Farewell to Reason

Farewell_to_reason This is an ad hoc summation of Paul Feyerabend’s book Farewell to Reason, which presents a vigorous challenge to scientific nationalism. Feyerabend was Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich. He died in 1994.

Paul Feyerabend may have been the last major philosopher of the twentieth century, although his critics would rather he had never taken up his pen. Feyerabend (whose name is pronounced ‘fire-a-bend’) is that rarest of things, a relativist with claws. While other relativists have found themselves retreated to an untenable position akin to solipsism (the belief that the only thing one can know with any certainty is one’s own perceptions), Feyerabend runs roughshod over the landscape of philosophy with the sure footed confidence of someone not only blessed with great intellect, but an exceptional grasp of history and a grand compassion that is infectiously democratic. 

Farewell to Reason is a collection of disparate essays which deal with cultural diversity and cultural change. Their goal is to demonstrate that diversity is beneficial while uniformity reduces both our available resources and the joy of living. Although it succeeds in this goal, it will not convert Feyerabend’s opponents (whose philosophical position, frankly, may be so entrenched as to perhaps be intractable) and his rigorously presented arguments are not for the intellectually timid, nor for the philosophical amateur. This material is hard to read – but all the more rewarding because of it.

(In order to get the most from Feyerabend, an awareness of the philosophies of Wittgenstien and Kuhn is an inessential but useful starting point. Anyone approaching Feyerabend from a position of total philosophical ignorance is likely to be completely out of their depth, or at the very least, unlikely to fully comprehend Feyerabend’s concepts). 

Feyerabend contends that there exist powerful traditions which oppose diversity. The proponents of these points of view concede that people may arrange their lives in a variety of fashions but they insist that there must be limits to variety, and further claim that these limits are constituted either by moral laws which regulate human action, or by physical laws which define our position in nature. In particular, Feyerabend criticises two ideas which have historically been used to justify and make respectable the expansion of Western forms of life (or the ‘brave new monotony’, as one essay terms it) – namely the idea of Reason and the idea of Objectivity.

When someone says that a procedure or point of view is objective (or ‘objectively true’, which is synonymous) they are asserting that it is valid irrespective of human expectations, ideas, attitudes and wishes. It is an underlying claim which many modern scientists and intellectuals assert about their work. This issue is explored in more depth than I can possibly reproduce here, with historical examples spanning from the ancient Greeks through Galileo to more modern examples such as Popper. (Fans of Popper beware: Feyerabend worked with Popper at one point in his life and appears to have developed a pathological hatred of the father of what is termed ‘naïve falsificationism’). 

In the context of Reason (with a capital R), or Rationality (the words are functionally equivalent, if not synonymous), Feyerabend presents fundamental problems even in the introduction to the book, as this short extract demonstrates:

Hardnosed empiricists regard it as irrational to retain view plainly in conflict with experiment while hardnosed theoreticians smile at the irrationality of those who revise basic principles at every flicker of the evidence. 

He asserts that the notions of ‘this is rational’ or ‘this is irrational’ are ambiguous, and never clearly explained, and demonstrates why attempting to enforce such views would be counter productive. By way of context he suggests:

The assumption that there exist universally valid and binding standards of knowledge and action is a special case of a belief whose influence extends far beyond the domain of intellectual debate. This belief… may be formulated by saying that there exists a right way of living and that the world must be made to accept it. 

He proceeds to give examples of religious intolerance and war propelled by such a belief. Indeed, he is far less generous to religion than I would be, but does demonstrate that it is extreme fundamentalism (of the kind expressed above) which causes the problem – and it matters not if this is built on a religious, political or scientific framework. I have long been seeking someone who could present this viewpoint in an erudite fashion, as I have been struggling alone with it for many years. Feyerabend continues:

We may surmise that the idea is a leftover from times when important matters were run from a single centre, a king or a jealous god, supporting and giving authority to a single world view. And we may further surmise that Reason and Rationality are powers of a similar kind and are surrounded by the same aura as were gods, kings, tyrants and their merciless laws. The content has evaporated; the aura remains and makes the powers survive.

In many respects, the perspective that Feyerabend sets down in this book has much in common with the views espoused by Robert Anton Wilson in ‘The New Inquisition’. While Feyerabend lacks

Wilson’s entertainingly constructed prose, he makes up for it with a rigorous argumentation built on a much more solid understanding of philosophy and history (and an absence of entertaining drug-addled rambling). Fans of

Wilson’s work, however, and especially those with the patience for highly academic material, would gain much from considering Feyerabend.

Rather than discuss all of the essays in Farewell to Reason, I shall focus my attention primarily on the first and the final chapter. This is not to say the other material is not fascinating (or, in the case of ‘Aristotle’s Theory of Mathematics’ completely beyond my comprehension!), but these two chapters have the most general remit, and therefore are perhaps easier to summarize.

