... was completely brilliant.
I took notes, copious incoherent notes, from his coherent and eloquent presentation. If you want to know properly what he said, go buy his book and read this as a taster. Don't take it verbatim, because my typing skillz are certainly not up to keeping up with Raph talking - and forgive me the gaps.
KEYNOTE: A THEORY OF FUN FOR GAMES
Hi, my name is Raph and I am a gamer.
Why do we recognise that reference? Why are we ashamed about "Hi my name is Raph, and I am a gamer"? Why do we see that connection? Why do we have to defend gaming to people? Why do we have to explain to someone or justify it to why we do what we do?
A Theory of Fun came out of this: a back to basic process of why and how games work.
Watching kids play is a really startling process. It makes you look at yourself and how you play. Anyone here play Popcap games? I was playing Typing Shark. I'm a terrible typist, I do the five finger hunt-and-peck at 100 words a minute. I'm good enough at it to completely crush Typing Shark. Just demolish Typing Shark. Every level they add new stuff. Words that weren't visible until they reach you. etc. I blew through all of it, and the games said "You've beaten the levels, so we'll just randomly throw stuff at you that you've played before now", and so I quit. I also wondered why I quit.
Have you played Bookworm? It gives you lots of infrequent letters - x, q etc - that eventually stack up at the bottom and then you lose. I looked at it and realised this too, so I quit. I found it BORING. This is interesting. I find it boring when it's really easy, and also boring when it's really hard. What's that space in the middle about?
This is what I came up with. People are really good at pattern-matching. I'm going to offer the vast oversimplification that what we think of as 'thinking' or consciousness is really just a big memory game. Matching things into sets. Moving things into the right place, then moving on. There are a bunch of really interesting stats around how much the brain can hold in memory at one time .. like that memory game where you look at a bunch of objects then try to list them. We're really, really bad at this. It's impressive how much we can train ourselves to see more when we're really naturally bad at this. If we can remember more than 20 things off that list, we're lying to ourselves, but if we can clump we can work it out. If one item is 12 pencils, it goes through. A really good example of this is faces. The amount of data in a face is enormous. Just enormous. We've only just started to figure things about about it in the past few decades; when a bird-watcher spots a bird, the face recognition part of the brain goes off. We see faces everywhere. I'm looking at the ceiling here and seeing bright glowing eyes and robot heads. We see the front of cars smiling at us, Chevron have made a pile out of this.
When we meet noise, and fail to make a pattern out of it, we get frustrated and quit. There are patterns everywhere. Static snow on TV. My kids have never seen that, by the way, which is pretty scary.
Once we see a pattern, we delight in tracing it, and in seeing it reoccur. That's meaning, all of a sudden. The brain doesn't learn something the first time it sees it, it takes a while. You have to practice it. When you're a kid, learning to put on trousers. It takes a really long time! It's disturbing! It takes MONTHS! And children are way smarter than we are. I'm serious. As we get older it's harder and harder for us to build patterns. So when we see a pattern that we get, we do it over and over again. We build neural connections. Now this is what I call fun.
Building those patterns is necessary for our survival. If you don't have a pattern library, you are going to die. You won't be able to tell an apple from Draino.
Fun is the feedback the brain gives while successfully absorbing a pattern. We need to absorb patterns, otherwise we die. So the brain HAS to give positive feedback to you for learning stuff. We tend to think of fun as being frivolous. The stuff that doesn't matter. And this is the serious games cheer line: I'm' here to tell you that fun is not only not frivolous but fundamental to human nature and required for survival. Therefore what we do is saving the human race from extinction. [laughs]
Which brings us to games. What a cultural artifact they are. What a lot of them there are. Look “game” up in the dictionary, and it sounds frivolous .. there's lots of lofty academic stuff about it. But we need to dig into games and find out what they are. Games are nicely distilled patterns. Like the iconified smiling face. Games are the cartoon version of real world sophisticated problems. Snakes and ladders? It's Euclidian geometry! It's a Cartesian space. It has wormholes, for pete’s sake. Who here teaches physics? Superstring theory? Play a game! Games are distillation of cognitive schemata. That's. What. They. Are. They are prefab chunks - you can run through and practice without actually having to do it. Games are fundamentally forms of cognitive training. I'm using cognitive in the sense of how we know what we know. Some data we just learn as databanks: rote leaning multiplication tables for instance. There is a big difference between learning tables and understanding how numbers work.
