Postcard from GDC 2005: Serious Games Summit Keynote - Raph Koster - A Theory of Fun

In the early hours of the Serious Games Summit, Sony Online's Chief Creative Officer Raph Koster talks about what games are, what games aren't, and what game designers should be doing with them as the non-gaming world takes notice.

Raph Koster, Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment was on hand to give the keynote for the Serious Games Summit on the first day of the 2005 Game Developers Conference, and gave a stirring lecture based on his wider game design theories, as espoused in his recently Gamasutra-excerpted book.

"Why are you embarrassed?" was the second question that Koster posed to the audience. The first question and the cause of their embarrassment was when he asked them to think of how they described their job to family, friends, and significant others.

He then addressed the many who were previously exposed to either his talk at the Austin Game Conference or his recently published book, saying they were out of luck in regards to redundancy. Few seemed to mind, as Koster again gave his convincing stance on games, art, and learning.

He began the slideshow accompanying his talk, which is available in another form on his website by offering examples of PopCap web-downloadable games he played and now does not touch. According to Koster's arguments, simple games like Typing Shark and Bookworm suddenly shift from fun to unplayable as soon as they're mastered. On the other end of the spectrum, extremely complex games inundate the player with their components and they, too, become unplayable. "Why is it boring when it's really easy and why is it boring when it's really hard? What's the space in the middle?"

Raph Koster speaking at GDC

Before he explored that space, however, Koster offered his views on human thought. "Humans don't really think," he says. "What we think of as thinking is a really complex use of memory." And while our memories might be very poor, "People are amazing pattern matching machines." Suddenly, twenty actions become one as the brain chunks individual pieces together. Patterns are recognized in the dataset and after the chunking, there are five to seven pieces readily available for the brain to draw on. Koster's question of "How did you get dressed this morning?" kept one audience member speechless for a few seconds, struggling to unchunk the data properly.

On one end, there are things that are so familiar that there's no need to re-burn those neural connections. On the other end, there is so much data of a quality such that the brain can't figure out how to chunk it. The cockpit of a jet aircraft or the inside of a computer are simply noise for people exposed to them for the first time. Koster is focused on creating the space between these two extremes.

"This is what we call fun," he said, "burning in those neural connections. What's fun is exercising your brain." Fun is somewhere between trying to learn what has already been chunked and learned and being totally lost in noise. He added, "Fun is fundamental to human nature and absolutely required for survival. which brings us to games."

Games, for Koster, are the cartoon version of sophisticated real-world problems. "They're

Koster's A Theory Of Fun book

like Tic Tacs." While the games might be heavily abstracted, the problems might be extremely sophisticated. "Does anyone here teach non-Euclidian geometry to four-year-olds?" This garnered a number of murmurs and laughs before he asked, "Does anyone play Chutes and Ladders with their kids?" When a significant number of hands went up, he wondered why those hands weren't raised at the earlier question. "Have you ever tried graphing Chutes and Ladders? Chutes and Ladders has wormholes!"

Koster then delved into educational possibilities of games, highlighting earlier examples along the way. Slides of Tetris, Super Mario Bros, and Unreal Tournament accompanied the possibilities of teaching spatial relationships, exploration, and aiming precisely. He proclaimed "all games are edutainment", and suggested that this should be cause for all game designers to be proud.

Koster asked that game designers be mindful of the production that dresses the games we make. "We're very good at seeing past fiction," he says. In his example of Grand Theft Auto 3, we see a power-up where the rest of the world sees the player playing with a hooker before running her over. That is a part of the optimal path, and the player inevitably does that if his goal is execution of the optimal path to the solution.

On this gap between what gamers see and what the rest of the world sees, he offered the example of Die Hard. When a member of the audience said that it is an action movie with lots of explosions, he corrected her by saying, "Die Hard is about a man trying to get back with his wife." Simiarly, The Sopranos is about a family trying to connect with each other. Designers must be very mindful of the dressing and what it communicates, especially when there is constant communication and miscommunication between gamers and non-gamers.

For those who question the possibility of games moving into the realm of art, Koster offered that it occurs at the point when it becomes subject to interpretation: we are already there; the gap between entertainment and art does not exist. "There's no difference between Friends and Lolita." Maturity, however, is a serious problem that designers must work at. "Games will never be mature as long as the designers create them with complete answers to their own problems in mind." We have to be willing to adapt to the new worlds of possibility that are presented to us as designers by the intelligent questions that we offer.

In the latter part of his lecture, Koster also mentions how games have not grown in parallel to the world we live in. No longer are we cave-dwellers living in fear or ravenous wolves, but "our games are still about wolves. where's the game about Aeron chairs?" Other possibilities he poses include what to do what the polar ice caps melt and Florida is underwater, and how to cure cancer.

The end of the session was punctuated with one question posed by a developer on this last point: How do you approach a developer with a serious and different situation like curing cancer? Koster's response was: you don't. He went back to the Die Hard example and said that you would not pitch such a movie as a story of a husband trying to get back with his estranged wife. He ended by talking about his own diabetes simulator game. It's about a sea serpent grabbing gems from the bottom of the sea. It doesn't mention things like insulin or shock, but "my daughter gets it," he said. "She doesn't need to learn about it until later. after it's fun, tell her then."


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