Notes on Relativism 

The first chapter discusses a particular attempt to make sense of the phenomena of cultural variety, namely relativism. In this essay, Feyerabend begins by presenting a particular thesis (which I will include here), then gradually strengthens the idea presented through a series of arguments. I cannot summarise this adequately, so one must accept that what I present here gives you some idea of how this chapter proceeds but does not give you the necessary information to fully comprehend (or meaningfully oppose) this viewpoint. For this, you must read Feyerabend’s work yourself.

The opening thesis concerns practical relativism, which overlaps somewhat with opportunism: 

R1: individuals, groups, entire civilizations may profit from studying alien cultures, institutions, ideas, no matter how strong the traditions that support their own views (no matter how strong the arguments that support these views). For example, Roman Catholics may profit from studying Buddhism, physicians may profit from a study of the Nei Ching or from an encounter with African witch doctors, psychologists may profit from a study of the ways in which novelists and actors build a character, scientists in general may profit from a study of unscientific methods and points of view and Western civilization as a whole can learn a lot from the beliefs, habits, institutions of ‘primitive’ people. 

(Note that this does not make a recommendation, nor suggest a requirement. It merely suggests that such a study may have effects which could be regarded as beneficial).

Feyerabend observes that there is a spectrum of response to this thesis:

  • The thesis is rejected, which happens when a tightly knit world view is regarded as the only measure of truth and excellence, as happens with certain religious, political or scientific beliefs.
  • The thesis is rejected, but only in certain areas, as occurs in pluralistic cultures with separate components (religion, politics, art, science etc.) that are each guided by a well defined and exclusive paradigm.
  • An exchange of ideas and attitudes between different domains (cultures) is encouraged, but is subjected to the laws that rule the domain (culture) entered.
  • An acceptance that even our most basic assumptions, our most solid beliefs, and our most conclusive arguments can be changed, improved or defused, or shown to be irrelevant by a comparison with what at first looks like undiluted madness.

He then discusses in great length the relationship between modern science and this thesis, in a section that defies easy summation. 

Later, in considering R1 in the political context of democracy – which subjects important matters to public debate and is inherently pluralistic, encouraging the development of a variety of traditions – Feyerabend suggests that R1 suggests that each tradition may contribute to the welfare of individuals and to society as a whole. He therefore presents a new thesis:

R2: societies dedicated to freedom and democracy should be structured in a way that gives all traditions equal opportunities, i.e. equal access to federal funds, educational institutions, basic decisions. Science is to be treated as one tradition among many, not as a standard for judging what is and what is not, what can and what cannot be accepted. 

(Feyerabend is quick to point out that he does not favour the export of ‘freedom’ into regions that are doing well without it and whose inhabitants show no desire to change their ways. Rather, R2 is restricted to societies based upon ‘freedom and democracy’ in order to avoid facile generalisations).

This is rapidly strengthened into: 

R3: Democratic societies should give all traditions equal rights and not only equal opportunities. 

The discussion builds over a number of subsequent theses; these intermediate propositions are used to suggest the following hypothesis:

R10: for every statement (theory, point of view) that is believed to be true with good reasons there may exist arguments showing that either its opposite, or a weaker alternative, is true. 

And its stronger variant:

R11: For every statement, theory, point of view believed (to be true) with good reasons there exist arguments showing a conflicting alternative to be at least as good, or even better. 

Feyerabend concludes the chapter with the obvious criticisms of the relativistic viewpoints expressed, in a manner that once again is highly resistant to summation. An extract is perhaps required for demonstrative purposes:

‘If two parties disagree’, says Popper, ‘this may mean that one is wrong, or the other, or both. It does not mean, as the relativist will have it, that both may be equally right.’

This comment reveals in a nutshell the weakness of all intellectual attacks on relativism. ‘If two parties disagree’ – this means the opponents have established contact and understand each other. Now assume that the opponents come from different cultures. Whose means of communication will they use and how will understanding be reached? … Popper… seems to assume that there exists, basically, a single medium of discourse, that the medium is ‘rational’ in his sense (for example, it obeys simple logical laws), that is consists mainly of talk (gestures, facial expression plays no role), and that everybody has access to it… 


Illusionrabbitduck_1 Why should it not be possible to say conflicting things about ‘the same situation’ and yet be right? A picture that can be seen in two different ways (Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit is an example) can be described in two different ways – and both parties will be right. It is a matter of research and not of philosophical fiat to decide whether the world we inhabit resembles a duck-rabbit picture. 

In concluding this essay, Feyerabend is keen to point out that he is not opposed to science:

Nor am I asserting that we can do without the sciences. We cannot. Having participated in, or permitted, the construction of an environment in which scientific laws come to the fore, both materially, in technological products, and spiritually, in the ideas that are allowed to guide major decisions, we, scientists as well as the common citizens of Western civilization, are subjected to their rule. But social conditions change and science changes with them. 