Games are training us to find underlying patterns. Games are teaching us to find patterns in a systemic way. The downside to learning is that you only get to do it once. Once you've learned something, you're done .. until you forget it, of course. Take Tic tac toe. It's a finite mathematical space. Any six year old can tell you that tic tac toe is a stupid game. oh that's dumb, it's always a tie. Read Blink, it's a great hi level intro to this. Once you've chunked this and figured tic tac toe out, it's time to move on.
All games are entertainment. Tetris: spatial relationships. Some games - Mario - teach you to explore. This is an interesting and subtle lesson to teach; the fact is as adults, as we build a large library of chunks, we get lazy. "I don't need any more chunks, I have enough to survive now". Then we get Alzheimer’s and die. Seeking out new information, hidden behind bricks, books, people, is actually pretty important. There's interesting work in early stage Alzheimer patients … learning a new language or playing videogames both retard the onset. Some games teach motor skills. A recurrent internet meme is this web based bubble wrap popping. I submit that this memegame and Quake 3 are the same game. Finding a point in 2d space and clicking on it...
We humans are also very good at seeing past the dressing. Games are dismissive of the ethical implications: the argument that games are teaching our kids to kill, for instance. The people arguing this are earnest people. I imagine philosophically people here don't necessarily agree with them but we have serious social concerns, yes? Here's the thing: ask a gamer about grand theft auto's hooker moment, they see this: pac-man eating a cherry. They've grokked it: it's a power up.
We have a fundamental disagreement about what games ARE. They are not story, presentation, metaphor. These are all in games, but that's not what games ARE. The real social value comes from what games are. The distilled cognitive schemata inside games is socially valuable.
The dressing however is incredibly important. Remember that the rest of the world sees the dressing. The Sopranos is not about the mafia or a mafia family. Anyone here seen Die Hard? What’s Die Hard about? Explosions? No. Die Hard is about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. Why does Bruce Willis go through hell? Because his wife is in there, and they are estranged. We get told this in the first scene. It's all about the wife. If there's a movie we remember, odds are it's not because of the explosions - but the dressing matters, it's the first thing you remember. So yes, we objectify. We need to train people outside of our hobby that they need to see that Sopranos is about families trying to connect, and we need to train people to see what our games are about.
If you can't choose the battle, choose the battlefield. People are smart. If you follow the rules of duelling.. the evolutionary smart thing to do is count one and shoot the guy in the back. People come to games thinking the same way, which is why we get cheats and hacks and exploits. We try to game the system. We game designers react negatively to this, but it's a sign we're doing our job, as game designers. It's getting them to figure out the pattern, cope with it, deal with it, then reapply it. If a player sees an optimal path - an Alexandrine solution to a Gordian problem - they'll take it. Under most circumstances we call this lateral thinking and praise it to the skies. In games it's called cheating.
Players try to make gameplay as predictable as possible. Which means it becomes boring. Exciting can get you killed. Our civilisation has always tried to make life as boring as possible. We now do exciting things on the weekends. in carefully controlled situations. We're rather buy our roast beef in a store than hunt and kill a bison. By and large we'd rather have sensible shoes rather than blisters. We're optimising life to make it as boring as possible. Any of you who have suffered the pain and fear of a cab ride in Taipei or Boston ... I want that cab ride to be boring, not exciting!
