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Weekly Summary: Representation, Simulation and Fun

The readings of this week address the tension between reality and fiction, representation and simulation. Why are video games so appealing, engaging and addictive?

Raph Koster (2004), Book excerpt: A Theory of Fun for Game Design- What Games Aren’t

Book author and game designer Raph Koster explores the nature of games, and explains what makes them highly attractive. He argues that the essence of a game is very different from the story it is packed into. The author responds to the controversy about violence in video games and the effect of media on behavior. According to Koster:

  • Games are about teaching underlying  patterns.  Metaphors are used to help the player understand the logic of a game. The story/plot of a game is only a “side dishes for the brain.” It is the underlying pattern or challenge that makes it interesting.
  • Differences between PacMan or Deathrace are only formal.  Games train people to look beyond fiction and learn underlying (mathematical) patterns.
  • Games aren’t stories:
    • Games involve experiential teaching processes (learning by doing), whereas stories teach vicariously (lessons learned from a character)
    • Games objectify, whereas stories evoke empathy (=identification)
    • Games categorize and simplify realities, whereas stories admit complexities
    • Games focus on people’s actions, whereas stories deal with emotions and thoughts
  • Are stories superior? Or when does a gamer cry? Games generally evolve around emotions related to mastery and don’t involve overcoming complex moral challenges.

However, Koster points out that games can be really fun (stories not always).

  • Fun is the act of mastering mentally an aesthetic, physical, or social problem.
  • Flow can lead to fun (though it is not a condition): the flow of a game lies in between boredom (to easy) and frustration (to difficult). A challenge should push gamers towards their edge;  this is what keeps them hooked and reward them with triumph and pleasure.
  • Fun is a key evolutionary advantage; our brain gives us positive feedback for learning and practicing survival tactics- in a context where there is no pressure.

Gonzalo Frasca (2001), SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation

Gonzalo Frasca is a researcher and game developer. Besides commercial games for Cartoon Network, he also likes to create videogames based on news event, like Newsgaming or Howard Dean for America. Like Koster, Frasca argues that the essence of games differs from stories. Videogames aren’t “interactive fiction,” but are built on simulation.

  • Magritte’s painting of a pipe represents a pipe. However, it is not a real pipe. Representation is a traditional form of narrative.
  • Simulation goes beyond representation, as it can also model the behavior of the system or object represented. SimCity simulates a city (for example London). The game is less complex than the actual city, but retains some key characteristics and behaviors.
  • To an external observer, the outcome of a simulations appears as narrative. However, gamers feel like they are experiencing events first hand (cf. Koster’s observation on experiential teaching).
  • Narrative (=a story) works bottom-up: it induces general rules from a particular case. Simulation is top-down: it applies general rules to a particular event.
  • Are simulations superior to stories? Simulation allows experimentation of complex dynamic systems (for example, driving a car).

Let’s discuss reality, representation and simulation!

Have a look at the following three cases:

I. PeaceMaker YouTube Preview Image

II. RapeLay YouTube Preview Image

III. Article: Prescription For Iraq Vets Dealing With Trauma? Video Game


  1. Applying Koster’s and Frasca’s definitions, how would you distinguish between representation and simulation? Do you see any differences?
  2. As game technology becomes every day more sophisticated and can involve a player’s entire body (and senses), do you think games are pushing towards ignoring fiction and learning underlying patterns? Are stories just “side dishes” for the brain?
  3. Do good games make the player cry? What do you think about games that demand overcoming controversial moral challenges in order to get to the next level (for example, becoming a suicide bomber)?
  4. Can you think of cases where reality turns into simulation?
  5. As a teaching method, what do you consider superior: representation or simulation?

Raph Koster, The Core of Fun – Presentation at Etech

In this presentation for the 2007 O’Reilly Media Emerging Technology Conference, Koster continues his analysis and reveals the magic ingredients of a fun game.

