Theory of Fun: Understanding Comics for games

Raph Koster was creative lead and lead designer on Ultima Online and Ultima Online: The Second Age, and the creative director on Star Wars Galaxies — today, he's the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Entertainment (the division that does the video games). His new book is called Theory of Fun for Game Design, and I was lucky enough to read a review copy last month.

Raph's intention here is to write a Understanding Comics for computer games: an accessible, lay-oriented text that explains, finally, what this medium means. Why are grownups playing games? What makes a game fun? What do games do to the way twe perceive the world? What do games do to the way we change the world?

Charlie Stross and I have been tossing around an idea for a novel set in a Massive Multiplayer Online game, revolving around the virtual-property-rights debate; Theory of Fun made me rethink big chunks of that book.

Theory of Fun is available for pre-order on Amazon now, with the pub-date listed as November. If you're a gamer, this should be your Xmas prezzie to your non-gamer friends; if you're not a gamer, this is the book for the gamer in your life.

In recent years, much study has been centered on gender differences in particular. One researcher in the UK, Simon Baron-Cohen, has concluded that there are "systematizing brains" and "empathizing brains." He identifies extreme systematizing brains as being autistic, and ones just slightly less so as being those diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome. The distribution curve of systematizing brains versus empathizing brains, according to Baron-Cohen, is apparently influenced by gender. Men are more likely to have systematizing brains, and women more likely to have empathizing brains.

Gender differences have finally become acceptable to discuss without accusations of sexism. It's important to realize that in all cases, we're speaking in generalities, of averages. On average, females tend to have greater trouble with certain types of spatial perception–for example, visualizing the cross section of an arbitrary shape that has been rotated to a different facing. Conversely, males tend to have greater trouble with language skills–doctors have long known that it takes longer for boys to become verbally proficient.

It speaks of the power of videogames that they can actually change this. After all, the equation is both nature and nurture. There has been research showing that if women who have trouble with spatial rotation tests are given a videogame that encourages them to practice rotating objects and matching particular configurations in 3-d, that not only will they master the spatial perception necessary, but the results will be permanent.

According to Baron-Cohen's theory, there are people who have high abilities in both systematizing and empathizing. One would surmise that these people tend to go into the arts, which are both heavily systematic and also require a high degree of empathy. Baron-Cohen postulates that having high abilities in both is a contraindicated survival trait, since it means that they are almost certainly not as good at either as the "specialists." This may explain all those consumptive poets dying in garrets.


(via Terra Nova)