Geek Fun Isn’t Frivolous

Raph Koster is the chief creative officer of Sony Online Entertainment and the author of "A Theory of Fun for Game Design."

This week Los Angeles will be invaded by a tribe that most Americans don’t understand: gamers.

Starting on Wednesday, tens of thousands of visitors (mostly male) will slay digital dragons and spray virtual bullets, creating cacophony in downtown’s sprawling convention center. They’ll mill about hundreds of booths to check out the game industry’s latest confections, and get their picture taken with the ubiquitous “booth babes.”

It’ll be loud, occasionally crude, and certainly overwhelming to any Angeleno who stumbles into the Electronic Entertainment Games Expo (E3) looking for a boat or travel show. And here’s something that even the game tribe itself may not fully grasp: Games are this century’s most important medium.

I say “medium,” because they are a medium for art, for communications, and most critically, for teaching. According to the Entertainment Software Assn., 75% of American households now own video and computer games. The industry’s income from software alone (not counting hardware and peripherals like joysticks) is comparable to what the film industry takes in at the box office each year — which is why E3 will pack the convention center with three-story castles, realistic battleground displays and walls of drive-in-size video screens, all in the name of marketing new electronic games. And yet, like new media throughout history, games are being received with skepticism and, in some circles, outright hostility.

Let me tell you why serious people should take gaming seriously.

Over the last few decades of cognitive science, we have learned a great deal about how the mind works. Science has shown that the brain is adept at something called “chunking” — the process of building what might be called summary versions of reality. We don’t need to remember all the steps of how we drive to work, or how we get dressed in the morning. We do these tasks on a sort of autopilot, relying on the “chunk” that our brain has built for us over time. A mental model, if you will.

People are really good at pattern-matching, you see. The brain is always trying to build patterns out of the constant flow of data it receives, so that the data can be quickly applied to get the brain (and attached body) through such difficult tasks as the morning commute. Imagine if your daily morning drive were as intimidating as the first time you drove a car alone. It’s not, only because the brain has (fortunately) turned driving into a routine. This is why we can see faces in nearly anything, from stucco walls to grilled cheese sandwiches. We’re applying the mental model we learned at a very young age.

Games, too, are essentially mental models. They’re abstracted versions of reality. Their collections of rules and tokens are almost always intended to provide a crude simulation of something real — more like a cartoon of something than a photograph.

There’s a reason why children of all ages play. These abstracted mental models are powerful teaching tools. The world is a complex place, and even though our brains are excellent at teasing patterns out of the noise, we still need a leg up sometimes. We don’t master a pattern the first time we notice it; we have to practice it in order to make it routine. Everything from potty-training a child to operating heavy machinery works this way.

This is such a basic survival mechanism that our brains give us positive feedback when we engage in it. Our overarching term for this feedback is the word “fun.” It’s unfortunate that “fun” has come to be associated with frivolity, when it is in fact the reward we get for learning.

Games serve a role in this process. They provide a no-pressure context for learning complex subjects. The childhood game of Chutes and Ladders is a multidimensional map of a non-Euclidean space — that’s heady geometry for a kindergartener. Any 5-year-old will discern that tic-tac-toe, a relatively tough math problem, is a relatively silly game — long before running through its mere 125,168 possible combinations. By providing cartoon models of mathematics, physics and even social structures, games can educate in a manner that no other medium can match.

All well-designed games have this sort of complex cognitive lesson to teach, and solely on that basis, they deserve respect. Of course, this also means that it is the destiny of any given game to eventually become boring. Once the player has mastered the underlying pattern, the fun erodes. This is why most games have historically been competitive head-to-head activities, and why the big trend in video gaming is to take games online: Other players are a far richer source of complex patterns than a computer can be. Game-playing as a solitary activity is a historical aberration made possible by computers and rendered less necessary by connectivity.

The ultimate goal of a game designer is to create a rule set, a model, a simulation, that offers self-refreshing game play, to extend the cognitive challenge by presenting ever more complex patterns to absorb. There is a fundamental flaw in most games designed today: They tend to offer only one solution to a given problem. For games to mature as a medium, the models and patterns they present need to become subject to interpretation.

In other media, this is the dividing line between “art” and “entertainment.” It’s important that we recognize that Art and Entertainment are not terms of type, they are terms of intensity. All media are used for entertainment. We call something art when the pattern it presents is complex enough to challenge our worldview. That’s the sign of a mature medium, and games can get there.

There is still room to grow, however, even as educators and trainers in an array of fields are adopting games for teaching purposes. Most games shown at E3 will be teaching the same cognitive schemata as those shown last year. We won’t be seeing too many games about coping with global warming or curing cancer. Yet. As game designers realize the potential of their medium, they will start tackling more serious subjects and presenting more complex mental models. We might move from games that are like pop song lyrics to games that are more like poems.

It all rests on our learning to take games seriously. If we continue to consign them to the ghetto of frivolous playthings meant for children (fail to update our mental models, as it were), then we’ll continue to see unreasoned fear in the headlines. If we, on the other hand, learn to see games as important, we’ll open doors for both the medium and for society in general.

When you see the media blitz accompanying E3 this week, try to keep that in mind. It’ll seem crude and loud and desperate for attention. But this is a medium in its infancy, just realizing its potential, and most babies tend to make a fuss. When games grow up, they’ll help save the world.


Back To RL

A compilation of verbatim posts by videogame players to the On-Line Gamers Anonymous message board (, a group founded by a mother who blames the Sony Online Entertainment game EverQuest for the suicide of her son in 2001.

It remained in its hobby state for a while then it became a lifestyle…. The kitchen was littered with pizza boxes, cigarette butts, half eaten cans of spaghetti-o’s….

I have done no laundry since installing the game…. As for the bathroom, well, sometimes I made it and sometimes I didn’t….

I have replaced my RL [real life] friends with virtual friends…. just after xmas [my wife] left, taking my two girls, i was heart broken…. One by one I grabbed each game that I had wasted my time and potential [on] and snapped [every] single one of those things…. I am Joe, once again.