  • Games are made out of games: each micro-game or sub-activity must be entertaining!
  • Different types of fun must be mixed in (typology according to Nicole Lazarro):
    • Hard fun (the dominant characteristic of most games): you meet a challenge, figure out the pattern, and experiment until you master it
    • Easy fun: moments of aesthetic delight
    • Visceral fun: roller coaster stomach feeling
    • Social fun: schadenfreude (= gloating feeling when a rival fails)
  • All aspects of a game are important :
    • Where and when? Context matters- platforms and past interactions influence the experience
    • How? The more sophisticated skills are needed for the challenge, the better! Shopping on eBay is more fun than on Amazon. There should be also different tools (sword or arrow?)
    • Which one? There should be a broad range of challenges.
    • What for? Feedback is essential. Success must have different outcomes. In addition, gamers shouldn’t always get what they want; loosing is important, as fun results from learning.
    • Against who? Gamers like multi-layer competition. They want to play against the game, against themselves and against each other.


  1. What do you think about Koster’s recipe for fun? Take a game you like and think it through. Which elements give you endorphin flashes?
  2. In his presentation, Koster criticizes social media. Yes, they are fun, but are they driving to participation? Let’s think again about Clay Shirky’s ideas on organizing without organizations. Are collaborative actions an interface problem, or in other terms, should they be more fun?

Alexander R. Galloway and Mushon Zer-Aviv, Kriegspiel booklet

The open source computer game Kriegsspiel is based on Guy Debord‘s 1978 board game called “The Game of War.” Debord, situationist, filmmaker and author of the Society of Spectacle, was disillusioned with the possibilities of cinema and representation, and turned toward the field of simulation.

Debord’s conceptual game design involves both elements of  classic warfare inspired by Napoleon and Clausewitz, as well as postmodern war strategics, like “counter-insurgency, urban conflict, the growing inability to distinguish between civilians and enlisted soldiers” (inspired by the Algerian war).

Kriegsspiel reinterprets Debord’s game, translating it from French to Java, and integrating contemporary “network-centric warfare,” in which “soldiers are reorganized into flexible, interconnected pods, and networks themselves are deployed as weapons on the battlefield.”

Debord believes that the game “reproduces the totality of factors that deal with war, and more generally the dialectic of all conflicts.” According to Tosca, game simulations work by a top-down approach. However, Galloway and Zer-Aviv point out that “games are both abstract totality and empirical practice. A game designer is always a legislator, an enforcer, but a game player is always something of a hacker.”


  1. Is Debord’s approach still an effective way to study the nature of conflict? What do you think about network-centric warfare (connectivity as a kind of weapon)?
  2. Playing the game in the 1970′s required a pen and a pencil, with Kriegspiel, the computer establishes a set of rules. Do you see differences in the thinking and learning process?


It seems that there delicious doesn’t work properly on our blog, so here are the links to articles that could be interesting for our class discussion:

Piano Stairs- TheFunTheory. Can we change people’s behaviour for the better by making it fun to do?

Modern Warfare 2- video game keeps players hooked:  Short video that breaks with some gamer stereotypes. Interview with gamers that are sportive, have girlfriends and make 10.000USD on gaming!

CNN.com- He married a video game character. A gamer so loves his video game that he married a character in the game.

A Rape in Cyberspace. This article by Julian Dibbells analyzes the repercussions of a “cyberrape” in a multi-player computer game called LambdaMOO (for those who haven’t read it in the MCC course).

Controversial video game mimics one of the deadliest battles in Iraq. Developers and marines are working on part game, part documentary called ‘Six Days in Fallujah.’

Shoot an Iraqi‘ : Artist Wafaa Bilal talks about his project called ‘Domestic Tension’.

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  1. ElzbthMllr 10:28, Apr 4th, 10

    I really liked Koster’s piece(s) this week. The comparison between games and stories was interesting in terms of how they teach people in different ways, and the same can be said with respect to emotions. He also has an interesting breakdown on what “fun” actually is but how it loses its meaning when they are just lumped together. I think his takeaway point about the fact that fun is contextual is very important, I don’t really think you can underestimate the important of why we engage in the things we do. I’m writing this post because it’s required, (school is not fun as he says) but I am doing it for some other reason. I’d also never really thought of the concept of flow with respect to games, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that something is fun.

