Implicit Game Aesthetics (2): Costikyan’s Critical Language
Implicit Game Aesthetics (4): Cook's Chemistry

Implicit Game Aesthetics (3): Koster’s Theory of Fun

A Theory of FunIn a recent discussion of the phenomenon of declaring certain things "aren't games", game designer Raph Koster approaches his definition of 'game' not with the properties of artefacts that qualify as games but with the player's activity positioned as the central point of interest:

Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.

Putting the player first in this definition seems to prioritise the play over the game, but this sentence conceals an opposite (but complementary) stance by concluding that the player's actions take place "within a framework that is a defined systemic model". The entire definition could therefore be run backwards as "a game is a defined systemic model within the framework of which players face a (possibly algorithmic) opponent who presents statistically varied challenge situations the player solves". Since the purpose of the current enquiry is to uncover aesthetic assumptions about games, the final clause appears to be the decisive factor, although there is no explicit system of priorities as is found in Crawford's taxonomy. Once again, the victory ("challenge situations") and conflict ("presented by an opponent") aesthetics appear central, and the phrase "statistically varied" may be a pointer towards the uncertainty aesthetic we will explore later. Koster's unique contribution, when compared to Crawford and Costikyan, is the explicit focus placed upon the systems aesthetic that was foreshadowed in Costikyan's allusions to resource management.

What the systems aesthetic excludes are kinds of play that lack any kind of formal definition. Children's games of make believe, on this reading, do not qualify as games because they are not formally specified (hence they are play, but not games). However, Koster could presumably argue that there is a defined systemic model in place here by arguing along similar lines to Bernard Suits' open games (which we will explore later) or by formally defining make-believe games in manner similar to Kendall Walton's acceptance principle or something like it. The systems aesthetic is incredibly wide compared to the victory and conflict aesthetics, but of course Koster also includes these, thus contracting his space of interest to the point that the systemic model requirement almost ceases to contribute anything additional. A spontaneous race between two joggers might qualify as challenge with an opponent but not qualify as occurring under a defined systemic model, but this would very much depend upon whether Koster intends to include activities that can be modelled systemically but which aren't thought this way by their players. Since any activity can be systemically modelled, it seems reasonable to presume a definition in advance is what is intended by Koster's wording.

Of course, what a game designer does in a great many projects is precisely the creation of these kinds of systemic definitions, so favouring the systems aesthetic is arguably to valorise the contribution that game designers make to a game. However, it is broadly the case in both videogames and boardgames that the kinds of systems in use become engrained in the culture that plays and makes those games. For instance, the fundamental systemic elements of first person shooters changed only marginally between Quake (id Software, 1996) and Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001), and similarly between Halo and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007). There was no redesign of the systemic elements involved, only modifications to interface efficiency (e.g. Bungie's abandoning of clunky weapon inventories for a simpler two-gun system) and enhancements to multiplayer (e.g. Infinity Ward's importing of experience point mechanics from RPGs). The bottom-up design of complete game systems is rare outside of very decision-centric kinds of games (e.g. strategy games, computer RPGs), and it is possibly the case that the systems aesthetic expresses a preference for these kinds of games – Crawford echoes this sentiment when he calls Costikyan's allusion to resource management "a strategy gamer's approach to the problem". The fact that the vast majority of game designers fit personality inventory archetypes associated with strategic thinking is probably no coincidence.

However, Koster's definition is only a part of his aesthetic judgement concerning games. In his justly acclaimed book A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2005), pictured above, Koster provides a definition of fun in which he expressly excludes all manner of experiences as fun. For instance, rollercoasters only provide "visceral fun" and are thus 'not fun' according to Koster's approach. Here we can see value judgements coming to bear on the aesthetics of play not from the conceptual approach to 'game' but from the conceptualisation of 'fun'. That Koster excludes all kinds of "visceral fun" as being fun is one of the strangest value judgements in the entire discourse of game studies, since to a great many players these kinds of experience are the very essence of fun. Instead, Koster positions learning as the central experience of fun, stating:

Games are puzzles to solve, just like everything else we encounter in life [and] serve as very fundamental and powerful learning tools.

