10 years after giving his debut keynote on his 'Theory of Fun', Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies pioneer Raph Koster revisited his talk to explore why games matter, how they teach players, and what fun is.
The video is an hour long but it's well worth watching, packed wit hinteresting ideas and lots of avenues to explore as result. If you can't spare an hour, watch the first 25 minutes. If you haven't got time for that make sure you at least read the summary and the comments. The comments alone are a great reminder to keep your critical thinking skills sharpened.
These are my notes from the video, including things to research further.
All mammalian species play, especially the young.
Koster describes Play as like chocolate covered broccoli, where broccoli is learning and chocolate is play. This refers to the neurochemistry behind play and learning. (more on that in a minute)
Games are systems built to help us learn patterns. Fun is a neurochemical reward to encourage us to keep trying. The brain releases endomorphins (which are a form of morphine - no wonder you love learning!)
He includes a load of fantastic quotes:
"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." - Plato
"Play is the child's most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and it's tasks." - Bruno Bettelheim
"Play is the highest form of research." - Albert Einstein
"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning." - Mr. Rogers
"For a small child there is no division between playing and learning." - Penelope Leach
"Play is by it's very nature educational." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force..." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard." - Dr. Benjamin Spock
"Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." - Abraham Maslow
"Play is the answer to how anything new comes about." - Jean Piaget
He talks about the difference between unstructured play and structured games. Both have rulesets but the rulesets of play are more complicated and unstated (e.g. the rules of physcs and physiology when playing catch)
We live in a world of systems.
Language has corrupted our thinking around play. In Latin Ludus covered the whole gamut, there was no separate word for fun.
He references Nicole Lazzaro's theory of four different types of fun http://www.xeodesign.com/whyweplaygames.html he calls "Hard fun" - K fun. K-fun releases dopamine which enhances learning and memory, predicting rewarding outcomes. It's a teaching signal for the brain and it decreases inhibition.
Games are deliverate practice machines, designed to improve performance, repeated a lot, provide continuous feedback and have a goal in mind. Sounds pretty relevant to learning so far!
The word game has become fuzzy in definition. First and foremost you can strip the game down and take everything away, the graphics the story, the music and it's still a game like "chess in your head".
He talks about analysing the structure of games and game atoms:
Present a problem
Prepare to solve the problem
The topology in which the problem exists
The core mechanic
Feedback from the system
Update the mental model
There are 4 core mechanics in games.
1. Solving problems perceived as NP-hard using heuristics (the kind of problems that computers struggle with because they require a "good enough rule" that pure pattern matching can't solve.
2. Mastering your physical reactions
3. Understanding other people and social relationships
4. Exploiting the brain software bug around estimating probability (otherwise known as gambling)
The scientific analysis of what makes games work is partly what led to gamification, which "has a whiff of evil"
Should we treat life like a game?
Games are really powerful learning tools, but that's not how we rend to build them, we tend to build frivolous or exploitative stuff.