments like that of the Slash-dot pundit. Such reactions arise mainly from the assumption that fun is a first principle of games and that SWG, as a game, must produce empty gratification.

But instead, we might think of SWG as a game that challenges certain contemporary social practices. The cantinas, filled with mindless, preprogrammed jabber, could represent a number of anonymous public social encounters; but especially it represents the unit operation of waiting tables. Etymologically, “waiter” comes from the notion of courtly attendance, as a lady-in-waiting might attend to a royal. But in more colloquial terms, waiting tables often connotes a kind of provisional occupation, a stopgap between jobs, a second job, or a supplement to other long-term work, as an actor or a student might wait tables while pursuing another more “serious” career. When considered in this context, paying a monthly subscription to perform the virtual equivalent of waiting tables in a fantasy galaxy seems rather bizarre, even perverse. But waiting tables also offers a built-in motivation—a moment-by-moment reminder and reinforcement of some external goal that justifies the job itself.

The production of such external motivation seems to be tied directly to the ambivalence of interactions between waiter and customer; although waiting tables might for some be a satisfying profession of deep interpersonal relationships, such an attitude is rare, at least in its contemporary mythology outside of high-end restaurants and clubs. Indeed, the fundamental unit operation of waiting tables needed to fulfill the waitperson’s goals outside the pub, café, or restaurant might come precisely in the form of absent, anonymous, even meaningless short-term interpersonal interactions. SWG is able to offer the apotheosis of such an experience: cantina customers controlled exclusively by simplistic preprogrammed macros meant only to service the instrumental need of healing. As a unit operation of simplistic automatism, there are few better designs than a robotic customer programmed to utter the same statement until sated. Worse yet, like a waiter, the SWG entertainer relies mostly on tips for income.

One might wonder if the SWG entertainer is actually a cynical, downtrodden player type, one meant to reveal the discouraging nature of playing the game itself and thus encourage the player to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Even within the game, an entertainer character’s player has no recourse to broader goals than the specific role in which he is cast; the game offers no recourse to a broader dream than entertaining. By drawing attention to the unit operation of the dysfunctional waiter–customer relationship, the cantina can be understood as a meditation on the budding artist’s idealistic dream in a reality of few successes.

If the cantina underscores SWG’s critique of the idealistic goals of the artist, the bazaar emphasizes the futility of a much broader array of contemporary urbanity. In their study of cantina visitation practices on two SWG planets, Ducheneaut et al. observe that SWG’s design sets up widely distributed centers of activity with large distances in between. Player cities, they observe, “are isolated in the ‘suburbs.’ If players were allowed to live in high-density apartments close (or even above) each cantina in the main cities, patterns of visits would probably change.” The difficulty in reaching cantinas could be extended to bazaar terminals, which demand similar treks across large swaths of anonymous galaxy.

Ducheneaut et al.’s observation that SWG players are “stuck in the suburbs” is a productive one. Whether or not spatial expanse was intended to enable more sociability in the game, the task of transgressing entire star systems to visit a cantina or retrieve a purchased artifact becomes a unit operation for the long-distance errand. SWG simply requires a great deal of commuting to complete simple tasks. Those of us who live or have lived in large cities are all too familiar with the dread that accompanies even the simplest of daily errands. For residents of automobile-reliant cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, simple five-mile in-town trips might entail forty-five minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic in either direction. By recreating empty commuting in a virtual space that could just as easily collapse distance infinitely, SWG enforces commuting as a prerequisite for successful commercialism.

Taken together, SWG’s cantina and bazaar culture could be taken as unit operations for one real-world referent in particular: Southern California. The region’s massive urban sprawl51 and lack of affordable housing—only 17 percent of Angelenos could afford a home in March 2005, compared with 53 percent for the rest of the nation—have forced more and more middle-class families to live increasingly farther away from their workplaces. Together, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange County, and San Diego also have the worst traffic congestion in the nation, increasing the burden of long-distance commutes. Moreover, the Hollywood film industry helps create and maintain a massive culture of waiting tables in Southern California; waiters and waitresses rank in the top ten occupations for job growth in Los Angeles County projected through 2008. When Raph Koster was named Chief Creative Officer of Sony Online Entertainment in 2003, he moved to the company’s headquarters to work on Star Wars Galaxies—in San Diego, California.

It would be inappropriate to call SWG a complete and coherent critique of contemporary Southern Californian life. But two key design innovations in the game, cantinas and bazaar terminals, serve as convincing representations of particularly salient dissatisfactions in that region. Star Wars Galaxies may not service Benjamin’s longing for artworks that serve revolutionary ends, but the game does break from its supposedly primary role as entertainment software and become social commentary. This type of experience would still count as “fun” for Koster—the player gains new knowledge about social structures through their representation as key unit operations in the game—but it is that perverse kind of fun I call fun′. It should be clear now that neither fun nor fun′ is an appropriate moniker for the sort of critical interrogation videogames like Star Wars Galaxies encourage in their players. Forcing videogames to share their potential as social critique with their potential as absent-minded distraction will inevitably constrain the power of players’ simulation fever to the game itself, rather than allowing that anxiety to play out in their daily lives.

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