Every game is destined to be boring so we can routinise it. Game designers are engaged in a hopeless task. Any of you play MMOGs? You've all heard of the treadmill. Well - the treadmill is the end destiny of every game. Every game is a treadmill, it's just how fast you play or see through it. Some gamers are so good.. they look at the first level of a game and they know how the rest will proceed, then they put the game down. “Another shootemup”. “Another feedback loop”. Not interested. The console manufacturers are currently recommending 8 hours of gameplay rather than 40. Because people get it already! The brain is trying to optimise the chunks away. Fun is the process of encountering bumps along the way. A new pattern to master. New data thrown into the mix. This is what levels in a shooter should do. They should teach you different data per level. I'm giving you a hammer and I'm going to show you every variety of nail under the sun. This is a "possibility space" and a game is iterating through the possible combinations. The problem is, computers suck at this. This is why, until the advent of the computer, you played games with other people. This is why with the internet space, we’re rushing back to it, to that social play. Other people offer a much more interesting challenge than an algorithm. People introduce a really interesting array of problems into the question. The game designer is going to try to fight this, because they're in the business of building formal abstract systems. They will try to control the players. Online worlds have the interesting problem that they're full of people and don't react in predictable ways.
What game designers are trying to do in all of this is make self-refreshing puzzles, emergent gameplay. Trying to make the game deeper.. the cognitive challenge greater. There's a fundamental tragic flaw in games: the need to have one right answer without interpretation. We need puzzles when there is more than one right answer, games that can be interpreted; if we want games to become art and not mere craft, we have to get beyond this kind of simple thing [cartoon of a child's drawing]. We need games with interpretation [cartoon of a master painting]. There are a lot of endeavours in human life like this. Writing a book. You come to it thinking you knew what you were going to say, but you learn a lot in the process. Music too. Things not expressed in the bare notation [cartoon of score with notes] - music is a finite set. Music is very mathematical. All possible combinations could be computed. Thank god for interpretation! All these challenges involve communication. Talking to your SO. One of the great cognitive challenges of life. It is a puzzle with no right answer. Perhaps that's why we find it one of the most rewarding things life can offer. Fundamentally we have to regard games as being communicative objects, as media. They say something.
This means the process of game design itself is a cognitive challenge with no one right answer. It’s worthy. That shame and embarrassment of playing should go the hell away. Games are saying something important. They're capable of expression, and bridging the gap between people. This may be necessary to our survival! For our art form to become mature, the cognitive schemata that games embody need to convey the same kinds of complexity as the cognitive schematic in other media. Regard them as a valid art form and take them seriously. All media are for entertainment. Art and entertainment are terms of intensity, not terms of type. The difference between Cheers, Friends, and a medieval morality play are NOT THAT BIG. They are predictable. They are for reassurance, they are building cognitive schemata through repetition - seven seasons worth - and then sometimes you get Lolita. That makes us nervous. It's challenging. Breaks the routine. As long as we as designers and developers come into the process knowing everything our games say, games will be doomed as mere entertainment. We have to make something like Lolita. Schindlers list. Catcher in the Rye. That's the sign of a mature medium, a game that makes you think 'I don't quite know what this might mean..'.
Some players will prefer Friends over Lolita, of course. Most people want their library of chunks and to be kept comfortable. End state of adulthood is tackling problems they know how to solve. But if you know the route to work every day, and you have an important meeting, then one day the sea level rises by 7 feet, your current schemata might not apply. Where are the games teaching relevant skills to the modern world? Jumping over alligators is fun, I grant you. But where are the games that teach modern cognitive schemata? We need to broaden the cognitive schemata that our games are about. It's incredibly important toward developing games as a medium. We have to figure out games that don't have one right answer, and we face our own cognitive challenges here. Otherwise we know what the fate of games will be: they'll be the thing you stop doing when you're 25 and you get kids. We'll be missing out on a chance to improve the human condition.
So what I want to see: the games about curing cancer. The games about how do we restructure Florida when it's under water? That's where we need to go. In the end games stand on their own as the only medium that teaches formal systems in this way. It is the only communicative medium that does this. It is the only fully experiential method of learning abstract concepts. We should not allow them to become Tic Tac Toe. Tic Tac Toe sells, gets good ratings - which is exactly why this gathering is important.
Go forth. This is why games matter.
Raph Koster, Game Developers Conference, 2005
There. I'm updating this now to tidy up the second part, and to re-iterate : I couldn't capture the total speech (hopefully GDC will publish it in time): here a US amazon link to his book as well.