This seems on the surface to be a value judgement in respect of problem solving that has already been collected under the aforementioned problem aesthetic, but Koster's also has a distinctly new contribution: it is not the puzzle or problem or decision that is important, it is the learning. He is willing to combine goal-oriented games and "playing make-believe" under a category he defines as "iconified representations of human experience that we can practice with and learn patterns from" i.e. he is happy to unify all forms of play under the auspices of learning – although he can only achieve this by dismissing, a priori, any kind of play or fun that does not fit this description as "visceral". Even though it does not appear directly in his definition of game, Koster advances a learning aesthetic that is relatively unique in the literature, and quite popular among the game studies community. This learning aesthetic is intimately related to the problem aesthetic, which Koster occasionally promotes directly e.g.:

All art and all entertainment are posing problems to the audience.

At other times, he stresses the learning aesthetic more directly:

The definition of a good game is therefore "one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing". That's what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.

I have found (unsurprisingly) that teachers of games courses are particularly satisfied with this approach! However, it is deeply problematic to claim that the learning aspect of play is fundamental to games while also recognising (as Koster does) that this learning aspect is central to life and cognition in any context. That our neural architecture learns from all experiences is not a statement about play or games but merely an observation about neurobiology. Not all fun is about learning, as Koster admits by segregating "visceral fun", and if we redefine 'fun' so that it is just about learning then we are left with a vacant tautology. Koster even strays into metaphysics to defend his position, claiming: "Play developed to teach us about survival." This teleological claim is not empirically grounded and is either untestable or simply incorrect (for more on this kind of statement, see my forthcoming book The Mythology of Evolution). Koster is correct that games can be powerful learning tools, and makes many cogent observations in this regard, including the correct linking of the reward chemical dopamine to learning. Still, to make learning the central feature of games is an aesthetic value judgement, particularly since many players (unlike many game designers) do not enjoy learning when it is challenging but only when it is fun (in the wider sense) or interesting to them as individuals. This argues against a strong identification between fun and learning.

That Koster's position involves an aesthetic choice can be seen clearly in his condemnation of players who are enjoying playing but are not learning, as the following quote demonstrates:

Going back through defeated challenges in order to pass time isn't a productive exercise of your brain's abilities. Nonetheless, lots of people do it... But once you get past the point of doing something perfectly, do yourself a favour and quit the game.

Why should players stop doing what they are enjoying just because they aren't learning? Unlike Koster, and those who share his aesthetic tastes, there are many players for whom the exercise of mastery is more fun than learning, and perhaps also more fun than conflict or strict victory. This mastery aesthetic is not something anyone has espoused via a definition of game, to my knowledge, but it can be found among players and is distinct from both the victory aesthetic, which takes pleasure only in beating the challenges, and from the learning aesthetic since it valorises not the process of gaining perfection but the perfection itself. That this approach to play exists is not disputed by Koster – "lots of people do it" – it is simply his value judgement that this kind of play is inferior because it does not entail learning.

Next week: Cook's Chemistry


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"This mastery aesthetic is not something has espoused via a definition of game ... ."

I think there's a route to a mastery aesthetic through Csikszentmihalyi's ideas of flow. Quoting from my work-in-progress book on play:

Flow occurs when there’s a careful balance between skills and challenges. But there are broad bands of playful activity on both sides of the narrow flow channel. On the high end we find the “learning”-dominated play that Koster has identified in A Theory of Fun: Challenges are difficult, the potential for frustration is high, cruxes occur often, and the player is continually updating his internal constraints to adapt to new situations. On the low end we find the “doing”-dominated experience identified by Myers: Challenges are easy, the potential for satisfaction is high, cruxes are rare, and the player’s internal constraints remain mostly stable.

It’s important to recognize that all of the experiences across this continuum are viable forms of play. Sometimes all we want out of a game is a few minutes of mindless button-mashing. We don’t want to be challenged to reconfigure our internal constraints; we just want to perform a familiar action in a familiar context that promises a strong possibility of a desirable outcome. And the flipside is also true. Sometimes the familiar and comfortable are boring. We want to be stretched and frustrated and prodded to learn new things about the game and about ourselves.

(Myers refers to David Myers.)

I completely agree with you about the problems inherent in Koster's definition of fun. You're having fun even though you're not learning anything? Well you shouldn't! I think that anything that purports to be a "theory of fun" needs to account for fun as we encounter it in the real world, not merely fun as we would like it to be.

