A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2013) by Raph Koster describes Koster’s view of what fun is and why we play computer games. Koster is a game designer and producer who worked on Ultima Online, various MUDS, Everquest and other games.
Koster’s thesis is that all games are edutainment with low stakes with rewards that tickle our fancy. It’s actually a bit limited and doesn’t really capture the breadth of different types of games and their appeal. In the book Koster himself says that revelations of story and other factors add more to games than just edutainment. If it was just the joy of learning and figuring out puzzles that appealed to people more people would do math for fun. It’s hard to say why so many people enjoy flitting around in an FPS with a story or with others but it’s odd to say it’s for edutainment.
Computer games offer such a variety of reasons that people play them. The enjoyment of quick reflexes and some thought for mastery, figuring out a complex strategic balance, the appreciation of building something that is large and complex. The revelation of an interesting story. The sense of achievement and ego flattering of completing something that is a bit challenging. But for all these differing objectives even classifying them as edutainment is a bit overly general. Why do we enjoy mastering certain activities and not others. Why should the stakes being high, as in life, make mastering things less enjoyable?
A Theory of Fun glosses over a lot of these issues. It’s almost a bit surprising that it’s held up as a great book for computer game design. It is interesting but it’s not great. It’s a bit like a book on the theory of jokes that says everything is essentially a revelation of the absurd. More is needed.