Book Report: Uncertainty in Games

Greg Costikyan has enjoyed a career to make any game designer proud.  He was the locus RPG design when he authored the first Star Wars RPG for West End Games and Toon for Steve Jackson Games.  He defined the fringes of RPG design with his deconstructionist works Paranoia  and Violence. He understands the science of games and he understands their soul. His essay I Have No Words and I Must Design should be mandatory reading in any designer’s apprenticeship.  When Greg Costikyan talks, you are wise to listen.

MIT began the Playful Thinking series of books on game design in 2013 with The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games by Jesper Juul. Uncertainty in Games is Costikyan’s contribution to the series.  This slim volume–just 114 pages of body text–arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago. Let’s take a look together.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction. Costikyan offers a well-illustrated concept of games as a safe space to explore uncertainty (and even danger, perhaps?) “…in a fictive and nonthreatening way.”

Chapter 2 covers games and culture.  At only 5 pages, this was my favorite chapter in the book. Costikyan goes at the anthropological core of play. We humans touch things and leave them more elaborate than when we found them. “Apes will tap out a rhythm;” he writes “we have the Eroica symphony, and Rock Band. Animals can see; we have the Mona Lisa. Beavers build dams and wasps build nests; we build Paris.”

I have always enjoyed sociology and anthropology (and zoology as Desmond Morris applies it to humans).  Any observation that gets at what we humans are all about intrigues me endlessly.  It had not occurred to me that one of humanity’s distinguishing features was our tendency to make things more elaborate, more formalized, more ritualized.  Costikyan is definitely on to something when he asserts that games are humanity’s formalized form of risk engagement.

Chapter 3 continues the argument Costikyan began in chapter 2, asserting the ways in which uncertainty serves play.  His approach makes here echoes many late-night convention conversations about core engagement and the like.  For me, the biggest insight he offers is simple but expansive–“games thrive on uncertainty, whereas other interactive entities do their best to minimize it.”  This comment left me feeling that some of my broader thoughts about player engagement need revision.

Chapter 4 holds the meat of the book, delving the types of uncertainty.  It is also the most heavily academic chapter.  Costikyan lays out different flavors of uncertainty–performance uncertainty, player unpredictability, randomness, analytic complexity, narrative uncertainty, and several more–through careful analysis of fifteen games ranging from Rock/Paper/Scissors to Magic: the Gathering to poker to CityVille.

Costikyan has an encyclopedic knowledge of games and he leverages that knowledge well here.

Each game discussion includes a summary of gameplay which may be skimmed if the reader is already familiar with the game in question.

Chapter 5 inverts chapter 4 by beginning with sources of uncertainty and then unpacks particular games as examples of each.  Again, Costikyan puts his wide knowledge of games to good use.

Chapter 6 is the chapter most immediately useful to game designers.  Costikyan spends chapter 6’s short nine pages applying his theories directly to game design.  He advises each of us to see uncertainty as a tool in our toolbox.  He pushes both the notion of increasing uncertainty and of lessening it.  He again provides specific examples.  Were he to write another book, devoted solely to the management of uncertainty in game design, it would be assured a treasured place on my shelf.

Chapter 7 offers a conclusion.  It is as short and sweet as this paragraph.

It is difficult to write analytically about games.  At our best, we game design essayists write with a deft and playful use of language that mirrors the fun of play itself.  At our worst, our analysis steal the fun from games bodies like the proverbial dementor delivering its kiss to Harry Potter.

Those who have chosen to write for traditional academia paddle the edge of the whirlpool of overanalysis.  Their need to support intellectual arguments can easily draw them in to increasingly cerebral pieces with no spirit.  Such emotionally dead essays are particularly disheartening because our hobby exists to deliver engagement, not detachment.

Writing this column has shown me that it can be difficult to provide intellectual rigor while resisting the overanalysis trap. My own series Ties, Damn Ties, and Statistics was intended to run two parts.  But each topic led to another and I couldn’t resist tacking on another subtopic until the series had more than tripled in size.  I indulged the intellect but starved the spirit.

Costikyan also struggles with this dryness, particularly in chapter 4.  Press on to the book’s conclusion regardless.  These analyses are the cost Costikyan pays to fully establish his point of view. He collects with interest by the end.

Uncertainty in Games is not perfect.  But it does bring a new perspective to game analysis, it does provide solid academic credentials, it does provide practical advice to working game designers, and it does all of these things in a readable form.

Uncertainty in Games was worth every minute I spent reading it.  At the end, could we ask for anything more?

How about you?  What type of uncertainty engages you in a game?  How do you use uncertainty in your game designs?  Have you read Uncertainty in Games and have thoughts to share? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with wordpress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


8 thoughts on “Book Report: Uncertainty in Games

  1. sirvalence says:

    I read recently that “Games exist at the crossroads of non-optimal choices.” (John Wick, via Ryan Macklin – I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I suspect that uncertainty is critical to preventing the optimization that turns an interesting game decision into a solveable puzzle.

    In an early iteration of Doomed Atlantis, I tried to speed up the game by saying that your attacks always hit. It surprised me how much excitement it robbed from the game. Now you roll a die, and the results are much more interesting.

    I’ve recently become addicted to the app/game 2048. There’s a lot of complexity, but I came up with a method of play that controlled the complexity and essentially solved the game. I can’t _always_ win, and the trance state that the game induces is still pretty seductive, but the diminished uncertainty has turned it into something less than a game.

    I find it funny that a search on reading about “game theory” is more likely to turn up treatises on economics and math than books like this. But if you want more to read in this vein, I highly recommend Raph Koster’s _A Theory of Fun for Game Design_ ( It’s an interesting and engaging read.

  2. Thanks for this — it sounds like a book I would very much like to read.

    I think “uncertainty” is a useful term to discuss, rather than “randomness” as most people seem to do. I remember seeing a talk by Richard Garfield on this sort of thing, pointing out that even in chess, a pure, no chance, open information, zero sum game, what most mortals experience is a lot of uncertainty as, due to the extreme complexity of the game, we can’t know the full repercussions of our moves.

  3. Thanks for the review, Kevin. I’ve ordered Uncertainty in Games, and have the Kindle sample downloaded for my flight to Buffalo on Friday.

    I’ve long preferred “uncertainty” to “randomness” when talking about games and I think it’s an important distinction.

    There’s a quote I always keep in mind when I want to create a sense of drama in a game.

    “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.”

    ― William Archer

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