I think partially where Koster is coming from is a utilitarian stance where works of art are justified by the ends they achieve. It's not enough for us to enjoy playing a game -- the game must somehow improve us through the playing. You see this stance a lot with "high art" like classical music. You don't go to the symphony for fun, you go because it makes you a better person.

I'd suggest that perhaps Koster has adopted this stance as part of a strategy to bring games into the fold with other contemporary forms of "high art". Great Works (tm) edify us, so if we want our games to be accepted as Great Works (tm), then we must demonstrate how they function as engines of edification.

My personal view is that this therapeutic stance toward "high art" is the last death gasp of a 19th century ideal of artistic connoisseurship that was itself a response to shifting business models that allowed the middle-class a say in artistic production. "High art" was an attempt to carve out a realm of cultural production that was immune/indifferent to scruffy popular taste. The justification for elevating "high art" over popular culture rests on several claims, one of which is the idea that "high art" is better for people to consume than the common trash you see on teevee or hear on the radio. And so, 100 years later we see ambitious middle-class parents earnestly playing Mozart recordings to their infants.

Personally, I disagree that games should aspire to be "high art", mainly because I believe that games are one of the sledgehammers we should use to destroy "high art" as a cultural construct ... .

But I digress.

In any case ... excellent post! I'm eagerly looking forward to more ... .

This is a wonderful series. :)

A few random notes...

- I do believe that socially constructed ad hoc games happen all the time around tea parties, make believe, impromptu races, etc. One of the most interested things about games and game rules is that often the vast majority of the rules are implicit (as Salen and Zimmerman explain). I tend to think of a lot of things that we consider "free form play" as having a lot MORE rules in their model, rather than less.

- visceral fun, delight, social fun, and "real fun" are just my restatement of Nicole Lazzaro's four types of fun (which she derived empirically using cluster analysis of microexpressions during play). You can directly equate her "hard fun" to what I call "fun" in my book. So "visceral" just means the fun ascribed to physical reactions such as vertigo, etc. That said, I do think that there is a mastery element in mastering one's own physical reactions that is in effect a defined systemic model with which to interact.

- As far as the tautology... looking at fun that way is not intended to serve as definitional for games. Rather, say that fun can be found in plenty of places outside of games; but games are constructs intended to directly evoke fun. They are constructs intended to create the learning loop that you are about to discuss in the context of Dan Cook's work.

- I do think there is scientific evidence that play is used as a survival strategy in evolutionary terms, but we can agree to disagree on that. It's more at the level of hypothesis than theory.

- As far as many players not enjoying challenging learning... basically, the book argues that this is going to be the case for any given cognitive challenge, that it will fall on a spectrum between noise and obvious. Something too close to the noise end is what people consider "challenging learning."

- I did write on the issue of playing games for exercise of mastery here:

In short: you can keep playing to keep climbing into more and more obscure challenges (speed runs, style points, etc), or you may do it for purely meditative reasons. And you are right, there is absolutely an implicit aesthetic judgment there. I essentially believe playing-for-learning to be "deliberate practice" in the Ericsson sense ( Games are in some sense "deliberate practice machines."

All this stuff is intimately tied in with the game grammar stuff and so I am eagerly awaiting your breakdown on Dan's material. :)


I love your description of the different experiences in Csikszentmihalyi's Flow channel - I have often felt that people misunderstand Flow by treating it as the target state for players, and not recognising that different players enjoy experiences at different positions within this channel - your prose makes this wonderfully clear.

What is this book you're working on? When's should we expect it on the shelves? :)

Raph: thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! And very relieved to know that you're enjoying this series! The piece covering your work was one in particular that I felt did a 'certain violence' to your actual views, and I'm glad of your comments in this respect to help redress the balance.

"I tend to think of a lot of things that we consider 'free form play' as having a lot MORE rules in their model, rather than less."

I know what you mean here - there's a background of understanding that makes playing these games possible, and if you were to model it as a system it would require a lot more rules than most games-as-such do! :)

"You can directly equate [Lazzaro's] "hard fun" to what I call "fun" in my book."

Unfortunately, Nicole's model conflates two distinct (but related!) play experiences under Hard Fun - what I'm calling here the victory and the problem aesthetic - precisely because the corresponding microexpressions match. I find it helpful to tease these apart.

"I do think there is scientific evidence that play is used as a survival strategy in evolutionary terms, but we can agree to disagree on that. It's more at the level of hypothesis than theory."

