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Thoughts (pt 4) on Rules of Play – digital games March 22, 2007

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

An interesting subset of games are digital (aka computer) games. Computer games have many things in common with other games, but they also have their own particular aspects and issues. I just finished reading the Rules in Digital Games chapter in Rules of Play, and I disagree with most of it. Much of that disagreement arises from my fundamental split on what counts as a game rule, but a large part also comes from the way I go about categorizing games. It also becomes clear in this chapter that one of their rule categories, operational rules, is much broader than I’d thought.

So, digital games. One of the first questions is, what counts as a digital game? World of Warcraft? Definitely. Tetris? Certainly. Civilization? Absolutely. Internet poker? …Maybe, but probably not. Playing against a chess program running on a local machine? I’d say no. Clearly all the games are running on a computer, but I tend to make a distinction between ‘real’ digital games and computerized versions of non-digital games.

Salen and Zimmerman consider all games played on a computer to be digital games, and the elements of the user interface are part of the rules of the game. In some ways this makes sense, because the interface affects the feel and play of the game. However, a rule like “a player may type the left arrow key to move the current piece one space to the left” isn’t something I’d consider a rule of the game (in my mind the rule would be “a player may move the current piece one space left or right”, and whether they accomplish that by typing a key or moving the mouse or waving their arms is irrelevant).

A computer can simulate the physical world (with varying degrees of precision, but the principle holds). Likewise any mode of communication/interaction can (at least in theory, though practice certainly lags) be done in a virtual environment. There’s not a game that exists that couldn’t be implemented digitally. Virtually sitting in virtual Central Park, virtually moving your virtual chess pieces, I think you’re playing a board game, not a computer game. So, how to distinguish between digital and non-digital games? I do think the distinction exists and is useful, but it gets blurry at the boundary, and it doesn’t necessarily produce non-intersecting sets – some games exist as both digital games and non-digital games.

It’s probably useful first to consider some other divisions of games and then get back to digital games. Consider the two rule implementations Tic Tac Toe and 3-to-15 (towards the bottom of the post). You could then ask “is that rule set a math and memory game or a territory control game?”, but I think the better question is “which skin best represents the game state and presents the rules in a way that players understand and interact with most easily?”. The first question doesn’t really have a correct answer beyond ‘it depends’. I think most people would answer the second question as ‘the 3×3 grid where players mark Xs and Os’, and thus that rule set gets placed in the category of [very simple] territory control games.

Returning to digital games, I would define them as those rules sets for which a computer is the easiest/most effective way for a player to understand and interact with the game state and mechanics. A computerized version of Tic Tac Toe is still a simple territory control board game, not a computer game. Master of Orion is definitely a computer game. Risk… is on the fuzzy border. It was created and first produced as a board game, but the most natural implementation of the system is probably on the computer (IMO, other might place it squarely in the board game category). Magic is another game that could reasonably be placed as naturally digital, or naturally a card game, or more likely both.

Various aspects of game mechanics and state make a game likely to work best in digital form: lots of number crunching, information hidden from all players or known to an arbitrary subset of them, lots of randomizers of various kinds, many complex sub parts to actions, automatic changes (especially complex ones) to the game state, etc. You know what they are. I guess it might be worth trying to list them all at some point. Anyway, the point here is that if you’re trying to design a non-digital game and it has these kinds of attributes then maybe its natural representation is as a digital game. Likewise, if your trying to design a digital game and it DOESN’T have any of these attributes, then it may well work better as a board, card, dice, or other non-digital game (which of doesn’t mean that it can’t be implemented on a computer).

