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Thoughts (pt 1) on Rules of Play – defining games March 17, 2007

Posted by ficial in brain dump, games, Rules of Play.

Recently I’ve been working my way through Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. It’s a text book about game design, written with a very academic, analytic bent – Salen and Zimmerman are “working to establish a critical discourse for game design.” Thus far (about 15% of the way through), that seems to mean defining terms and trying tie together / pull from various other authors and thinkers on games and play. I expect it will get more into process later (the authors state from the start that they begin with definitions, which is perfectly reasonable).

This is kind of a response to some ideas set out in the book, probably the first of several, in no particular order. It’s largely just a recording of some thoughts inspired by the reading. It may sound somewhat critical at times, but it’s not meant to be – I’m not endeavoring to correct their presentation but merely to record my own ideas on some topics, and the parts that tend to get me thinking the most are those where I differ from them. So…

The basic definitions section reminds me of math, where one starts with a very limited set of axioms and derives a whole system from them. It works in math, where the system can truly be defined from the base up. It’s trickier with words, which are very slippery, fluid, subjective things. They start with ‘meaningful play’ and after about 80 pages end up with RULES, PLAY, and CULTURE (they’re caps) design schemas, on the way defining design, game, rule, and other such bits and pieces. For the most part the details don’t matter to me (I mean, its interesting stuff, but they’re axioms – assuming I want to understand what the authors are saying I have to accept them as the givens for what follows). That being said…

The way (both the process and the result) they define game is intriguing. They take definitions from 8 notables in the world of game design and thinking, break them into parts, build a grid, and look for commonalities. Then they remove “the unnecessary bits” and come up with this definition:
“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

This definition includes puzzles as games (according to the author), and is very hazy on things like RPGs and simulations (SimCity, flight simulators, etc.). I think, though I’m not sure, that one of the main goals of this definition is to separate game play from more general play. Anyway, that definition more-or-less works, I guess – I’m certainly willing to accept it as the operative definition for the rest of the book. If joe-average-game-designer came up to me on the street and told me that was his definition of a game I wouldn’t try to argue them out of it, but I probably would start some kind of discussion about it…

In our [game group] conversations on this topic (‘what is a game’) we’ve developed the idea that game-like things fall into one of four categories: activities, puzzles, toys, and games. Generally, everyone in the group can agree about which category a particular thing falls into. (Though, the death of the author has an analogous ‘death of the designer’ – whether something is a toy, puzzle, activity, or game depends finally on how it’s used by the players, not what was intended by the designer.) We have at various times dissected what aspects of a thing incline us to put it in one group and not another, and sifting through all that the definition I (and not necessarily others in the group) would use is:
a game is a finite collection of rules which define a start, a game state, a finish, relevant actions (i.e. how the game state can be changed and thus also the range of possible game states), and methods of determining winners and losers, and by which one or people (known as players) choose to abide for the goal (not necessarily exclusive) of having fun.

Activities are distinguished by not having winners or losers defined by the rules and by having an open-ended game state and set of relevant actions – E.g. RPGs, Calvinball. Toys are distinguished by not having winners or losers, nor by having a definite end (and toys are distinguished from activities in having a fixed set of relevant actions) – E.g. The Sims. Puzzles are distinguished by not having winners or losers (though many puzzle solvers will equate ‘achieved the finished state’ with ‘won’, in which case for them that thing would be a game) – E.g. Rubik’s Cube, Crosswords, Jigsaw Puzzles.

My definition is different in these main ways:
– it excludes puzzles
– it allows the inclusion of the real (i.e. isn’t restricted to ‘artificial conflict’)
– it requires a purpose/intention of fun
– it is player-centric (in two main ways – players choose to play, and players have the intention of having fun)
– plus there are some differences in the details of ‘what is a rule’, more of which anon

‘Fun’ is notoriously difficult to define precisely, let alone accurately. In large part that’s because fun is entirely subjective. Still, I don’t think that gets in the way of my definition being a useful one. It does have the effect that a game designer only creates (or discovers?) proto-games which aren’t actually games until one or more players play them with the intention of having fun (whether or not the fun is realized), but as soon as anyone (including said designer) plays it with that intent then it becomes a game. I think the ‘artificial conflict’ is how the authors try to get at the idea of fun from a kind of side-ways approach. However I think the restriction of artificiality (“Artificial: Games maintain a boundary from so called ‘real life’ in both time and space. Although games obviously occur in the real world, artificiality is one of their defining features”) excludes a number of things which I would call games. For one example off hand, poker played with real money has a very definite real world element in the conflict, but if a player also played for fun I would still call it a game.

It’s also worth noting that the collection of rules which a game uses may be used in a non-game way, by giving the player(s)s no choice in the participation, by the player(s) participating with no goal of having fun, or both. I would call something that was a game in every way except choice and/or fun by the more general term ‘contest’.

All in all a precise definition of game doesn’t matter that much. It’s sometimes fun and/or useful to discuss whether X is a game or a puzzle or a toy or an activity, but where exactly the final product falls is irrelevant. It’s main use is in helping the designer(s) think about his, her, or their projects. So, enough about defining games. Next topic, rules….



1. Linnaeus - April 5, 2007

The definition of game is rather notoriously difficult to nail down.I’m inclined to say that this may be because games lie at the intersection of several continua, rather than being a category that is relatively distant from other pastimes. As a result, the lines get blurry, and you end up with edge cases like role-playing games (there’s actually something of a variety of approaches to competition, running form full collaboration to explicit win conditions).

Regarding your observation of poker leaking over into real life, I think the same factors are equally true of any game that can be played professionally (like Chess or Go) or even semi-professionally (like some collectible card games, most notably Magic: the Gathering). Any of these can be played with the intent of, at the very least, upgrading your financial situation, which is a real effect on your non-gaming life.

2. ficial - April 5, 2007

I agree that ‘game’ is a pretty fuzzy term, which is a large part of why I lean towards a functional, user-centric definition. It’s awfully easy to get bogged down in trying to strictly, objectively define ‘game’ and forget that to the players it doesn’t really matter.

Great other examples of games with real-life consequence. Then there’s the whole realm of social stature and putting one’s ego on the table.

3. Linnaeus - April 5, 2007

Then there’s the whole realm of social stature and putting one’s ego on the table.

Tell me about it. People who think they are proving how intelligent they are by winning a game (and, as a result, get huffy when they lose), are one of the major downsides of organized game play in conventions and tournaments.

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