This essay opens Farewell to Reason with a resounding clatter of cymbals, presenting and arguing for an understanding of relativism with a thoroughness and philosophical precision which is admirable. My précis here captures only a fragment of the piece, and even then only the tone is conveyed, not the underlying arguments. For this, one must read ‘Notes on Relativism’ oneself.

One of the most striking aspects of this piece is the way it places science and religion on equal footing by considering both to be ‘traditions’. This approach had not occurred to me before, but provides a useful tool for examining belief systems from markedly different backgrounds. Viewed from Feyerabend’s vantage point, the last few hundred years of the history of science seem rather like Orwell’s Animal Farm: the forces of Reason manage to unseat the tyrannical despotism of religious traditions, only to take upon the aggressive fundamentalism of that which they opposed (but from a different set of prior beliefs – replacing theism with positivism i.e. the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge), and eventually emerging themselves as fanatical dictators, imposing onto others what can and cannot be believed. One might be inclined to suggest the problem was not with the religion or science that provided the motivation, but in the fascism that resulted.

As someone already sympathetic to relativism, the most surprising part of this chapter for me was how it made me re-evaluate democracy. For the first time in many years, I began to consider how democratic values might be worth rescuing, instead of being trapped in a place where the only political philosophy that seemed appealing was ‘enlightened anarchy’ (a state achievable only by luck). It is a call to arms for everyone open to new ideas, diversity of belief, and variety in approach, to participate in the development of our own societies. 


Farewell to Reason

The final chapter appears to have been written to clarify points Feyerabend raised in his book Against Method, and as such has a strangely uneven quality. However, it makes a good closing statement for this book, as well as a potential introduction to Feyerabend’s earlier work. 

One of Feyerabend’s themes is that there is no common structure to the sciences; individuals may assert that there is, but an analysis of the history of science shows how impressively ad hoc the development of science has been. This is not exploited as a criticism of science, per se, but rather identified as a strength: it argues against placing restrictions and limits on the spirit of open inquiry that underlies science:

My main thesis on [the structure of science] is: the events and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure: there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere (the objection that without such elements the word ‘science’ has no meaning assumes a theory of meaning that has been criticized, with excellent arguments, by Ockham, Berkeley and Wittgenstein)…

A theory of science that devises standards and structural elements of all scientific activities and authorizes them by reference to some rationality-theory may impress outsiders – but it is much too crude an instrument for the people on the spot, that is, for scientists facing some concrete research problem. The most we can do for them from afar is to enumerate rules of thumb, give historical examples, present case studies containing diverging procedures, demonstrate the inherent complexity of research and so prepare them for the morass they are about to enter. 

Another key theme is that science should be understood as one tradition among many, which is to say, Feyerabend questions the authority of the sciences:

I assert that there exist no ‘objective’ reasons for preferring science and Western rationalism to other traditions. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what such reasons might be. Are they reasons that would convince a person, or the members of a culture, no matter what their customs, their beliefs or their social situation? Then what we know about cultures shows us that there are no ‘objective’ reasons in that sense. Are they reasons which convince a person who has been properly prepared? Then all cultures have ‘objective’ reasons in their favour. Are they reasons which do not depend on ‘subjective’ elements such as commitment or personal preference? Then ‘objective’ reasons simply do not exist (the choice of objectivity as a measure is itself a personal and/or group choice – or else people simply accept it without much thought). 

He patiently attacks numerous common arguments extended to assert the innate superiority of science:

[Some intellectuals] distinguish between basic science and its application: if any destroying was done, then this was the work of the appliers, not of the good and innocent theoreticians. But the theoreticians are not that innocent. They are recommending analysis over and above understanding, and this even in domains dealing with human beings; they extol the ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ of science without realising that a procedure whose main aim is to get rid of all human elements is bound to lead to inhuman actions. Or they distinguish between the good which science can do ‘in principle’ and the bad things it actually does. That can hardly give us comfort. All religions are good ‘in principle’ – but unfortunately this abstract Good has only rarely prevented their practitioners from behaving like bastards. 

He is particularly horrified by Popper’s suggestion that:

…the benefits of civilization may occasionally have to be imposed, on unwilling victims, by ‘a form of imperialism.’ 

The inevitable consequences of this statement are hopefully clear, and I will leave the political ramifications in respect of foreign policy as mere implications.

The spirit of relativism infuses the chapter: 

This is a general feature of all ideological debates: arguments in favour of a certain world view depend on assumptions which are accepted in some cultures, rejected in others, but which because of the ignorance of their defenders are thought to have universal validity. 

Feyerabend summarises his position in two statements:

(A) the way in which scientific problems are attacked and solved depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the (formal, experimental, ideological) means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of scientific research.

(B) the way in which problems of society and the interactions of cultures are attacked and solved also depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of human action. 

Thus he criticises the view:

(C) that science and humanity must conform to conditions that can be determined independently of personal wishes and cultural circumstances.

