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Book Review: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster

On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, a new full-color edition of A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster has recently been published by O'Reilly Books. This is a book I have heard great things about over the years, but had never read before. For one thing, the idea of actually designing games was something that seemed far beyond my capabilities, and I mistakenly assumed that this book was something of a guide for designers. Still, I have always been impressed with O'Reilly Publishing, and since I am a gamer anyway, I decided to check it out. I am very happy…

Review Overview

Reviewer's Rating

Summary : In many ways, one does not need to be a gamer at all to enjoy the many charms of Raph Koster's 'A Theory of Fun for Game Design.'

User Rating: 4.7 ( 1 votes)
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imagesOn the occasion of its 10th anniversary, a new full-color edition of A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster has recently been published by O’Reilly Books. This is a book I have heard great things about over the years, but had never read before. For one thing, the idea of actually designing games was something that seemed far beyond my capabilities, and I mistakenly assumed that this book was something of a guide for designers. Still, I have always been impressed with O’Reilly Publishing, and since I am a gamer anyway, I decided to check it out. I am very happy I did, as Koster’s book offers a marvelous look at the world of gaming, and why we are so attracted to games of all types.

First of all, A Theory of Fun for Game Design has none of the technical jargon that I initially feared it would. It is actually a fascinating study of what it is about games that people find so irresistible, going all the way back to such simple diversions as tic-tac-toe. As the title implies, the end result of this journey is to design better games. Whether you actually wind up creating the next Flappy Bird is beside the point however. One of the most intriguing chapters is the fourth, titled “What Games Teach Us.” They teach us many things, perhaps the biggest being pattern recognition, which was the key to such early video game hits as Pacman and Donkey Kong.

“Games in Context” is another very intriguing chapter. As a writer, Koster has a talent for explaining abstract concepts that I found highly appealing. In this chapter he creates a box, named “Gaming in the Human Activity Matrix,” which is then broken down into three categories, “Collaborative,” “Competitive,” and “Solo.” The goals of each of these formats are then laid out. Under “Collaborative” you’ll find “Team Game Design,” under “Competitive” you’ll find “Player-vs.-Player Gaming,” and under “Solo,” “Writing This Book,” which was kind of fun.

Throughout the “Games in Context” chapter, Koster delves into the various pluses and minuses of these categories. Although he does not come right out and say it, these parameters are almost philosophical in nature. It is very easy to see these types of patterns in one’s day-to-day life outside of gaming.

Chapter 12, “Taking Their Rightful Place,” is the final chapter, and in it Koster again contextualizes games in a very straightforward and sensible manner. He has a number of thoughts on the “rightful place” of games, and two of them really stood out to me. One of these ideals is “Games need to illuminate aspects of ourselves that we do not understand fully.” And maybe even more to the point, “Games need to acknowledge their influence over our patterns of thought.”

I have tried to drop a few of the many little gems of thought that Koster has to offer about games into this review, and the hope is to pique your interest. A Theory for Fun in Game Design is filled with ideas like these, and they are fully explained over the course of the 280 pages of the book.

Although the title makes Koster’s book sound like it is a manual for game designers, the appeal of it is far broader than that, as I hope I have conveyed here. It provides some fascinating insights into the ways in which people interact. In many ways, you do not need to be a gamer at all to get something out of it. I can certainly see why it has stayed in print for 10 years, and has been reprinted in color for this second edition.

Koster’s vision is one that does not go out of style, because it is not based on a style at all. In many ways, this book is quite profound. I very much enjoyed it, and hope that others will discover its many charms as well.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    This sounds like a good game to teach different skills within variable contexts like small group collaboration, competitive modes and the individual functioning as a solo.