Raph Koster: ‘A Theory of Fun’ Ten Years On

Gamasutra is featuring an embedded video of Raph Koster’s talk from GDC Online 2012, in which he revisits A Theory of Fun, which was first proposed a decade ago.

At its core, Koster explained that his theory still very much holds up, as it’s largely supported by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

“If you’ve ever seen a kid first learn how to walk, the look of joy on that toddler’s face — it’s fun. They’re playing a game,” Koster said. People feel compelled to learn and play “games” like this even if we have to work hard to accomplish our goal. We want to overcome the obstacles games put in front of us simply because we’re having fun.

But where does this nebulous idea of “fun” come from? According to Koster, it’s simple: fun is the brain’s way of making us want to learn. We’re constantly learning while playing games, and the chemical reactions in our brain become a “neurochemical reward to encourage us to keep trying,” he said.

“A lot of people hate the idea that we can reduce all of this to something so mechanical,” he added. “I hate to say it, but the more science that has come out over the last ten years, the more this entire thing has been validated. There’s more and more evidence to show we do in fact engage in significant, difficult learning with games, that gamers are predisposed toward learning, that games have real therapeutic value… it’s all come true.”

Koster, of course, was the lead designer on Ultima Online, and the man behind several of the game’s innovative world simulation systems.

If you haven’t picked up and read A Theory of Fun, by the way, consider doing so. It’s a very easy stroll through game design principles, and Koster’s illustrations and gentle humour make for an engaging read.