Abstract Games with Raph Koster

Zoyander Street is a critical historical material semiotician of technology and art. He is Senior Curator of Critical Distance, Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a PhD student at Lancaster University, UK.

“Games are the art of math”, argues Raph Koster. “They are teaching us the system of themselves.” Looking through his collection of ancient, abstract games, Koster brings to life these seemingly narrative-free objects in front of us with stories about the societies that created them – Ur is about life in a competitive society, Tafl is about the paradoxical vulnerability of the ruling class.

Koster is a games industry veteran whose work goes back to the early days of MMOs, as the lead designer on Ultima Online. Among games critics and academics he is known as one of the key voices articulating formalist approaches to game design. Koster’s book Theory of Fun, first published in 2004, has become a staple of game design curricula.

For Koster and his peers, a useful theoretical framework is one that allows developers to better communicate about the kinds of effects and systems they hope to build. Koster’s journey to find this language began by “going back to first principles” – collecting examples of games that have been played for hundreds of years, and examining what makes them interesting.

In this video, Koster shows us some of the games from this collection, and explains how they have helped him to think about the expressive potential of play.