Gonzalo Frasca

Gonzalo Frasca, PhD, is Professor of Videogames at ORT University in Uruguay. He is CEO at OkidOKO, a learning games studio, and former Creative Director at Powerful Robot Games. He loves Plants vs Zombies and writes videogame columns at CNNenEspañol.com
Contact information:
frasca at ort.edu.uy

De Koven’s “The Well-Played Game”

by Gonzalo Frasca

De Koven’s “The Well-Played Game”

The book looked scary. I must confess that overeager game advocates make me nervous. I remember once walking into a games shop and almost being mobbed by the clerks into trying their new game.

The intense tone in which The Well-Played Game is written can indeed remind you of such people. However, the main goal of this review is to tell you that it is ok. This book may approach you with all the enthusiasm of a very energetic 5-year-old but, trust me, it is an extremely friendly one and it is well worth spending time with.

This book is relevant. I would even dare say that this book is even more relevant today than when it was originally written (1978). Since then, games have been commodified and literally objectified to an unprecedented extent. Thanks to the toy and videogame-industry marketing efforts, the original ambiguity between “game”-the-experience and “game”-the-object has since then shifted its balance towards the latter.

In his book, De Koven puts the player first. His is a thorough typology of what happens in human play and its vicinities. And by thorough I mean in a hardcore way: it is hard to think of any aspect that has been left out. How games begin, end, die for good, how players negotiate, cheat, and trust each other. The list goes on and on and even includes notes on how to make room for new players -- clearly those game store clerks I encountered did not read this part.

The book’s approach is psychological: De Koven is an experienced and subtle observer of player behavior. It is a blessing that this book was written before videogames reached their current cultural status because by reading it we can easily realize how limited current videogames are -- and probably always will be -- and how vast the canvas of play can be.

This book is inspiring. My colleagues and I tend to agree that one of the Holy Grails of videogame theory would be to accomplish the equivalent of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”: a popular, engaging typology of game conventions that could be experienced and played with. Unfortunately, it is also a much too ambitious idea, both technically and in scope. That being said, Chaim Gingold’s upcoming “Earth - a Primer” sim-based book app might be used as a great template for such an endeavor.

While not playable, The Well-Played Game could be seen as the walkthrough of such a book. It was not meant to be written in an academic fashion, but it is certainly a very rigorous and honest approach to the subject we all care about.

This book is important. If you have not read it, read it. If you already have, browse it and you will almost certainly find small details and aspects of play and games that you already knew but failed to take into account. And, more importantly, please rewrite this book in a different tone, in a different format, make YouTube videos about some of its ideas, create web comics about them, share the stories with your students, use its anecdotes in your own work. That is the way that classics are supposed to be dealt with.

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