I recently read A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster, a text that aptly fields, as advertised, a theory of the nature of fun as a cognitive phenomenon. Koster may be most notably recognized by those of my age group as the lead designer for Ultima Online and is now, from what I can tell, associated with Metaplace. Koster’s experience with game development shows through impeccably in his book, which renders a comprehensible-to-the-layman analysis of how games and “fun” work.

In early chapters, Koster offers a light discussion of how the brain makes meaning by forming patterns—“chunking” and “grokking.” He argues that games teach life skills, such as spatial reasoning, taxonomy, odds calculation, memory/recall, and relationship dynamics. From there, he builds a theory around the concept that what we call “fun” is really a specialized form of learning and that video games are a unique and powerful method of teaching to the learner-as-fun-haver within us. Without “spoiling” the work, I will note that he concludes that while video games teach certain skills at present, they could be used to teach much more sophisticated concepts. As an art form, he renders the video game as still just emerging; by his reasoning, we have only barely begun to see what games can teach us.

Apart from offering an engaging discussion of how games work, what the phenomenon of “fun” is, and what it takes to make a truly well-crafted game, Koster’s book includes numerous entertaining illustration and, in my reading, engages freely in having a bit of fun with the reader—all for the sake of teaching us something. I certainly enjoyed the read, and I found that it led me to think deeply about my own approach to pedagogy. It surprised me a bit to realize that, after reading the book, I felt that I might be approaching the whole concept of making learning enjoyable from a flawed premise: that I had to make the learning process seem fun instead of facilitating a classroom where learning could be fun.

Like many, I have recently been drawn to the allure of the “gamification” of the classroom. Following my reading of Koster’s book, I found myself balking at the simplistic approach I had previously taken to the idea. If we can define learning as a type of fun, then “gamifying” the classroom may be missing the point entirely. While Koster does not, in my reading, challenge the concept of applying game principles to the classroom to enhance learning, the text led me to question it. I do not yet know what it might mean to apply the principles of A Theory of Fun for Game Design to the composition classroom, but perhaps as I read more on the subject of making learning enjoyable—I have William A. Covino and T. R. Johnson to look forward to in the not too distant future—I will come to greater understanding. So, for me, Raph Koster’s book was not only fascinating but exciting, challenging me to think in new and interesting ways about the work that I do.

All that, and this gem: he suggests that Minesweeper is an “impressionist game.” That’s simply beautiful.