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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 21 May 2005
This book succeeds in so many ways, and fails in others.
The book essentially uses all its pages to explain that fun arises out of a player "grokking" (i.e. understanding) a pattern. When they know the pattern too well, they become bored. When they can't get the pattern at all, they become frustrated. The challenge in game design is to continually provide new patterns to learn, and ones that aren't too hard. If you provide easy patterns, you should move on to a new pattern quickly.
The book itself is an easy, and fun, read and does well on the coffee table despite the soft cover binding, but it fails to deliver any specific knowledge on how to progress from "make patterns the player can learn" to "this is how you do it in a game".
Instead it becomes somewhat preachy and argues that game designers ought to design the next "Mona Lisa" game or the next "Lolita" game ... which I suppose should be taken to mean a game that challenges and grows the player instead of just running the same old "open door, kill enemy" pattern. True as this might be, the blame for bland game designs ought to be put at the door of risk-averse publishers, not designers lack of imagination.
In conclusion, the book offers some insight, but it is in no way a cookbook on how to design fun and it fails to deliver anything to the almost academic debate on what "fun" is. The reader, then, should decide if that should be considered a plus or negative.
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on 16 October 2005
This is an extraordinarily accessible book from one of the few game designers who not only thinks deeply about the design process but is able to articulate it in a form that both enlightens and humbles the reader.
The first thing you notice when you pick up A Theory of Fun is that there is a sharp division to it: the left-hand pages are text and the right-hand pages are pictures, with very little overlap. You are going to prefer one of these to the other - I guarantee it. What's more, in reading the book you'll get an inkling of why; it operates at many more levels than its cheerful veneer would suggest.
The basic premise is that games are important. They're important because the brain is a highly efficient machine for recognising patterns, delivering pleasure when you learn new patterns. Games provide a context for recognising patterns where there is no external pressure to do so; this is what people call "fun".
The argument develops that games are also an art form. If people are learning things from playing them, then those who create games in some way determine what is learned. However, although many game designers do have an implicit understanding of what they're designing, few (if any) have an explicit enough understanding to reason about the design process itself. To be able to discuss what is in effect an internalised process, they need a theory of game design; that is what this book aims to deliver.
It actually does reasonably well in this regard. The test of a theory is its ability to be used predictively, and although A Theory of Fun doesn't come up with a bounded set of rules that can be applied to determine whether any given game will be fun, it does have a non-exhaustive set that can be applied to determine if a game isn't fun. Fail even one of these rules, and your game is looking bad.
The scholarship behind the formulation of these rules, by the way, is considerable; it's one of the glories of A Theory of Fun that its results seem to effortlessly derived. I put this down to its being a book by a game-designer; the crafting of its structure is just so elegant. All is there that is needed to be there, yet with imaginative doors that open wider when you push them with thought. Whatever your game design experience, it will appear just right for you; that's the skill of a first class game-designer at work. Knowing this, at times it's breath-taking.
This is a fun book, with a fun message.
Play games: go grok yourself.
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on 18 November 2005
A concise and persuasive philosophical discourse on games. Koster uses clear and readable prose in combination with cartoons to get his points across in a very accessible way. He has clearly thought a lot on the subject and wants to prove to others (and himself to a degree) that games have value - that they can 'contribute to society', and does so with insight and passion.
What does he say? Well -games are fun, and fun is learning,but gamers would rather win than learn. Games are a medium, any medium can be used to create 'Art' - but only if you try. And by the end of the book, you'll want to go out and design games that will change the world :)
If you've ever thought seriously about games (and I don't just means computer games) and then this book will strike a chord. Both a deconstruction and a call to arms, I loved this book, and am going to try and persuade my friends in the games industry, or want to be in the industry to read it.
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on 28 September 2011
I was bought this as a biirthday present, & when I opened the wrapping I must admit I felt a bit of a lull in my enthusiasm, not at all what I expected. Every right hand page is a line drawing (naive style) relating to the left pages idea's, and the text isn't that dense.

Then I started reading it & my attitude totally changed. This is an excellent book on the underlying aspects of game design, written from a very genuinely personal outlook.

Koster writes a very entertaining view of what matters in the design & overall feel of fun games, & although he does sounds like he's arguing for all games to be 'art' in themselves, his point is a good one about really caring about what you do.

I found the naive drawings actually lent weight to his personal style & the feel that here was somebody imparting their experience over a quiet pint.

It's NOT a step by step 'How To' akin to a painting book telling you how to mix colours the artist does, more of a 'here's the approach to thinking about how the concepts & mechanics come together to make a game enjoyable below the visual surface.

From initial uncertainty I've went to thinking this is a real gem of a book on the subject that touches on so many more topics. Highly recommend it.
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on 22 November 2013
This book promises to help you understand the major cultural force that are games and to inspire you to do better than current game designers. The books highlights `fun' and how this concept relates to games both digital and traditional games. Unfortunately I have to admit to not finding the book much fun to read. It's problem is not that it is a stale treatise on game design, rather the opposite that it is a rambling essay on the author's thoughts about game design and the human condition. I initially found the book interesting, but soon got frustrated with the lack of discussion about the implications of the theories being discussed for game design and the lack of examples to back up the opinions. The book has it's thought provoking moments, but this are often reactionary to the strong personal opinions being put forward or through reading a lot between the lines. There are points made about what the future of game design ought to being doing, how current games designers are doing it wrong, but there is a lack of discussion of examples good and bad, or how these different future games might look or work.

If you are looking for ideas about why games look and behave the way they do now, why many are repetitive, derivative and fairly stagnant at this point in time, and want an opinion about they could evolve in the future then this book will be of interest to you. If you're interested in games design and why people want to play games, then you will probably find this interesting and easier to read than a formal book on game design theory. If you want a book that will give you ideas for the an entirely revolutionary game, it might give you that so long as you can read between the lines and make the leap on your own.

