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.