I never agree to disagree! >:) I'll happily agree that our disagreement would require more time to thrash out than either of us can spare, though... In brief, my claim is that demonstrating that play is adaptive is not sufficient to demonstrate it is an adaptation - but there's no reason to pursue this point further. :)

"All this stuff is intimately tied in with the game grammar stuff and so I am eagerly awaiting your breakdown on Dan's material. :)"

Alas, I spent most of my time digging into the relationship between Dan's position and Biederman and Vessel work on endomorphin - there's undoubtedly so much more I could do that I didn't have time for this time around.

Many thanks for your comment - much appreciated!

It's called The Aesthetics of Play. I'm in the middle of revising it after getting reader reports back from the publisher last year. Hopefully it will be ready to send out again by the end of summer.

It uses games as a jumping-off point for developing a play-based critical theory that I then extend to other forms of cultural activity. In particular I take a long look at how narratives conform to the same design constraints as other play spaces. The original goal of the book was to create a unifying discourse that allows us to analyze the interrelationships between stories and games: How do stories structure gameplay and how do rules tell stories?

However, in the process of writing, the scope expanded. I discovered that the critical framework I had developed to understand play could also be used to self-referentially analyze critical analysis. In other words, any critical discourse can itself be analyzed as a play field with certain restrictions and affordances that structure the sorts of interpretive moves that you can make within it.

Hence my particular enthusiasm for this series of blog posts ... :-)

BTW ... on the "Is play adaptive?" front ... in the book I argue that play isn't necessarily adaptive, but that it is a necessary side effect of an evolutionarily-grounded epistemology. In other words, we don't play to survive. We play as an unavoidable consequence of how human brains construct knowledge ... which is itself necessary for survival.

@all: thank you for this inspiring disussion -- maybe you care to answer an additional question from my side:

How do you qualify or describe (a) "actively playing a musical instrument" and (b) "listening to someone else play an instrument" from a theoretical point of view?

@all: oh, and as a follow-up: how does "singing" compare to "playing a musical instrument"?

I think a problem with drawing strict lines of what qualifies as a game or not is the fact that nothing in this world is safe from being turned into a game. One may say that x is not a game, but voila, you come across a use of x that leaves no doubt that is has turned into a game. It makes more sense to try to understand what causes this shift that takes something's x'ness and turns it into a game. The Russian Formalists recognized a similar problem early on when they tried to understand what differentiates the poetic use of language from "ordinary" uses. They concluded that the issue wasn't to define "Poetry", but rather the "poetic". They arrived at the notion of "ostronenie" (defamiliarization).

In a 1955 article, Gregory Bateson puts forward an idea about the "ludic", and what he sees there is in my opinion also a sort of defamiliarization, the re-interpretation of things outside of their ordinary/familiar use. Bateson describes the ludic as a paradox being put forward, one similar to the Epimenides (or Liar's) paradox: In play, a bite does not stand what a bite stands for, and what it stands for is something fictional.

In order to make the ludic to work at all, a dislocation and re-contextualisation of real-life or fictional elements on the proposers side, has to be met with a number of denials at the level of reality by the addressees. Bateson believes that the initiating act on the proposers side qualifies as a meta-language; whereas the latter, the over-looking of a rift in regard to reality so that verisimilitude can be achieved, has been called schize by many: Lacan, Deleuze & Guattari, Bonitzer etc.

What does it mean to propose to take a playful stance? It means to maintain a meta-language that aims at cueing addressees into using humans (including themselves) and objects in a way that implies a metaphorical use of them in an invented world that materializes as implied or manifest rules and procedures are put into motion.

Anything could be subject to this, and any medium could be used to propose or follow the ludic stance. (That why I said earlier that games aren't media.)

@translucy -- Playing a musical instrument may or may not be playful depending on the context of the performance. If your only goal is satisfying the needs of the audience, then your moment-to-moment interpretive choices may be so constrained that play is impossible. However, the situation is different if you're playing for your own enjoyment (or are able to slip into that mindset while playing for others).

One form of performer play is analogous to the simon-says gameplay we see in games like Guitar Hero. The "game" is to nail all the notes in the score and winning results when the piece is played perfectly.