And also the assumption: 

(D) that it is possible to solve problems from afar, without participating in the activities of the people concerned. 

(Opponents of the IMF, and of cultural imperialism of any kinds, will especially appreciate this point).

Finally, Feyerabend pointedly distinguishes between abstract traditions and historical traditions: 

Historical traditions cannot be understood from afar. Their assumptions, their possibilities, the (often unconscious) wishes of their bearers can be found only by immersion, i.e. one must live the life one wants to change. Neither (C) nor (D) apply to historical traditions… my main objections against intellectual solutions of social problems is that they start from a narrow cultural background, ascribe universal validity to it and use power to impose it on others. Is it surprising that I want to have nothing to do with such ratiofascistic dreams? Helping people does not mean kicking them around until they end up in someone else’s paradise, helping people means trying to introduce change as a friend, as a person, that is, who can identify with their wisdom as well as with their follies and who is sufficiently mature to let the latter prevail: an abstract discussion of the lives of people I do not know and with whose situation I am not familiar is not only a waste of time, it is also inhumane and impertinent. 


I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education… which most of the time consists in turning wonderful young people into colourless and self-righteous copies of their teachers… it shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own, sorry image… in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty.

As far as I am concerned there exists no difference whatsoever between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind’ – life is misused for special purposes in both cases. The problem is the growing disregard for spiritual values and their replacement by a crude but ‘scientific’ materialism, occasionally even called humanism: man (i.e. humans as trained by their experts) can solve all problems – they do not need any trust in and any assistance from other agencies. How can I take a person seriously who bemoans distant crimes but praises the criminals in his own neighbourhood? And how can I decide a case from afar seeing that reality is richer than even the most wonderful imagination.



It is apparent, I suspect, that Feyerabend’s work is both polemic and completely against conventional assumptions many intellectuals take for granted. Indeed, the worth of his work lies precisely in his willingness to take such a hard stance against pervasive ideologies that are seldom identified and rarely opposed openly.

If there is a flaw in Feyerabend’s approach it is not with his philosophy, per se, but in its application. Is it possible for the transformation of science and society to proceed at a ‘grass roots’ level, from the everyday citizen? It is possible, but doubtful. We have handed over tremendous political and academic influence to intellectuals (who, for instance, can affect political decisions without themselves being elected as representatives), and they will not give up their power lightly. Opposing this state of affairs by attacking the philosophies which are used to prop up the status quo will likely fail because people with strong belief systems are rarely convinced by contrary argument. 

What perhaps is needed are people to come to the imaginary negotiating tables with the intent of building bridges. This is what I attempt in my life. It is a thankless task – opponents of religion insist that those with religious belief systems cannot be reasoned with, while opponents of science insist that those with materialist belief systems cannot be reasoned with. I dispute both propositions, although I cannot deny it seems harder to reason with the latter (whose faith is often more absolute) than the former (for whom doubt is a more common experience). Indeed, in my own philosophical investigations, I have thus far been attacked only by the latter, and never by the former, but I do not claim from this trivial sample that blame is attributable to one party and not the other.

Feyerabend draws a line in the sand, and stockpiles enough philosophical ammunition to arm potential revolutionaries willing to tackle the difficult problem of engaging an ‘enemy’ who does not appear to recognise their own culpability, and who seem determined to enforce their solutions on other people against their will. I would prefer to find ways to avoid the conflict entirely, but to do so may require inestimable patience in the face of people with intractably absolute belief systems. I suspect I lack Feyerabend’s pugnacious confidence, but I am certainly grateful to have access to his body of work.

I welcome discussion, but please remember this is a summation of a book: if you wish to fully understand, usefully critique or meaningfully oppose Feyerabend’s views, you should read the book first and not assume my synopsis is anything other than a brief introduction to his work. Or to put it another way: Don’t shoot the messenger! My best wishes to you all!

Emotions Revealed

What is an emotion? How many different emotions are there? Are all emotions universal? The journey towards understanding, whether the knowledge of science or the wisdom of philosophy, is as much about the refinement of the language as it is about experiments and treatises. In the context of emotions, there is still much work to be done in building a coherent framework of terms thanks in part to the generous scope the word ‘emotion’ has acquired. Paul Ekman’s work is a substantial and invaluable step towards achieving this goal.

Ekman’s Emotions Revealed (subtitled ‘Understanding Faces and Feelings’) is the second book that I have read as a direct consequence of Nicole Lazzaro’s GDC talks. This, in many respects, is the underpinning of Nicole’s Four Keys model, which collects patterns of emotions collated from direct observation of players with their favorite games. Despite my love of Nicole’s work, I was rather underwhelmed with Cziksentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which, after presenting a great thesis in the first chapter, spent the rest of its time tediously repeating the same information in different contexts. Ekman’s work is of a far greater pedigree.