One question they examine this chapter is “Are the rules of a digital game the same thing as the programming code that makes up the game?” In some ways this is an interesting question. Certainly the code allows one to play the game. If you make the category of operation rules very broad, enough that it includes all UI, then it’s possible that you could consider that code also part of the game, but this gets you mired in gray areas very quickly. They bring up an interesting example in the game Thief, where the player and the opponents can hide in the simulated shadows. In one sense the code that determines just how dark a shadow is and whether or not a player is hidden might be considered a complicated rule. I could be talked into that. However, without such external influence I’d probably consider the rule to be that entities may hide in sufficiently dark shadows, and leave ‘sufficiently’ as a changeable parameter. In designing a game with such a rule have to decide at design time exactly what light values are covered by ‘sufficiently’ – that could be set later, or even left totally open. E.g. the game engine just creates and runs the virtual world and whether or not the player looking at the monitor can make out the figure standing in the alley determines what ‘sufficiently’ is.

From my perspective the rules of a digital game are the same thing as the rules of a non-digital game; game rules are an abstract system. The computer is one way of implementing them, but I don’t think the game is different in any relevant way if logical bits and electrical signals are used to track and represent the game state rather than painted cardboard and carved wood. The rules of a game may be embedded/represented/implemented in the program code, but the program code is not the rules.

I’m mostly ignoring the realm of implicit rules in digital games. The book counts such things as “the program can be started, stopped, copied, deleted, renamed, etc. like any other program files” as an implicit game rule. Ummm… no. That’s not an implicit rule of a digital game any more than ‘the speed of light will not be exceeded’ is an implicit rule of chess. I’m just going to say that the implicit rules in digital games aren’t of a different nature than implicit rules in any other game, and leave it at that.



1. Trevor - March 24, 2007

What comes to mind is Morgan McGuire’s talk on digital games where he said modern computer games have upwards of 40,000 rules. In these digital games, you don’t have to tell the players all the rules up front. Players will discover them.

2. newmw - March 26, 2007

On the last paragraph: I think the limitation of a game is that it seemed to have evolved from the existing (‘any other’) games. World of Warcraft coming from the written Role Playing Games, etc. The 01010101 (code) makes it digital, but not original.

3. ficial - March 29, 2007

I don’t see [many/most] digital games evolving from non-digital games as a problem or limitation, though it sometimes does make the digital game seem unoriginal.

There are a number of games that are ‘born digital’. A lot of the early arcade games are good examples of this: PacMan, Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc. Those kinds of games didn’t really arise from existing, non-digital games because there’s no reasonable way even to approximate them with out a computer.

Other games were… born analog? born physical?… but seem to have found their true home in the digital world. These sorts of games are the ones with lots of counters, lots or randomizer action, and/or large territory. War games are a great example of this. You can do it with cardboard and dice, but it’s so much easier as a digital game. On top of that, the computer provides many enhancements that would have been a part of the original game were it possible – e..g fog of war, lots of highly detailed logistics tracking, true hidden units, etc. These kinds of games don’t seem limited in their digital implementation so much as limited in their physical one.

One more group to consider are those which were seeded as a physical board, card or other game, but have lead to new digital games far removed from their progenitors. One example of this is the civilization series of games (and their spin-offs). The adaption from original board game to computer game was a leap, and successive generations have moved even further from the physical game. I think World of Warcraft is another example of this kind of thing. The original step was from D&D to MUD (and probably Hack and Rogue as well). Since then the CRPG has gone through many, many iterations. They’ve also been complicated by infusions over time from the non-digital RPG world. However, though WoW grew out of that, it’s not really something that at this point could be played outside of a computer. There’s too much to keep track of and too many real time aspects. You could maybe play something that had the same feel and flavor, but the underlying game would have to be very different.

4. newmw - March 29, 2007

It isn’t perhaps so much a problem that some digital games inherent elements of ‘analog’ games, but it does perhaps shape the context of the game designer. It can limit originality in computer games. Thinking about the medium without being tied (perhaps in an unconscious way) to some cultural heritage.
I like your example of WoW by the way, the fact that an analog game evolves up untill a point in which it can’t be played without the computer. When the numbers and call for capacity becomes to large that it can’t be played by simple ‘human calculation’. That is an interesting point, a technology (or game) is released from its predecessor when its capacity simply doesn’t cut it anymore and new forms emerge. This last point is just from the top of my mind, but perhaps interesting anyway.

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