However, a far more interesting type of performer play is interpretive play. In interpretive play the goal is to construct an interesting performance out of the notes on the page, not by playing them literally and perfectly, but by subtly tweaking your cadence, attack, timbre, and volume to produce a particular effect. The notes are a set of rules that must be obeyed, and the challenge is to weave your way through them in an original and interesting way. It's fun the way that moving elegantly through the levels in a platformer is fun.

Audience play relies heavily on the construction of anticipatory frameworks that the succeeding notes in the performance either confirm or contradict. We hear melodies, not isolated notes, and embedded within melodies are interpretive expectations. The anticipatory play of a musical performance is similar to the chains of anticipatory play we engage in between moves in a chess match. We're not interacting with the system between moves, we're sifting through potentialities, which is fun in and of itself. Music compensates for the lack of interaction by ratcheting up the fluctuations in the state of the system, forcing our anticipatory play to hurry to keep up.

However, unlike most games, the anticipatory frameworks we construct when we're listening to music are not concerned with directing the composition to a particular goal. We're not trying to "win" the concert. Rather we're trying to navigate the constraints of the sounding phenomena such that we can bring our own anticipatory play to a clean ending. We're working to arrive at a settled state of affairs where further anticipatory chains seem superfluous. In literature we call this closure, in music resolution. This is why it's so jarring when a melody cuts off abruptly.

Singing is just as much a form of play is playing an instrument -- i.e. maybe it is, depending on the context.

It's interesting you should bring music into the discussion. My wife is a professor of music history at UCLA and over the last few years she's been borrowing a lot of the language from my work on play and using it in her classes. Play theory maps onto music-making particularly well.

Brian: thanks for sharing your views. And what a lucky coincidence that you can share first-hand experience in this field. (Btw, may I ask if you play an instrument yourself?)

My inspiration for this question comes from listening to a radio interview with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. There she spoke about the deep experience she has while playing, esp. with regard to experiencing herself, the violin and the space around her. Probably also related to experiencing Flow during performances. What is your view here: is Flow experience related to virtousity in music-making?

With regard to singing, and starting from the idea of "bodily experience", I am not sure that there should be no difference between making music within your own body or with an artefact outside your body. I wonder if the feedback loop mechanism you also seem to referring to does in fact depend on what sensory systems are involved in the process.

Apologies to all for taking a week to get back to this - had some annual leave booked around a long weekend, so I've been out of commission for a while. :)

Brian: your book sounds marvellous, and very much in synch with where my head is right now. :) I'm particularly interested in your unification of narratology and ludology - I have danced around this because I didn't want to do the necessary reading to construct this suture. I like the idea someone might have done it for me. :)

"BTW ... on the "Is play adaptive?" front ... in the book I argue that play isn't necessarily adaptive, but that it is a necessary side effect of an evolutionarily-grounded epistemology. In other words, we don't play to survive. We play as an unavoidable consequence of how human brains construct knowledge ... which is itself necessary for survival."

I argue somewhat similarly in Imaginary Games. Since the core elements of play are an inevitable consequence of behavioural neurology, it doesn't make much sense to think of it as an adaptation, no matter how adaptive it may be.

Send me your proofs when you get them - you might well get an endorsement out of me. :)

Altugi: this is just one more example of the incredible quality of comments I get here. :) Thank you for sharing this!

translucy: the relationship of music to play is something I find deeply intriguing, but which I usually try and stay out of because although I have some dabbling in music (as a choral singer and as a drummer/percussionist) I am at best on the fringes of this field. But I do believe that music is an imaginative experience, and as such I do believe that both performing and listening to music is a form of play. Music can also be played with a variety of different play aesthetics - to deliver on a score perfectly is a kind of victory-aesthetic, for instance.

The distinction between singing and playing a musical instrument to me is fairly trivial - prosethetics (e.g. musical instruments in this case) become an extention of the body anyway.

Interesting side line!

@translucy -- I don't play an instrument. A lot of my theorizing about music is, in fact, my wife's theorizing about music using critical tools she's borrowing from me! (She was a semi-pro singer before becoming a professor, so she's able to talk about the experience of music-making first-hand in a way that I can't ... .)

I suspect flow is a part of a great deal of music-making ... virtuoso or not ... .

@Chris -- I'm just starting reading Imaginary Games. I expect you'll probably wind up getting cited once or twice in the rewrite ... .

Brian: that would be totally awesome! I'm a complete whore for citations, and I'd love to be cited for 'Imaginary Games'. :)

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