I will catalogue the emotions Ekman uses in his (still incomplete) taxonomy of emotions in the footnotes below (for my own future reference). In essence, the book works its way through sets of related emotions examining the key work by other researchers in the field, before moving on to discuss the specific signs that allow emotions to be spotted in other people.

This is the aspect of the book which is most outstanding. Ekman has analysed all the muscles in the face, and identified how these muscles react when different emotions are experienced. He provides a series of facial pictures (some composed digitally) which demonstrate the signs and signals of each emotion in turn. This is astonishing work, like nothing else I have seen in the field, and will doubtless ensure Ekman’s work is remembered for a long time to come.

Not to be underestimated in assessing the importance of this book is the manner in which it completely yet politely destroys the assumption that there are no universal signals to emotions. It recognises that emotional behaviours and triggers vary from culture to culture, but firmly and surely identifies common responses that hold true around the world. Cross-cultural studies are immensely difficult to execute, and Ekman must be soundly lauded for his work in this area.

Ekman’s observes in passing that emotions can override drives which some psychologists have claimed are the most powerful fundamental motives – hunger, sex and the will to survive. This is a significant point, although vastly outside the scope of the book to explore fully. He also observes that when under the influence of an emotion individuals become temporarily incapable of accessing information inconsistent with their current emotional state. The recognition of this refractory state can be a valuable aid to anyone struggling to reach a more balanced emotional state.

Emotions Revealed is not the ultimate scientific reference book on emotions that it could have been, simply because so much of the research in the field is still vastly incomplete. It is nonetheless the most exhaustive and carefully observed guide to emotions that has been seen so far, and is written with the goal of improving people’s understanding of their emotional states which in itself is a worthy goal. Few scientific books combine a self-help perspective with such erudite work. When the ultimate reference book on emotion is finally written, many years down the line, Ekman will be substantially referenced, and warmly remembered.



Emotion: Ekman’s definition of emotion is at the back of the book, and is too complex to reproduce in full. In short: an emotion consists of [1] a set of sensations experienced [2] briefly (longer experiences Ekman considers moods) [3] about something that matters to the person experiencing it. [4] Emotions happen without the experience being chosen consciously; [5] a subconscious appraisal process triggers the emotion. [6] While an emotion is being experienced there is a refractory period during which information inconsistent with the emotional state cannot be accessed. [7] People become consciously aware of an emotion once it has begun. [8] There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary past, and culturally learned variations which reflect our individual experiences. [9] The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behaviour, and [10] a clear, rapid and universal signal informs others of how an emotional person is feeling.

Mood: if an emotion lasts for hours, Ekman considers this a mood, not an emotion. He deploys separate terms for moods than for emotions.


Non-enjoyable emotions:

1. Sadness and Agony
Sadness: dysphoria, helplessness, hopelessness

 Agony: intense and painful version of sadness; elements of protest
2. Anger

  range of states from annoyance, through frustration to rage
3. Surprise and Fear

 Surprise: short lived response to the unexpected
 Fear: retreat from the threat of harm; physical or psychological
4. Disgust and Contempt

 Disgust: feeling of aversion, repulsion
 Contempt: disdain; experienced towards people or their actions

Similar emotions are grouped together. Separate terms are used to indicate that there is a different sign for display, and differences in the triggering states. Disgust and contempt, for instance, seem related, but have different facial expressions and radically different triggering states. They appear to be two separate emotions.

Enjoyable emotions:

1-5. Sensory pleasures
 Visual pleasure
 Tactile pleasre
 Olfactory pleasure
 Auditory pleasure
 Gustatory pleasure
6. Amusement
 from slight amusement, through to intense amusement with laughter and tears
7. Contentment

 the feeling that there is nothing more that need be done
8. Excitement

 response to novelty or challenge
9. Relief

 felt immediately after a strong emotion subsides
10. Wonderment

 feeling of being overwhelmed by the improbable and incomprehensible
11. Ecstasy (or Bliss)

 intense self-transcendent rapture
12. Fiero

 triumph over adversity, commonly seen in sporting victories
13. Naches

 pride in the accomplishment of a child or student (or of a parent or tutor)
14. Elevation

 uplifting feeling in response to unexpected kindness and compassion
15. Gratitude

 appreciation for an altruistic gift that provides benefit
16. Shadenfreude

 delight in the suffering of enemies (in the context of play, of our friends)

Regrettably, the bulk of the book is concerned with the non-enjoyable emotions, and only a single chapter is devoted to these sixteen emotions. There is clearly much research still to be done.

