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Koster: Why games teach lessons we shouldn't always heed

In his packed GDC China keynote in Shanghai, author and online game veteran Raph Koster gave a stirring discussion on the nature of games, philosophizing: "Games are more like an algorithm than anything else."

Simon Carless, Blogger

November 17, 2012

3 Min Read

In his packed GDC China keynote in Shanghai, 'A Theory Of Fun For Game Design' author and online game veteran Raph Koster gave a stirring discussion on the nature of games, philosophizing: "Games are more like an algorithm than anything else." Koster's inspiring - if somewhat tricky to write up - talk focused on why games are such fascinating beasts. Along the way, he attempted to define the unique brain-altering and emotion-triggering nature of today's video games - with some evocative success. A central tenet of Koster's talk is that humans are "better at solving problems intuitively than computers can ever be". And a lot of the problems in games are surprisingly action, puzzle, and conflict-based. Conversely, most of the tropes of non-game media may involve learning and evolving from other characters - moral stories or outcomes. But Koster rightly notes: "In games, we really don't care about learning from the monster in the RPG. Instead we just kill them all." There are other ways that games teach odd lessons. For example, you can retry as many times as you like in most games, and gradually improve your performance, with no ramifications. But, as the design veteran noted: "In the real world, you do get second chances. And [in some cases] the second try is harder." Perhaps the most piquant example Koster gave was around what F2P titles might be starting to teach us. He joked that many of today's game titles seem to be giving the message: "Oh, you have a problem? You can buy yourself out of a problem." So in microtransaction-driven games, you can always buy your way out of a problem. But Koster pointed out that in real life: "That isn't really honest…. you can spend a lot of money and not buy your way out of unhappiness." Koster did not intend this talk to be negative. He noted that games continue to amaze, and still "create art and beauty". And games - as systems - teach us to focus on complex relationships between many factors. Systemic thinking helps us analyze the world so much better. But most of all, "games tell us that problems can be solved". For most of human history, we believed that fate was behind many misfortunes. And "the idea that we can solve everything, because we've made a game [around] everything", means that games are fundamentally optimistic. Koster ended, simply: "We should not be ashamed of making entertainment, because our games are preparing… our cultures for the problems of tomorrow. Games are the medium of this century. We will matter more than the literature, than the music, than the film, than the poems for the next 100 years. Games teach us to solve the impossible… What you do, every day, as you work [creating games], is to make joy." Gamasutra is at GDC China 2012, bringing you all the latest coverage from the event. For all the lecture reports and news, head over to our main GDC China event page.

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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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