A Modder’s Perspective: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster

Games are fundamentally important to society. You and I might know this but a lot of people dismiss them as frivolous, childish pursuits that people are supposed to grow out of. Even people who enjoy them might undervalue them – or just not really understand why fun and games aren’t just important for psychological wellbeing but vital to human development as a whole. As game theory develops, says Koster in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, the central component of “fun” is being lost – and with it, the very essence of what games by their nature are trying to achieve.

Games are Education. Raph Koster – the former Sony Online executive who previously developed Ultima Online – says that games aren’t a medium at all, but just a broad facet of a defined pedagogical structure. The medium – which doesn’t seem to have a name – includes fire drills and tabletop disaster recovery exercises. Play, whether it’s playing cops and robbers in the back garden as children or deciding which team-mate to save in Mass Effect, is our brain’s essential What If impulse. We put ourselves instinctively through simulations from infancy onwards because each game has a lesson to teach us and it is through this that we learn and develop. The lesson might not be obvious: GTA IV is not teaching us how to murder criminals, but rather how to judge time and space in the driving. The lesson is the same as the Snake game you get on old mobile phones.

Koster suggests that through this system of practicing and learning, we use and even rewire our brains to help us to solve problems, and our brain rewards us for our efforts with endorphins when we succeed. This is why we enjoy playing games, and the essential driver of that enjoyment is of keeping the problems challenging and exciting but recogniseable enough for us to think we can succeed. Our brains make us seek the quickest, simplest solution – even if that’s “cheating” – and will tell us to give up if we predict failure in our next attempt. The role of the designer is to keep the challenges unpredictable so that the player thinks that they might succeed. A guaranteed outcome is boring, whether that’s to win or lose.

So how does that apply to mods?

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