    I also found his presentation “The Core of Fun” fascinating. I would have like the visuals – it’s actually funny that I’m used to only reading things for classes and now because of some of the presentations we’ve watched in this class I’m spoiled by audio/visual presentations so much so that I think just hearing something isn’t good enough anymore! :) I really like that he was able to bring elements that one might not traditionally think of with respect to social media or Web 2.0 into the discussion, specifically things like competition amongst individuals, the notion that where you are coming from matters, difficulty, variable feedback, the importance of succeeding of something (and how games have learned that that isn’t a good ending) and the elements of losing as a motivation to bring people back to continue. He makes a really good point about buying on ebay.com vs. buying something from Amazon. Although I enjoyed the presentation, I felt a small amount of similar frustration that was the same with Ariely’s presentation last week. The things the two say make inherent sense and I agree with their points, but again, I’d like to see more concrete examples how in each of their cases the ideas and concepts that they talk about can be incorporated into their own fields, respectively. What would Amazon look like for example, if it were to incorporate some of these ideas? Obviously that’s something for Amazon to figure out…maybe it’s just the way my brain works, but I have a hard time understanding how implementing some of these changes produces a different result. There is a lot of work going on in the nonprofit space around creating games for change, one organization called Breakthrough created a game called “I Can End Deportation” (www.icedgame.com) that brought a lot of attention to the issue of immigration. Last year I also attended the Games for Change conference http://www.gamesforchange.org/ it was pretty interesting…

    Frasca’s piece on Simulation was a little harder for me to understand, but I think I got his basic concepts of the use of narrative vs simulation, and how the simulation itself is something bigger than just the narrative for an external observer. I also agree with what he says that when systems aren’t too complex it’s usually better to use representation and narrative, but how as systems get more complex, simulation becomes the more attractive tool. He gives great examples of teaching somebody to use the gears of a car, I see it in my own life when I’m knitting a complicated patterns or trying to learn a new stitch, no matter how many times I look in a book, or read something, four out of five times I have watch somebody else doing it, or have someone physically show me how to do it. And likewise, it’s easier to teach someone by physically showing them. I think it’d be interesting to talk about these issues with relationship to the kindle, which is not a book, but to talk about whether it’s a representation or simulation of a book, what gets lost, what doesn’t. He notes at the end of his piece that this article is not printed on paper. Well it’s true, I choose to read it online, but what if someone had printed it out to read it, which I could have just as easily done if I wanted to read it while I was on the subway for example. Would that change anything?

    I will say that I don’t think I’ll be able to play games on my iPhone the same way after this week!

  2. mushon 17:32, Apr 5th, 10

    @ElzbthMllr :)
    Think of FourSquare, how the founder of FourSquare took his earlier startup Dodgeball (bought and then criminally neglected by Google) and coded game mechanics into it to turn it to a huge success story and a great inspiration of how can user/consumer motivations/buying-patterns be harnessed/directed through games.

    Good work. Looking forward to the discussion in class. + Try uploading images now and email me to let me know if it worked for you.


  3. Leslie 22:22, Apr 5th, 10

    I had problems agreeing with Koster’s article. I agree with him that a game is partly a learning experience, but I don’t think that’s always the case, which he seems to make it out to be. There are plenty of games out there where the game would not be good without the story line, such as Final Fantasy and Silent Hill. Those games are largely dependent on the story. I guess it depends on how you define “game,” which he doesn’t seem to do. The story is what gives a game its own identity, which helps the user connect to it, and hence makes the game successful. Much like stories, games can also create a more complex reality, bringing the user into an alternate reality, and can also tap into the users’ emotions.

    I did enjoy Koster’s talk of the importance of fun being a part of games, though. I definitely agree with him here- it made me think of the game Guitar Hero and their 3 different levels of easy, medium, and hard (as well as multi-layer competition). I remember actually losing interest in the game, though, b/c of the very reason Koster spoke of- having mastered the medium level, trying to ascend to the hard level was just way too hard…there was too much of a shift in skill level and it became too frustrating, making me lose interest.

