Mar 2005

Answering the Question

I have, for some time now, been working on a piece for my website called "What is Zen anyway?". This is to try to answer this question from the people that ask it of me, as they know that I study it.

I haven't had much success in completing the piece. I have been banging away at it for a while and don't have much to show for it.

But maybe today I have been given some of the answer.

Today I received an e-mail from a dear friend, one who is in pain because of what has happened in his life. For a variety of reasons, it isn't possible for me to pick up the phone and talk with him to show my support and comfort him. Nor is it possible for me to meet with him and give him a hug, as I'm sure he needs one. Even if he didn't, I'd give him one anyway.

So I have to respond through e-mail, that accursed business tool that dilutes everything. I'm here on my lunch break and attempting to form words, any words that can possibly help. But my mind refuses to cooperate. I am still in work mode and still thinking in work ways and I need to stop this in order to provide any response that would at all be fair to my friend. So I try again. And again. And yet again. At last, my mind has moved somewhat into a space where I feel I can write from the heart, rather than the mind. And I begin to write to him.

So I look at myself, and I see something very different right now. There is a line of teaching in Buddhism that says that all you need is to be compassionate to everyone in every way. Yes, well that's a very nice idea, but try to do it for any stretch and see if you can.

However, there is something here.

When I open my heart to answer my friend, my entire body changes. I feel the pain I imagine he must be feeling, feel its heaviness, and I also feel the caring for him that has been built up by knowing him over the years. I would like to protect him, as with all my friends, from pain and suffering that always comes along with the joy in life, but I know that I can't. The best I can do is be there when he needs me, in whatever way that that means.

But my mind is somewhere else than work mode. I wonder if I can have both. Can I be similarly compassionate all the time? I don't know.

But maybe today I have been given some of the answer to: "What is Zen anyway?"

My other piece on this subject will have to wait.

Is "A Theory of Fun" fun to read?

I recently finished reading "A Theory of Fun for Game Design", by Raph Koster. This book purports to answer, from the back cover: "What makes a game fun?"

I must admit, I wasn't sure about the topic of this book. Having read the section on fun from the excellent "Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals", I recall it describing the concept of fun in games. Briefly, I am persuaded by the discussion of Marc LeBlanc, who hates the term fun. According to LeBlanc, "[fun] is merely a stand-in term for a more complex phenomenon that no one really understands." Thus, I wasn?t sure fun in the gaming context could be discussed in any useable way.

Still, like LeBlanc, Raph Koster is no slouch in the gaming industry. He is the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment. He was the creative lead for Ultima Online, among many other projects. He's been working on MUDs and Massively Multiplayer games for years. Koster knows of what he speaks.

This leads to the first of my two major gripes about this book. As I said, it is clear that Koster knows what he is talking about. The problem is that he doesn?t actually write it down. While this strategy might be good for a class or a presentation where we can question him, all we have of Koster here is his writing. Many passages are frustrating in that he only offers a glimpse of what he is talking about, then moves onto other areas of discussion. I was left with a feeling of barely scratching the surface without getting into any detail whatsoever.

Which leads me to my second gripe. Koster spends too much time writing about issues that aren?t central to his book. For example, he takes several pages to introduce people to various psychological classification techniques, like Myers-Briggs. This is put forward as a way of viewing games and the people that play them. While this is good material, I don?t see much what it has to do with his central thesis, except only in passing. I would expect it to be a footnote, with references to other books like "Who am I?", which do a much better job of discussing these things.

Up to now, I?ve been complaining about what the book doesn?t have. I should talk about all the good stuff that is there. Essentially, I see that Koster is trying to put forward two central ideas. The first is that games are developing towards an art form in their own right, similar in artistic merit to music, painting, dance, et al.

Koster asks the development community to be less formulaic, the reviewers to be more critical in their reviews, and the players to be more selective about what they will play. Just as dance or any other art form has: a proper language of expression, a method of expressing creativity (the performance), and an audience, both professional (critics) and amateur (general audience), so too should games. In effect, he challenges us all to strive to be better at everything we do in approaching games.

The second lesson that I take from the book is somewhat related to the first. Koster indicates that games have far more potential than they have today. They can teach us far more than they do and take us in areas that other media can?t. His discussion of this, however, is filled more with possibility than actual ideas of how to pull this off. This seems to be a case again of not writing it down, since I believe he knows at least the signposts in this journey, again based on his expertise.

I find myself wanting to like this book, but ending up feeling ambivalent about it. I want to buy into Koster's theories, as they seem worthy of consideration. I want to improve the way I think about games and I do believe that they are a blossoming art form. However, there isn?t anywhere near enough material in this book for me to really think about, and much of what is there is irrelevant to what I think he is trying to say. Given the brevity of this book, it would have benefited from better editing and tighter focus. It is worthy of reading, if only to suggest areas of thought, but certainly isn?t complete enough to be a theory of fun.