GDC Online 2012: Raph Koster's keynote on a Theory of Fun, 10 years later

Karen Bryan
K. Bryan|10.11.12

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GDC Online 2012: Raph Koster's keynote on a Theory of Fun, 10 years later
GDC Online 2012  Raph Koster's keynote on a Theory of Fun, ten years later
Ten years ago at GDC, Raph Koster gave a talk called A Theory of Fun. The presentation turned into a book, and after a series of printings and reprintings, that book has arguably become the best-selling game design book of all time. At GDC Online this week, Koster revisited his Theory of Fun to look at what still applies and what's changed. Read on for highlights from this GDC keynote address.

The Theory of Fun was the centerpiece of the talk, but Koster actually began with a dialogue between himself and a sketch of Chris Crawford, who is remembered for his "Dragon Speech" at GDC in 1992. Crawford he ended that speech by charging out of the room, Don Quixote-style, to take on the dragon, which he said was the concept of video games as a form of art. His charge out of the room was also memorable because it was his departure from the industry itself.

Koster used his dialogue with Crawford as a starting point for taking us on his own personal journey to explore games, fun, and learning. Along the way, we were introduced to a cast of notable game developers and researchers who have influenced his views, and he gives credit to those who have made an impact to the larger discussion of games. From Nicole Lazzaro's categories of fun to Jane McGonigal's idealistic value of gamification in life to Ian Bogost's staunch disagreement with Koster, we were shown how major figures in the industry have shaped his view since his original talk.

At the start of his talk, Koster explained that his Theory of Fun speech was actually given just as he was coming off of Star Wars Galaxies, which some critics said wasn't as fun as it should have been. As a result, he felt he had lost touch with the heart of games. He went on to explore the connection between learning and fun, using a blend of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to shape his philosophy. He explained how theorists have traditionally tried to separate games from play but that in fact there's no dichotomy at all because you're mastering systems and learning along the way. Everything that's a system can be approached as a game, and much of the fun in games is about recognizing and matching patterns. He added that fun is bumping against the top of what you can do and maybe even moving the margin up. But the word fun doesn't accurately describe what he's defining, so he used the term kfun to sum up the dopamine release that occurs while we experience fun. Our thirst for knowledge and our curiousity about the world can trigger this dopamine release in our brains. However, this dopamine release can be exploited, so Koster believes game designers have an enormous responsibility when it comes to designing their games.

As he talked about the science behind the Theory of Fun, he said it's led to him wanting to create a grammar of games because there are games out there (he points to Dear Esther as one example) that don't necessarily feel "gamey." He explained how his work on EverQuest II's crafting system was his attempt to take the traditional click and combine system and make it something more substantial. His team looked at MMO combat, broke it up into pieces, and used it to create a much more in-depth system of crafting, something that he described as problem, prep, a core mechanic, and an end result.

GDC Online 2012  Raph Koster's keynote on a Theory of Fun, ten years later
He went on to describe how he started to see the whole world as math, and that didn't sit well with him. Games quantify, but you can't make a game about the taste of a peach or shades of grey. He's a poet, with the sheepskin to prove it, and he's dismayed at how games have drifted away from art and toward the realm of entertainment. A game as entertainment basically "plays you -- and plays you for money," he argued. "It's lazy, and it makes you lazy."

Meanwhile, games and reality have begun to blur, and he points to Facebook as an example of the gamification of life. He asked, should we put this tool down? Should we treat life as a game?

In the end, in a game, you can walk away but also learn something -- joyously. You learn happiness, gratitude, generosity, mindfulness, and optimism; you use strengths, make social connections, strive for goals, and increase the good while reducing the bad. When games are at their best, they do this. That pursuit of happiness in games is enough for Raph Koster.

As he finished up his talk, Chris Crawford's sketched-out image popped back up on the slide and asked, "Done yet?" Koster said yes, and the next slide was a sketch of Crawford saying, "Charge!" It's unclear whether Koster was signaling his own shift away from the industry, but as the final slide showed, A Theory of Fun is a culmination of ideas from a vast variety of designers and researchers spanning multiple disciplines and will no doubt continue to inspire the industry for years to come.

Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!
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