Only a Game: A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an excellent and detailed review of the book.
In keeping with past habits, that means I’ll do the improper and pointless thing and jump in and discuss it! 🙂
Koster’s view is that fun is another word for learning. However, in order to support this view, the author becomes forced into excluding any aspect of the word ‘fun’ that does not fit with his model. Koster is completely upfront about this – he suggests that taking a wider view of fun “renders the word meaningless”, and therefore focuses only on a specific definition of fun as “the act of mastering a problem mentally”. Since this is not how the rest of the world uses the word ‘fun’, I personally feel he would have done better to coin a different phrase rather than co-opting fun into a context that does not fit with how the word is conventionally used (this betrays my adherence to Wittgenstein’s thinking on language yet again).
To put this in context… I broadly define fun as the positive feedback given by the brain for cognitive learning, the process of building schemata for coping with the world. Only a Game calls this “kfun.” Along the way, I state that the following are not truly what I call fun:
- aesthetic appreciation, which I call delight, which is more the process of recognizing a pattern in the world around us
- visceral reactions, which are more about mastering autonomic reactions to stimuli
- social status maneuvers, which are about determining, enforcing, and improving one’s status in a community or social group
Now, all of these generally involve cognitive challenges as well. For example, the subtleties of social standing are an immensely complex “game” involving many rulesets, much hidden information, constantly shifting positions… very paidia, not very ludus. So there’s no doubt that navigating this game can prove a complex pattern-building challenge and therefore strigger the emotion we call “fun.”
At the same time, however, there’s a whole host of highly specific emotions triggered by social standing maneuvers; schadenfreude, kvell, naches, fiero, protectiveness, etc etc. Fun can be present, but it not always (consider the host of these emotions you get when being dragged around by your kid to an amusement park, whilst you yourself may have no fun at all).
Similarly, there’s a host of activities in which we have visceral reactions (or as Nicole calls them, altered states) and yet do not have fun. The vast majority of the altered states that are typically discussed are in fact inner ear responses: vertigo, nausea, sense of balance, sensation of falling, and so on. Seasickness has much the same effect, as does falling off a balance beam.
Again, there is a clear cognitive challenge, one in which the opponent is your own body. Mastering this particular problem domain may well be fun–riding a bike, mountain climbing, and so on–but the core challenge that is being overcome is one of correctly interpreting your body’s signals (which are, like all autonomic reactions, happening without you thinking about them) and learning to put them in context so that you can act upon them. Again, “kfun” shows up, but only sometimes.
Lastly, the trickiest one, delight. My assertion, which I am sure many non-games folks who lurk in academic areas such as art theory would like to dispute, is that delight is primarily an act of recognition. While there are many things in life which the human mind seems instinctively aware are ugly, there’s plenty of evidence that a tremendous amount of what we consider beautiful is actually learned. One merely has to watch the shifting changes in fashion to see that.
For me, the ultimate in aesthetic delight is signaled by chills down the spine. I am not exaggerating when I say that a truly powerful moment of aesthetic appreciation can be almost orgasmic in its literal physical sensation; the release of chemicals down the spinal column gives a feeling of chills that travel in waves through the body, with a tingling sensation. It can come in multiple waves, or just one, and the wave may be of varying strength depending on the intensity of the experience.
Now, looking at when this particular experience is obtained, a few things stand out to me. First, it is generally but not always orchestrated by an artisan of some sort. Second, it carries with it a strong feeling of inevitability. Third, it carries with it a certain level of surprise, of pushing the audience to an understanding or perspective they did not previously have in the forefront of their mind.
Inevitability married to surprise–how does that work? Well, to me it seems that what is happening is a careful presentation of one pattern of reality, followed by a shift in perspective that puts that pattern in a different and yet still valid context. And this is why I say it’s an act of recognition.
Can it be accompanied by kfun? Absolutely. As you can tell, I tend to think that kfun lurks everywhere. That’s why I privileged it with being just fun. Many of those moments of recognition may come only because throughout the process of absorbing the pattern, you have been forced to add to it. The moment of the shift in perspective may be one where you must learn the new pattern, and not merely recognize it. It might “blow your mind,” which we might take as a colloquial statement of “it was both aesthetically appealing and it taught me something.”
Now, some minor points…
The review states that I equate Lazzaro’s concept of “hard fun” as being literally Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow.” Yeah, I shouldn’t equate them. Nicole herself does emphasize the importance of flow in “hard fun” but does not equate them. I am just tired of people saying that “flow” = “fun” so I probably overemphaiszed the point.
I am intensely curious as to the meaning of this comment: “…in accepting the value of the fun of learning (kfun) he rules out to some extent having fun just for the sake of it…” Can you clarify?
Lastly, I don’t see myself as being exclusively fighting on the front of “defend the industry against those who would muzzle it” nor “push the industry to expand its reach,” nor would I think that Sheri would think of herself that way either. In some fundamental ways, those are the same battle, though the tactics may differ.
In any case, I shall definitely have to hurry up and read 21st Century Game Design; the level of thought that went into this review definitely makes me look forward to the book.