Foundations: What’s a Game?

I want to start this article with a big fat disclaimer: I’m no academic. I’m not interested in deep chin-scratching debate about academic topics - especially game design! I’m a hands-on practical “gimmie-what-I-can-use” kinda guy.

With that disclaimer in place, let’s tackle two of the more academically debated game design questions:
  • What is a game?
  • What is fun?
So why ask such fundamental questions? The better you understand what you’re making, and what you’re trying to elicit, the more successful a designer you’re likely to be! So let’s get started.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design

Thankfully, I discovered Raph Koster’s “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” early in my design career. In it, Raph answers these questions, and others, rather brilliantly (also with cute drawings). I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of his excellent book if you’re serious about game design. To give you some idea how strongly I believe in it, it’s mandatory design reading at Halfbrick. (And no, I get no kick-back from pushing this book.)

I should stress that there are also plenty of alternate answers to these question, put forward by very intelligent people. As with any design topic, I recommend you keep reading, keep searching and keep experimenting until you find what works for you.

So! I’m assuming you haven’t read A Theory of Fun yet, so let’s peek under the covers...

What is a game?

Games are puzzles to solve, just like everything else we encounter in life. They are on the same order as learning to drive a car, or pricking up the mandolin, or learning your multiplication tables. ...The only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower with games. ...

In other words, games serve as very fundamental and powerful learning tools. It’s one thing to read in a book that “the map is not the territory” and another to have your armies rolled over by your opponent in a game. When the latter happens, you’re gonna get the point even if the actual armies aren’t marching into your suburban home. - Raph Koster
sweet nephew
So what’s really fascinating about games is that they’re all about learning; they’re providing you with something new to learn in the same way that taking up a new hobby or learning an instrument does. Games are captivating because their teaching is stimulating!

Learning is FUUNNNN...

Racing games challenge you to learn how to handle a race car. Chess challenges you to learn to think strategically and consider potential threats. First person shooters challenge you to learn how to navigate 3d spaces, train your hand-eye coordination, manage ammunition, choose the right weapons, assess threats, work as part of a team etc. etc... Mature genres like shooters and RTS build on what’s taught in earlier titles in the genre. But even the earliest games, like Pong, are about learning something as simple as manoeuvring a paddle to rebound a ball to try and outfox your opponent.

Some deceptively simple games, like Angry Birds, provide far more interesting learning than some of their AAA brethren - especially if the AAA game is a copy-cat military shooter that brings nothing new to the table! You’ll find your brain craves the simple pleasures of learning over the whiz bang graphics and cinematic set-pieces.

Learning to ride
“Okay okay...” you say, rudely interrupting my train of thought - “If games are all about learning, how come school sucks so much?” This is a totally valid question and just illustrates how much more entertaining schooling really should be. The simple answer is that your brain probably didn’t enjoy everything you were taught at school. There would have been times at school when a tricky concept clicked, and you finally understood and felt awesome! Or perhaps it was the first time you rode a bike on your own? Maybe when you karate chopped through your first piece of innocent wood? Oddly enough, it all comes down to whether your brain feels what you’re learning is useful for your survival...

Learning for survival!?

Stuntman - IMG_8329
So your brain wants you to survive - that makes sense.

To survive you need to know how to handle lots of situations. You need to know that fire burns, snakes bite, uncooked chicken is dangerous and coconuts fall from trees. Evolutionarily speaking, It’s helpful to know how to catch and kill your dinner, reproduce and learn how to copy a friend’s coconut cracking technique. Your brain would be wise to encourage you to keep learning these things!

As it turns out, when you learn something meaningful, you brain rewards you with a burst of endorphins. Endorphins create the rush you feel when you learn something new - it feels nice, and usually makes you smile. It’s your brain’s way of saying “Good job! That nifty skill may come in handy some day!” In contrast, learning how to fill out your tax return offers no such rewards (assuming you’re not an accountant...).

So, what is fun?

Fun from games arises out of master. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

In other words, with games, learning is the drug. - Raph Koster
Fun is your brain rewarding you for learning something valuable. For successfully applying some knowledge you’ve learnt to overcome an obstacle. Sound like something you may have experienced playing Mario? Or Zelda? Maybe Metroid? Take a minute to consider some of your favourite games, and what learning (fun) you might have been experiencing...

Don’t just keep reading - do it! :)
Learning in progress!
This learning also explains why playing a game through a second time just isn’t as fun - you’ve already learnt what the game has to teach! It’s also interesting to consider that games like chess are only as entertaining as your opponent - the fun is in learning how your opponent operates within the rules of the game.

Not all games are fun...

It’s worth pointing out that not all games are fun. Duh!

There are a myriad of reasons why a game may fail to provide entertaining learning, the most common of which is the game being too simple (Tic Tac Toe) or too damn complicated (Albert Enistein’s Light-Speed Calculus Boogie). The game must be matched to the player’s skills, and learning capability, to be engrossing.


Games are interesting in that they seem to hotwire the brain - a lot of the skills learnt playing games won’t actually be useful in your life outside games - and yet we still have fun playing.... Go figure!

With any luck, this article will have altered your understanding of what a game is, and why it’s fun. It’s quite an adjustment to realise that we appreciate games in such an odd manner - and yet it’s incredibly exciting to know that our brains are knowledge connoisseurs who see through flashy graphics and digital clevage, right to the heart of a game! As designers, it’s also liberating to know that a game can be simple to the eye, and still provide the brain plenty of juicy learning to keep it coming back for more...

I’ve only scratched the surface of A Theory of Fun! If you haven’t already begged, borrowed or stolen a copy, you can dip your toes in with this excerpt.



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