    Frasca’s article was interesting, but I feel like simulation and stories are 2 different things. Simulation can be more realistic, but stories tap into your empathy more. Stories aren’t as limiting- there are not as many rules; it allows your brain to fill in the blanks. This can lead to a more individualized experience, I feel like, allowing each individual to interact and feel in a larger variety of ways. Simulations, though, can be more limiting- it forces you to experience a particular thing created by the developer. There are pluses and minuses to both, and one is probably better than another depending on the individual situation.

  4. Leslie 22:28, Apr 5th, 10

    and @Elizabeth- I actually printed it out to read, and don’t feel like I “lost” anything through this. I was able to understand his idea behind his pipe simulation without actually taking part. I’ll have to go back and see if I felt like I “missed” anything. I can see, though, how with more complex simulations, the user would miss out on the experience by just reading vs. playing with the simulation.

  5. Jimena 10:10, Apr 6th, 10

    The debate surrounding violence in videogames and its influence to a person’s actual moral conduct is as old as audiovisual media, I guess. What would be the difference between violent TV and violent gaming in influencing someone’s actions? As ‘Silash’ reacts in this article* about RapeLay: “We can argue that if you are evil enough to rape, RapeLay isn’t going to make you worse; and if you aren’t evil enough to rape, this game isn’t going to make you evil enough. It’s just like how Grand Theft Auto is not going to turn you into a car thief who beats hookers and shoots cops. The people who steal cars, beat hookers, and shoot cops are already unhinged and a video game isn’t going to change that.”

    Even though a game might not be what makes the difference, I do believe that the personal experiencing of situations portrayed in gaming have much more power than solely watching violence as a third person spectator, especially for children. The fact that psychologists use gaming as a form of therapy for post-trauma recovery in war as in your example about “prescription for Iraq vets”; or with educational purposes such as the ones in “games for change” that Elizabeth talks about, proves the power that simulation has in someone’s psyque.

    I think that both representation and simulation are powerful tools, but I don’t believe that simulation can replace the widely-used representation. Simulation is great to learn practical skills, such as techniques (as the driving example), but I think that there are certain abilities and traits that involve moral and emotional judgment that are best learnt through stories.

    A key difference is that simulation’s inherent subjective nature does not allow for a wider perspective of a situation: through representation one can gain access to the “big picture”, an all-comprising look at things that lets us evaluate from afar and create “forinstances”. In simulation the idea is to be so immersed that the senses and feelings are totally involved, so critical assessment is harder to do.


  6. juliette b 11:15, Apr 6th, 10

    This week material seemed particularly interesting to me as I believe that the boundaries between reality and simulation are more and more blurred. It seem to be difficult for some people lack clear distinction between what is fake and what is for true.
    And this blurred area can mislead people and prove to be dangerous (as a lot of Nadine examples showed).

    It reminded me of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of Simulacrum in Simulacra and Simulation

    To put it in a short(and diminished)way Baudrillard focuses on images. To him they conceal the truth and create three types of simulacra each corresponding to an historical era:
    1-the pre-modern era in which images were clearly copies or representations of some original;
    2-the industrial revolution, photography and mass reproduction technologies in the nineteenth century when the image obscures (dissimulates) and threatens to displace the real;
    3-our postmodern era; the image is said to completely precede and determine the real, such that it is no longer possible to peel away layers of representation to arrive at some original.

    Referring to last week discussion it seems that the power of images is growing and that more and more people will no longer be able to distinguish between reality and simulation of reality. People are likely to be stuck in a simulated reality


  7. HoniehLayla 12:07, Apr 6th, 10

    I do have to agree with Koster that video games are similar in essence and that the plots or story lines are different. Gamers tend to be smarter individuals, especially those who have been engaging in this type of extra curricular since they were much younger due to the ability that the games teach for mathematical calculations. There have been studies – such as the link posted below by web md and describes how tv and games do make children smarter. Games tend to focus less on the emotional aspects and implement more cases of logic into their design.


    I also must agree on Frasca’s point that he essence of games differs from stories. Videogames aren’t “interactive fiction,” but are built on simulation. This simulation engages the brain to applies its logic (ie: mathematics).