Emotions not covered by this book:

1. Guilt (no clear signal)
2. Shame (no clear signal)
3. Embarrassment (no clear signal – blushing cannot be observed in dark-skinned people)
4. Envy (no clear signal) 

Not covered, and not considered emotions:

5. Jealousy (Ekman does not consider this to be an emotion, but an emotional scene or plot; it is expressible in terms of the other emotions)
6. Love (Ekman does not consider parental or romantic love to be an emotion on the following grounds: emotions can be very brief, but love endures) 

Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings is published by Phoenix, ISBN 0-75381-765-9.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design

With a title such as A Theory of Fun for Game Design, one cannot help but suspect strange tensions at work in Raph Koster's book. 'Fun' and 'theory' sit together somewhat uncomfortably, each shuffling their feet as if uncertain they have come to the right place. And yet, after relaxing, perhaps sharing a few drinks and anecdotes, suddenly it seems that the two are getting along famously - although they never quite manage to speak quite the same language. Such is the schizophrenic joy of A Theory of Fun - it combines a methodical approach with a playful freedom from excessive seriousness resulting in a book unlike any other on the subject of games.

The first thing one notices about the book is it's unsusual structure, as it has text on the verso pages, and (mostly) cartoons on the recto pages. For the most part, the annotated cartoons provide a superlight version of the main content of the book, while generously complete notes (collected as an appendix) provide more detailed annotations where appropriate. The result is a book that can be read in three ways - focussing on the cartoons and using the text for more details, focussing on the text and using the cartoons for illustration, and using the text and the notes in concert for a more scholarly approach.

Koster's view is that fun is another word for learning. However, in order to support this view, the author becomes forced into excluding any aspect of the word 'fun' that does not fit with his model. Koster is completely upfront about this - he suggests that taking a wider view of fun "renders the word meaningless", and therefore focuses only on a specific definition of fun as "the act of mastering a problem mentally". Since this is not how the rest of the world uses the word 'fun', I personally feel he would have done better to coin a different phrase rather than co-opting fun into a context that does not fit with how the word is conventionally used (this betrays my adherence to Wittgenstein's thinking on language yet again).

Still, since this linguistic sleight of hand is performed honestly and openly, there is not really a problem. However, I'm going to use the term Kfun (for 'Koster fun') to refer to the subset of fun discussed in the book in an effort to disambiguate the language.

The author explores kfun in a thorough and detailed fashion, looking at what games are good at teaching, differences in individual ability (solely through the perspective of intelligence and learning styles because of the focus on kfun), problems that result, and coming round ultimately to looking at issues of representation, ethics and ultimately the cultural role games may aspire towards.  Because of the brisk pace, some issues are not examined in much detail, but conversely the book covers a vast multitude of topics making it an excellent primer on the subject of games.

Again, because of the volume of material covered, there are inevitable errors and ommisions. These vary from the trivial to the debatable.

An example of the former (trivial errors): Koster claims that Centipede is not really that different from Galaxian. But the attack waves in Galaxian are static, and nothing the player does affects them, whereas in Centipede, shooting the Centipede leaves mushrooms which alter the attack patterns in a dynamic and controllable fashion, resulting in a much harder game to master. (The obvious rebuttal to this sort of minutiae is "who gives a damn", of course).

An example of the latter (debatable errors): Koster claims "From a strict evolutionary point of view, cheating is a winning strategy." There is no reference to this in the notes, so I assume this is just his opionion - I believe he is in error. Although ecologies can support a certain amount of 'cheating', this does not equate to cheating being a winning strategy. Cuckoos lay eggs in other bird's nests (a form of cheating) - but this does not allow cuckoos to out perform other bird species - if there were only cuckoos, they would be royally screwed as brood parasites must inevitably be in the minority. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that in a social context the most successful categories are Tit for Tat and Tit for Two Tat - which outperform every cheating strategy. Koster's claim that "Duelists who shoot first while their opponents are pacing off are far more likely to reproduce" is flawed: four people attend a formal duel, the two duelists plus two seconds. It is hard to devise a cheating strategy for a formal duel that will allow the cheat to reintegrate into their society and breed.

There are also points in which I believe he misrepresents other people's theories. For instance, Koster equates Lazarro's Hard Fun with Csikszentmihalyi's flow in an inaccurate manner. I believe Koster might have been at the same Lazarro GDC presentation as I was - in which she inadvertently mentioned flow and provided an impromptu explanation while talking about Hard Fun. But this was not because flow refers only to Hard Fun. However, since Lazarro still hasn't written a book (I hope she will address this soon!) we only have her paper on the subject to refer to. Besides, Koster's conclusion that fun isn't flow is broadly accurate and his conclusion that flow isn't kfun is completely accurate, so in some respects it is not a problem. 

However, these sort of issues are the result of the wide reach of the book which covers so much it is inevitable that a few imperfections creep in. These small and often insignificant cracks are more than compensated for by both a wealth of useful information, and super cute alligator cartoons.

The book does not really provide the theory of fun that some may feel is promised in the title - but then, I don't believe it is a coincidence that Koster chose to call it 'A Theory of Fun' and not 'The Theory of Fun'. Koster presents a theory of kfun, and he explores it thoroughly. It leads him to some conclusions that I find hard to agree with, because in accepting the value of the fun of learning (kfun) he rules out to some extent having fun just for the sake of it which I believe may be premature.

