8.4. A Theory of Fun

While different games appeal to different aesthetics in different ways, every game includes some form of challenge. The whole idea of playing a game involves submitting to a set of rules and then figuring out how to achieve an objective within the constraints of those rules. This idea is the basis of a book A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. It boils down to: the fun of games comes from the challenge of mastering skills.

Theory of Fun draws heavily on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied what he called the mental state of “flow” (we sometimes call it being “in the flow” or “in the zone”). This is a state of extreme focus of attention, where you tune out everything except the task you’re concentrating on, you become highly productive, and your brain gives you a shot of neurochemicals that is pleasurable – being in a flow state is literally a natural high.

Csikszentmihalyi identified three requirements for a flow state to exist:

If you think about it, these requirements make sense. Why would your brain need to enter a flow state to begin with, blocking out all extraneous stimuli and hyper-focusing your attention on one activity? It would only do this if it needs to in order to succeed at the task. What conditions would there have to be for a flow state to make the difference between success and failure? See above – you’d need to be able to influence the activity through your skill towards a known goal.

What happens when someone is in a flow state? Csikszentmihalyi lists these effects:

You probably recognize them from activities you engage in - whether sports, video games or something else. They are aspects of the sensation you get when you are locked in to an activity and performing at your best.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)