Uncertainty in Games

From Playful Thinking

Uncertainty in Games

By Greg Costikyan

How uncertainty in games—from Super Mario Bros. to Rock/Paper/Scissors—engages players and shapes play experiences.





How uncertainty in games—from Super Mario Bros. to Rock/Paper/Scissors—engages players and shapes play experiences.

In life, uncertainty surrounds us. Things that we thought were good for us turn out to be bad for us (and vice versa); people we thought we knew well behave in mysterious ways; the stock market takes a nosedive. Thanks to an inexplicable optimism, most of the time we are fairly cheerful about it all. But we do devote much effort to managing and ameliorating uncertainty. Is it any wonder, then, asks Greg Costikyan, that we have taken this aspect of our lives and transformed it culturally, making a series of elaborate constructs that subject us to uncertainty but in a fictive and nonthreatening way? That is: we create games.

In this concise and entertaining book, Costikyan, an award-winning game designer, argues that games require uncertainty to hold our interest, and that the struggle to master uncertainty is central to their appeal. Game designers, he suggests, can harness the idea of uncertainty to guide their work.

Costikyan explores the many sources of uncertainty in many sorts of games—from Super Mario Bros. to Rock/Paper/Scissors, from Monopoly to CityVille, from FPS Deathmatch play to Chess. He describes types of uncertainty, including performative uncertainty, analytic complexity, and narrative anticipation. And he suggest ways that game designers who want to craft novel game experiences can use an understanding of game uncertainty in its many forms to improve their designs.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262018968 152 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in


$14.95 T ISBN: 9780262527538 152 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in


  • Once again, Greg Costikyan has given us an original and insightful angle on game design. In a world inundated with overwrought megabytes about fun, graphics, and immersion, Costikyan shows that an analysis of the role of uncertainty in games sheds important light on the process of game design. This book should be required reading for game designers.

    Chris Crawford

    former head of Atari's Games Research Group, and founder of the Game Developers Conference

  • Until now, uncertainty has been a shadowy concept in the world of game design; hard to put a finger on, hard to pin down. In this incisive text, rich with examples, Greg Costikyan captures uncertainty, dissects it, analyzes it, then miraculously brings it back to life and sets it free, all in the name of showing us what uncertainty truly is: the secret force that makes us love games.

    Jesse Schell

    Carnegie Mellon University; CEO, Schell Games

  • Greg Costikyan is a true veteran of the game industry. His career spans the earliest online videogames, tabletop role-playing games and wargames, and recent Facebook and casual hits. Uncertainty in Games puts Costikyan's considerable experience and pointed intellect to good use. The result is some of the most insightful, accessible, and witty writing about games in recent memory. There is one thing I have no uncertainty about: my game design students will be reading Uncertainty in Games.

    Eric Zimmerman

    independent game designer & founding faculty, NYU Game Center

  • Uncertainty in Games is sure to provide readers of all stripes many satisfying 'Aha!' moments. For gamers, those might take the form of 'That's why I got hooked on Game X.' For developers, there's a wealth of specific advice for providing deeper, more surprising experiences. Academics will discover new tools of critical analysis rooted in the unique perspective of a hands-on game designer. Even publishers will find insights into how better to retain players and monetize them more effectively. In this brief, easy read, Costikyan truly does offer something for everyone.

    Warren Spector

    award-winning veteran game developer