None of this actually matters, because at it's heart this isn't a book about a theory of kfun at all (although this is the central device by which it progresses). A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a highly personal and empassioned defence of the value of games and of the games industry. The book is framed in the context of a discussion between Koster and his grandfather, who asked if Raph was proud of what he did, and throughout the book the presence of Koster's children can also be felt. There is an intimacy to this aspect of the book which I feel is its greatest strength.

I believe there are two basic battles going on right now - one is for the defence of the games industry against those who would muzzle it or inhibit its growth (and this is where Koster ebulliently leaps to games' defence) and one is for the industry to expand its reach to meet the needs of a wider audience (which is where Koster's co-worker Sheri Grainer Ray has staunchly positioned herself). I personally feel more driven to fight on the second front, but I have great respect for those who have chosen to take to the field of the first.

Erudite, passionate and accessible, A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a unique and engaging book which suffers from a certain schizophrenia as to whether it is talking to the layman or the professional but somehow manages to make this confusion work to its advantage. It is essential reading for anyone interested in games, and an ardent defence of the value of games which is both apposite and timely.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design is published by Paraglyph Press, ISBN 1-932111-97-2.

The Seven Basic Plots

I recently finished chunking through Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (subtitled, ‘Why we tell stories’). It would be not entirely accurate to say I read the whole thing, all 705 large pages, each with very small print - I skimmed over large sections of it, which is easy to do as it contains hundreds of descriptions of the plots of stories and it is possible to get at Booker’s ideas without reading all of them. For anyone wishing to attempt to read this book, I recommend only reading plot summaries of stories you already know. It saves a lot of time.

This book has received a lot of negative reviews, largely because Booker bases his entire treatise on Jungian psychology without noticing that the world at large no longer holds Jung in very high esteem. (Some would say Jung has been ‘discredited’, which is the modern version of declaring something to be ‘heresy’ - reflecting the different forces at work in the modern zeitgeist).

However, once you accept that this is where Booker is writing from, his ideas are reasonable and potentially useful. In terms of advancing the boundaries of modern knowledge, I feel he doesn’t really take us any further than Joseph Campbell - but his models are perfectly workable. A model, after all, is just a model, and not truth. In my opinion, you can't have too many models for looking at the world.

Booker’s prose style is very readable, and his plot summaries are wonderfully written if occasionally trivially inaccurate - but sadly he doesn’t seem to know how to get a point across concisely. For my own benefit, I wanted to catalogue Booker’s basic plot patterns, and so I’m providing them here in case they are of interest to anyone else. These aren’t my ideas, so don’t shoot the messenger!

For reference, Booker believes we tell stories as a mechanism of passing a model for life from generation to generation; that in essence, all stories are archetypal family dramas, and that their core message is that we must resist selfish evil (Booker doesn’t use this term, preferring ‘ego-centred’, according to his Jungian framework). I find this a lovely belief system, although it will likely be quite unpalatable to those who idolise testability.

What follows are the skeletons of his ‘seven basic plots’. The word ‘plot’ as used by Booker may give people pause, as he does not use it to mean the literal events of the story, but rather the symbolic events of the story, and note that not every story follows the template perfectly. In this regard, I prefer the term ‘meta-plot’ - indicating a degree of abstraction between how we usually use plot, and how it is employed in the book. Also, I am purposefully providing only the minimum amount of detail - I am recording it here for reference, I do not expect these notes to be wholly sufficient to understand Booker’s models. If you want any more information, please check the book rather than asking me.

My thanks to Ben for loaning me the book in the first place.

The Basic Meta-plot

Most of the meta-plots are variations on the following pattern:

  1. Anticipation Stage
    The call to adventure, and the promise of what is to come.
  2. Dream Stage
    The heroine or hero experiences some initial success - everything seems to be going well, sometimes with a dreamlike sense of invincibility.
  3. Frustration Stage
    First confrontation with the real enemy. Things begin to go wrong.
  4. Nightmare Stage
    At the point of maximum dramatic tension, disaster has erupted and it seems all hope is lost.
  5. Resolution
    The hero or heroine is eventually victorious, and may also be united or reunited with their ‘other half’ (a romantic partner).

There are some parallels with Campbell’s Heroic Monomyth, but his pattern is more applicable to mythology than to stories in general.

Overcoming the Monster (and the Thrilling Escape from Death)

Examples: Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, James Bond, Star Wars: A New Hope.