The book was apparently written based on slides from a games conference presentation, and that is the feel that comes across in the book. It is divided loosely into chapters, but it doesn't feel like it coherently brings everything together. The many `factual' statements are referenced throughout each chapter, although very little of the referenced literature is discussed in any detail, and many of the implications of the statements are left undiscussed and rather interpreted from the author's world view. Rather ironic given that some of it is about the theory of `chunking' and how our previous knowledge affects the way we interact with the world! Also, I don't whether this is a problem in the e-edition only, but the references are all asterisks, so it isn't easy to look up what was mentioned in the text, although the final section does contain the references with a short description of each.

What I did like about the book was the little cartoons, without which the book would have been very dry. What I didn't like was the 42 quotes about `how great this book is' and the `this author is really talented and famous' sections at the beginning of the book. I get suspicious when I need that much reassurance that the book I'm about to believe is brilliant and going to change my life. It isn't, it didn't. Sorry.
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on 13 April 2005
Every once in a while a short and simple book comes along that manages to describe a really huge concept that applies to numerous aspects of life. I'm not sure if the author intended to - but when you scrutinize this book I found more applicable thoughts and views than I did while looking through Confucious.
The book covers a little bit of cognitive theory explained in the simplest way. It's all very elegant in it's complete lack of elegance and finess. It's short - and if you read a book once in a while you'll finish it in one or two days. And you'll want to read it again, and buy a copy for everyone of your friends. I ended up buying three of them and giving them away, the only other book I've done that with is Nietzches - Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
It gave me a much sharper understanding of defining the border between core and "dress-up". What is important in a design/application/game - what is the gameplay and what is just fancy graphics.
I can recommend it to anyone with a flair for philosophy and playfulness.
I just gave my last copy away - got to go get another one.
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on 24 January 2005
I had this book recommended to me by a friend. I was a little dubious for a couple of reasons - firstly because most game design books are a bit rubbish, and secondly it was cited to be similar to 'Understanding Comics' by Scott McCloud. I thought Understanding Comics was great in the sense that its different, but not in the sense I learnt much from it.
Thankfully 'A theory of fun' exceeded my expectations on all levels. It has the accessibility of 'Understanding Comics', having a narrative depicted in images on every other page. But it also has the depth, having the text to go along with it all, unlike Understanding Comics.
It's thoroughly researched and well written. Best of all it gives good solid insights. You come out knowing more and being able to think about things in new and interesting ways. Although it is all firmly based around games, the book jumps through many disciplines, mathematics, psychology, art and so forth. When the author touches on complex items, he cuts to the chase about how it's applicable to the subject matter, but also is good enough to provide an excellent notes section.
Finally, I think in many respects it transcends games, as it in many ways its really about what it means to be human, and our automatic need to pattern match everything we experience.
In summary, I think it's an excellent book and an instant classic,
Jonathan
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on 24 May 2012
What this book delivers well is a treatise on what games are and should be. The author's erudition and practical experience across a wide range of disciplines is a particular strength of the book. Whilst discussion of some theories in the initial chapters is so reductive that it unintentionally teeters on the condescending, as the argument advances, the introduction, analysis and weaving together of disparate theories flows naturally into the overall thrust of the book. Games are illustrated as a medium intrinsically characterized by the intersection of multiple disciplines. Unfortunately, if (like me) you've picked up this book wanting a detailed and substantiated analysis of theories of fun, I feel you'll be left wanting. This is particularly frustrating as there are some very interesting frameworks (e.g. breaking down types of fun into constructive, experiential, and deconstructive activities for co-operative, competitive and individual interaction) which warrant more column inches. I was expecting something akin to an academic textbook with more of a discussion of reward theories in the gaming context. Why is completing a level fun? Do certain sound effects generate more fun than others? Do coins or gibs serve as a better reward? Certainly the book offers suggestions but analysis of specific reward mechanisms lacks breadth and detail. This is certainly thought provoking stuff that will help anyone approaching game design, but its brevity and lack of depth constrain it, at best, to a supplementary text.
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on 3 April 2012
This is a great little book. It's short, to-the-point, and exactly what the games industry needs. It gets lost somewhere near the end and seems to ramble repetitively, but by that point you've got everything you need to from the book and you're safe to put it down!

I'd recommend this to anyone looking to get into the games industry, or looking for a fresh take on the new social gaming world.
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on 7 September 2011
This is a very interesting book. It is my first read in this topic and I guess it was a good choice for an introduction as it is very thought provoking and inspiring. Good, easy style, well structured, easy to follow the line of thought and understand the message.

It is more of a philosophical summary of one's beliefs and an introduction of living by those beliefs rather than a guide book to actual game design. Which is neither good or bad but good to be aware of it.

What I did not like about this book:
1, The format/size. It is unconventional indeed so probably stands out from the crowd but it equally misfits my bookshelf and my other books surrounding it. I prefer a tidy shelf. It is also more difficult to handle. I like those book formats I can hold with one hand and read whenever, wherever. This format is not ideal in the London Tube.

2, The presentation of the content. I personally don't see the need for low quality hand sketches on every odd page, especially when the even pages are not too densely populated either. Waste of paper. I don't think an interesting content needs such scattered presentation.

3, Chapter 11, 12 and the Epilogue could be one. I think everyone gets the message of "elevating games" by the mid of the book and it is pretty clear when we come to Ethics. The last 3 chapters are just iterations, much less interesting "preaching" on the same subject.

So in summary: it would have been even better to present it in a practical, "professional" format, like a "pocket book of fun" (trust the readers that they have the capability to absorb the information - if they don't, they probably don't play or create challenging games either ;)).
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