“What is fun? If you dig into the origins of the word, it comes either from ‘fonne,’ which is ‘fool’ in Middle English, or from ‘fonn,’ which means ‘pleasure’ in Gaelic. Either way, fun is defined as ‘a source of enjoyment.’ This can happen via physical stimuli, aesthetic appreciation, or direct chemical manipulation.”
— Raph Koster

Key Terms: Chunking, Grokking, Ludemes

I have already discussed my impressions of this book to some degree in my initial review. I have since found that much of Koster’s thinking has become central to my own, though (as a wise professor of mine once said of Paulo Freire) that does not mean yet that I feel I have entirely captured the ability to “do” Koster. That is, I find his ideas fascinating and potentially very–pardon the pun–game-changing for my conception of teaching, but I have not yet managed to go beyond first (very small) steps in implementing these theories into my active pedagogy. Even so, I believe Koster cuts into the heart of many of my deepest concerns about education, and I am hopeful that as I proceed with both my studies and my teaching I become better able to make Koster’s theory a central part of my practice as an instructor, a gamer, and a thinker.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

Koster’s entire theory is predicated on the notion that fun and learning are really, essentially, the same activity in the brain. He puts forth the notion that our brains, as pattern-making machines, delight in learning. Games, he suggests, are really just devices to teach our brains new and interesting patterns. This defies many recently popular notions of “gamefication”–the learning is the game, and so rather than try to artificially create a sense of “game” pertaining to the learning, the goal becomes to find a way to approach the learning as the game. This distinction may seem a very narrow one, but it comes down to a fundamental way of thinking. Instead of treating games as a trick to get students to learn, it becomes more desirable to make the study itself something students will approach with the rigor they might apply to a game they enjoy. (Clearly, this is easier said than done, but it does make for quite the mission statement!) These concepts of play, Koster argues, are fundamental to the human brain–making them also fundamentally inclusive if properly employed. He devotes an entire chapter (“Different Fun for Different Folks”) to the notion of how games can appeal to broad and diverse player groups–but they can still all be united as players of the game(s).

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

Apart from the general idea of learning as self-improvement, this becomes a bit less of a clear focus for Koster. However, he does explicitly address sexism in game design as a challenge to be met. Further, he discusses studies that show it may be possible to use games to teach aptitudes that may not exist in the player already–citing, specifically, neurological studies about the differences between male and female brains. Koster’s claim is that whatever disparities in the varieties of intelligences that tend to exist between the sexes, noting the purported strengths and limitations of both males and females, can be mediated (and perhaps undone) by the right kind of games–the right learning. While this lies just somewhat beyond my area, as I am far from an expert in neurological systems, I do find it an interesting notion. I also cannot help but wonder how such studies might be addressed with more complex gender models in mind.

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

Koster dedicates an entire chapter to this, and (to my gratification) he opens it by citing Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences–so I do quite feel that it’s on the right track. Koster’s opening of the chapter notes, “We all know that people learn at different rates and in different ways. Research has shown that people’s learning patterns are with them at birth. Some people visualize things when they think of them; others are more verbal. Some people employ logic readily; others rely on leaps of intuition. We’re all familiar with the bell curve distribution of IQ—and we’re also familiar with the fact that IQ tests do not measure all forms of intelligence” (101). He goes on to discuss the ways that games–video games, in particular–can address these varied learning styles. In fact, Koster argues (based on several studies) that playing games that are not oriented to one’s own learning style can actually help to build up one’s capacity to think and reason in different ways. Thus, it makes sense to both address students in methods that orient to their own learning styles–which will help them to excel–and in methods that do not, as this will provide them a challenge and an opportunity for growth. Perhaps the key element, though, is making the process engaging (and pleasurable, one hopes) to help them face those challenges.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play—enjoyment and engagement—to learning, cognition, and individual development?

Again, this is essentially the whole theme of the book. In Koster’s theory, pleasure is a reward the brain experiences from satisfying its desire to complete patterns (“chunking”). Quite literally, learning and play are equated to the same neurological process. Thus, for Koster the question becomes not “What connects play and learning?” but instead “How do we build better teaching games?” He states this quite nicely in his third chapter, “What Games Are”: “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug” (Koster 41). Now, this does raise certain questions about “mastery,” which has been at times a point of contention among composition theorists, but I believe Koster invites us to reimagine our concept of mastery. He employs the term “grokking,” borrowed from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. It refers to understanding that surpasses conscious thought, and Koster uses the concept of “muscle memory” to explain it. Simply put, the skill has become, on some level, a reflex (Koster 29-31). There is undoubtedly a threshold, however one might define it, where writing ceases to be a daunting task and becomes something that one can approach with a certain degree of comfort (perhaps, even, pleasure). While this does not mean that one cannot still improve as a writer or that one may not be challenged as a writer, this is still the point when one can sit down and fill a page without distress. This, I would suggest, is what it is to grokk writing.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

Koster does not address matters of language acquisition, as they lay outside his area of interest. However, he does discuss some notions of identity, community, and inclusion (as I have noted, to some degree, above). Perhaps most notably, for Koster games (video games, in his argument) have vast potential that we have only begun to realize. In a latter chapter, “Taking Their Rightful Place,” he writes, “Games have the capability to sit on the shelf next to all other communications media. They are capable of art. They are capable of portraying the human condition. They are teaching tools. They carry socially redeeming content. They elicit emotion” (Koster 185). While my own arguments are not explicitly oriented to video games, neither do they preclude them–and they face the same questions that Koster raises. That is, what design is required to make games do more–teach more? I have expressed previously the dilemma of negotiating the teaching of composition in Standard English–as that is what I am capable of teaching–while still respecting and empowering students’ use of their own languages, Englishes, vernaculars. Perhaps, I have to wonder, if instead of an excessive air of pompous “serious business” we treated learning more like games–more like fun–then students might feel that they were just learning another game. We learn to play new games all the time, but they do not replace nor preclude the enjoyment of older games. While I may be a great fan of the Bioshock series, for instance, they will never replace my love for the original Tetris (1984) or The Legend of Zelda (1986).

Citation

Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paragraph Press, 2004. Kindle edition.

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