Game designers have an old axiom, that good games are easy to learn, hard to master. If you’re thrown face-first into pit of enormous mutant spiders, it might help to have a sword you’re passably competent to use. Perhaps the occasional experience with a hefty gatling gun. If you’re a master with those, that’s probably good for you. Bad for the spiders. In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster writes that all fun stems from a primal human need to learn.
The brain wants to encounter new patterns and then “chunk” them, figure them out. “Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present.” He writes. But when games do find the sweet spot in easy to learn, hard to master – when the system is as rich as a game like chess – you can find delight everywhere. You can fall right in.
We can feel fun, Koster writes, “via physical stimuli, aesthetic appreciation, or direct chemical manipulation.” It’s possible to trick the body into having those feelings – but he suggests their primary function is to make us seek out new and novel experiences. When we find a new pattern, the brain feels like a newborn looks: delighted. That moment of first putting a pattern together, Koster calls that “delight,” and he argues that it’s the feeling underlying all fun.
We can only play the same game so many times before it gets stale. Spend a little time killing whole armies of ravenous, bear-sized black widows, and you’ll get the knack. “Practicing can keep a game fresh for a while,” he writes, “but in many cases we'll say, ‘Enh, I get it, I don't need to practice this task,’ and we'll move on…In that sense, games are disposable, and boredom is inevitable."
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(2/8/2014) Yes, one of the gnomes is Jan Jansen.