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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’.