    Unfortunately I was unable to see your examples – Hopefully I will be able to view them in class during your presentation. I really enjoyed studying this material – in all honestly – it makes a lot of sense.

  8. Alexandra 12:10, Apr 6th, 10

    Maybe it’s just me, but I have never found Koster’s idea of “hard fun” (ie meeting a challenge, figure out the pattern, and experimenting until you master it) which is the dominant form of fun to actually be… fun. Is this because I never played video games and so am not used to this type of interaction? I always find pattern games frustrating and I am unwilling to invest the time to figure out how to crack the code. Is it a gender thing? In general, video games are more popular with boys than girls. The few times I remember playing on a friend’s system, I would feel overwhelmed at how much scenery, gold coins, other distractions would go by while I was trying to play the game – I felt like I was missing out on other things and therefore didn’t know what all my options were, and while I was distracted by all of this a dragon would come and eat me. So I guess I prefer “moments of aesthetic delight” over “hard fun.”

    In terms of Frasca’s simulated versus representation ideas, they have been much debated. I have studied this previously in terms of whether the “magic bullet” theory is actually true (it isn’t.) This means that violent video games do not automatically lead to more violent behavior in people who play the games. The use of Full Spectrum Warrior for Iraq war vets is very interesting – but I think it is a specialized situation. Those individuals who have fought in the war are dealing with post traumatic stress disorder. It is well documented that in order to deal with PTSD you need to relive – through your memory, talking with a therapist or in this case, a video game – your experience over and over until you own it and it is no longer scary. I can definitely see how this simulation could help soldiers deal with their trauma because it is fairly realistic and complex.

  9. Ryan 15:47, Apr 6th, 10

    I think the difference between representation and simulation is interesting because one tries to model itself as an almost an identical copy with similar behaviors and a representation is more something that doesn’t have to mimic or look ‘almost exactly alike’ but just represent it. I thought the example of the Van Gogh painting as a representation of the city versus the picture that simulates the city was helpful. I think his argument that games are more simulations is quite good. I think that Frasca could have touched upon the fact that their could be a narrative or different narratives that develop within a simulation such as video games. They do simulate reality but there are plenty of ‘simulated narratives/plot lines’ within the video games that make it challenging and fun. For example, even in Sim City as a simulation of a real life city, there still exists a narrative that develops as you build the city.
    With respect to Koster, I think that his premise that games are more than just stories is exactly what categorizes them as games and in addition helps them to generate such popularity amongst users. The different levels of fun depending on the particular type of game varies accordingly. Some games are fun because you fight and compete against someone or something, whereas a game like Wi sports game you are competing in a different way. I think that’s what makes games both hard and fun because you are learning to master either the computer or your friend as an opponent. That’s why games are very popular amongst males because it touches a nerve of masculinity amongst boys and men. Sports games, fighting games, and other kinds of games like Guitar Hero are all geared to different audiences but I believe that most of the game market is more for males than females. I think that the simulations of competition, fun, and mastery of a skill or success in a virtual simulation helps to build special techniques and a masculine confidence that could translate into the real world. However, the real world does not always mimic a video game. You can’t always reset or die or continue with your progress. Life is a lot harder.
    Lastly, I think it depends on the very essence and context of the game and who it’s tailored to and what type of game is it e.g. Warcraft vs. Streetfighter.

  10. Jimena 10:39, Apr 26th, 10

    It seems that the topic of violence in video games gains wider attention. Just today, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether California can ban the sale or rental of violent video games to kids.Ironically, Gov. Schwarzenegger put aside his own violent movie past to sign the law, but the industry sued the state and it was banned shortly after. It actually never took effect, but now it might.


  11. Harris 06:09, Apr 29th, 10

    Jimena, yes it’s quite ironic that Gov Schwarzenegger signed the law.
    An interesting fact that relates to the difference between games and stories is that the most violent video games and animations are made and consumed in Japan, which also happens to be a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
    I believe any ‘perverse’ pleasure that we fear people may derive out of games that let you do things you can’t do in real life, falls under the ambit of the aesthetic. It is ‘easy fun’. If there is no hard fun in such games, they become boring and people move on.