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (The Call)
  2. Dream Stage (Initial Success)                   
  3. Frustration Stage (Confrontation)
  4. Nightmare Stage (Final Ordeal)
  5. Miraculous Escape (Death of the Monster)

Rags to Riches

Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, David Copperfield 
Dark Version: Le Rouge et Le Noir (1831), What Makes Sammy Run? (1940)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Initial Wretchedness at Home (The Call)
  2. Out into the World (Initial Success)
  3. The Central Crisis
  4. Independence (Final Ordeal)
  5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment

The Quest

Examples: The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down

Meta-plot structure:

  1. The Call (Oppressed in the City of Destruction)
  2. The Journey (Ordeals of the Hero/Heroine & Companions)
    May include some or all of the following:
    a. Monsters
    b. Temptations
    c. The Deadly Opposites
    d. The Journey to the Underworld
  3. Arrival and Frustration
  4. The Final Ordeals
  5. The Goal (Kingdom, Other Half or Elixir won)

Voyage & Return

Examples: Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man (1948)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (‘Fall’ into the Other World)
  2. Initial Fascination (Dream Stage)
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return


Comedy is dealt with by a less rigid structure. In essence, the comedy meta-plot is about building an absurdly complex set of problems which then miraculously resolve at the climax. There is much discussion of how the comedy plot has developed over time:

    Stage one: Aristophanes
    Stage two: ‘The New Comedy’ (comedy becomes a love story)
    Stage three: Shakespeare (plot fully developed)
    Comedy as real life: Jane Austen
    The plot disguised: Middlemarch, War and Peace
    The plot burlesqued: Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A little world in which people are under the shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration and are shut up from one another.
  2. Tightening the Knot
    The confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle.
  3. Resolution
    With the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. Shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union.


Examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie & Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Julius Caesar

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (Greed or Selfishness)
  2. Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Destruction or Death Wish Stage


Examples: Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of a dark power
  2. The Threat Recedes
    Everything seems to go well for a while - the threat appears to have receded.
  3. The Threat Returns
    Eventually the threat approaches again in full force, until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in a state of living death.
  4. The Dark Power Triumphant
    The state of living death continues for a long time when it seems the dark power has completely triumphed.
  5. Miraculous Redemption
    If the imprisoned person is a heroine, redeemed by the hero; if a hero, by a young woman or child.

Dark Versions

All of the above plots have dark versions, in which the ‘complete happy ending’ is never achieved because of some problem. The only exception is Tragedy, which is already the ‘dark’ version.

New Plots

Two additional plots are presented which are outside of the basic seven listed above. Note that the existence of general patterns of plot is not intended to mean that no other plots are possible.

Rebellion Against ‘The One’
A solitary hero/heroine finds themselves being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world of the hero. Initially they feel they are right and the mysterious power is at fault, but suddenly the hero/heroine is confronted by the power in its awesome omnipotence. The rebellious hero/heroine is crushed and forced to recognise that their view had been based only on a very limited subjective perception of reality. They accept the power’s rightful claim to rule.

Example: The Book of Job
Dark version: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Mystery
Begins by posing a riddle, usually through the revelation that some baffling crime has been committed. Central figure unravels the riddle.

Examples: Bel and the Dragon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie



In addition to patterns of plots, there is a pattern of characters provided according to Jungian principles. These archetypal characters are as follows:

Negative (centred on Jungian Ego i.e. "evil"):

    Dark Father, Tyrant or Dark Magician
    Dark Mother, Dark Queen or Hag
    Dark Rival or Dark Alter-Ego
    Dark Other Half or Temptress

Positive (centred on Jungian Self i.e. "good"):

    Light Father, Good King or Wise Old Man
    Light Mother, Good Queen or Wise Old Woman
    Light Alter-Ego or Friend and Companion
    Light Other Half (light anima/animus)

Note: Booker uses ‘witch’ where I use ‘hag’, for reasons that will be apparent to most readers.

Three other archetypes are referenced:       

    The Child
    The Animal Helper
    The Trickster


Additional Concepts

The Complete Happy Ending
In the regular versions of the meta-plots, if all that is ego-centred becomes centred instead on the Self (i.e. if all characters are redeemed), the result is a 'complete happy ending'. In the dark versions of the story, the ending is generally tragic and disasterous - both are considered to be following the same meta-plot. It is also possible for stories to contain elements of both approaches.

The Unrealised Value
The chief dark figure signals to us the shadowy, negative version of precisely what the hero or heroine will eventually have to make fully positive in themselves if they are to emerge victorious and attain 'the complete happy ending'. Therefore, the villain metaphorically represents what the hero or heroine will conquor both within themselves, and in the world of the story.

Above and Below the Line
In general, (and especially in comedy) there is a dividing line in effect. Above the line is the established social order, and below the line are the servants,  ‘inferior’ or shadow elements. The problem originates ‘above the line’ (e.g. with tyranny) but the road to liberation always lies ‘below the line’ in the ‘inferior’ level.

Below the line can also be represented as a ‘shadow realm’, containing the potential for wholeness. In the conclusion of the story, elements may ‘emerge from the shadows’ to provide resolution.

The Seven Basic Plots is published by Continuum, ISBN-0-8264-5209-4.