the international journal of computer game research volume 4, issue 1
November 2004
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Aki Järvinen is a Game Researcher and Designer. He works for Veikkaus, the Finnish National Lottery, and specializes in the research and design of electronic games of chance. His Ph.D., to be completed in 2004, discusses theories and methods of game studies and design.

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A Meaningful Read: Rules of Play reviewed

by Aki Järvinen

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmermann: Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals

Massachusetts: MIT Press 2004. 670 pages.


For a lowly game researcher, such as the author of this review, the first meeting with Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s magnum opus is best approached with a quiet respect, mingled, of course, with a healthy amount of fear. There it is, all said and done, in a sophisticated format, material evidence of the fact that there is nothing left for us ambitious theorists trying to earn our keep in practice-oriented, design-friendly game research to say. Upon closer inspection, however, what appears to be ruthlessly definitive turns out to be generative.


Rules of Play does not focus on digital games (i.e. the area dominating game research at the moment). Its outspoken agenda is “to look at games across digital and non-digital media to understand what is common to all of them.” Digital games are used as examples in numerous occasions, but, as multiplayer play is central to this book’s agenda, the long era of predominantly single-player digital games is justifiably discussed as one species of games among many others. Overall, the topics covered and the variety of games analyzed in Rules of Play is formidable: theoretical contexts from psychology to game theory, information theory, systems theory, semiotics, mathematics, etc. The book is a testimony to the variety of disciplines that game design and game studies can potentially draw on. Salen’s and Zimmerman’s goal is to identify the actual conceptual tools that are relevant to games, in order to better understand game design: “One of our primary intentions is to understand what makes games distinctive and what makes game design unique as a field.”


Examples of both ancient and contemporary games are used to illustrate the variety of ludic activities carried out throughout human history. Discussions of games vary from analyses of the “cultural rhetoric” particular games suggest (for example, The Landlord’s Game, a progenitor of Monopoly), to discussions about chance and probability of dice and onwards to examinations of archetypal digital games, such as Breakout and Tetris. There are also invited contributions in the form of commissioned games from game designers, among them the famous board and dice game designer Reiner Knizia’s interesting account of designing the Lord of the Rings board game. The games are complemented by “post-mortems” where the designers reflect upon their design goals and decisions. On top of this, there are exercises that help in practicing and teaching the theory Rules of Play advocates.


Key schemas and concepts

The book is divided into four “units.” The first establishes core concepts; the remaining three describe the three pillars that provide the foundation for the book: rules, play and culture. Rules accounts for “the organization of the designed system,” play for “the human experience of that system” and culture for “the larger contexts engaged with and inhibited by the system.” The systemic nature of games becomes evident from the framework that the three constitute. Throughout the work games are discussed as systems, and subsequently topics such as rules and information tag along.


Understanding games as systems not only helps us see their formal structure, but also serves to highlight a question with which researchers can situate their position in relation to games: “Am I studying the system, its operation or its contexts?” Thus, game studies can be interpreted against the three-fold framework, as it provides a means to articulate one’s broad focus, whether one studies 1) formal qualities of games, 2) how formal qualities and their outcomes are experienced by players and/or 3) the forms of player activities or the games’ position within culture in general. The authors go on to articulate a number of game design schemas that “provide frameworks for understanding the formal, experiential and cultural aspects of games.”


Another key concept that Salen and Zimmerman promote is adapted from Johan Huizinga: the magic circle. “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.” The authors argue that the “magic” of this circle is due to the “new reality” it creates. Once the magic circle is enacted, plastic pieces or digital media products start to represent something very specific, as they fall under the spell of rules. Magic circle accounts for the “second-order reality” or “holding power” of games, to use the terms of other theorists (Roger Caillois and Sherry Turkle, respectively). The reason why the Huizingian notion has been preferred over others is explained quite convincingly. The magic circle could be criticized as a concept with unnecessarily mystifying connotations, but these are mostly held in check in the discourse of Rules of Play.


“Meaningful play” is the most important concept of the book. It refers to actions and outcomes within a magic circle that add to the emotional and psychological experience of playing the game: when the actions that the game system affords the player seem enticing and make sense in pursuing the goal(s) of the game, the first threshold of meaningful play is crossed. Creating meaningful play is a complex process, and the book essentially addresses different aspects of analyzing and designing it, i.e. systems that facilitate the emergence of meaningful play.


The theme of meaningful play resounds throughout the book, to such a degree that it becomes a mantra in the reader’s head. Every chapter is similar in structure: a concept is introduced, defined and then discussed from a number of perspectives, each argued to contribute to the grand theory of meaningful play. Regardless of design challenges or theoretical complexities, at the end of every chapter “meaningful play” saves the day. The mantra of “meaningfulness” is so pervasive that every once in a while you begin to crave a meaningless round of deathmatch or reckless driving in Vice City. The point Salen and Zimmerman are trying to make, however, is that there is a meaning in that craving. The authors’ point is valid, of course: there are too many games with meaningless, formulaic, mediocre play out there. Still, even though Salen and Zimmerman spend 700 pages explaining why it does not have to be so, more observations about meaningless play, and the methods with which to convert the meaningless into the meaningful, would provide for a stronger concept.


Analysis methods or design theory?

So, does Rules of Play present game studies or game design theory? Does it provide practical design tools or methods of analysis for design students and design-minded researchers? The authors clearly associate themselves with “praxis,” yet their approach is considerably more academically founded than articles available from Gamasutra or the work of such authors as Andrew Rollings, Ernest Adams, David Freeman, Richard III Rouse and Chris Crawford. Then again, it is more practical than the work of Bernard Suits, Brian Sutton-Smith, Jesper Juul or your average academic in a game studies conference.


As a result, the book manages to bridge the emerging field of game studies methodologies and design theory. Therefore, it is recommended reading for both students of game theory and game designers who are willing to expand their thinking “outside the box,” and to understand games as “trans-medial” entities, a term Jesper Juul has used to describe games’ tendency to shift between different media and technologies. Topics such as conceptualizing design as creation of experiential structure and meaning are without doubt of use to both designers and researchers, as are many other topics in Rules of Play.


On the other hand, the sheer scope of the book demands an investment of time and energy that few game designers might have, or are willing to sacrifice. The division of the book into units and summaries tries to solve this problem, transforming the tome into a reference and course book instead of a back-to-back page-turner. It would be interesting to know how Salen’s and Zimmerman’s approach is valued among designer’s working in the digital game industry, where the design literature discourse (as mentioned above) has so far largely been quite hands-on, concentrating on solving highly specific game design problems. As a game design book, Rules of Play offers conceptual guidelines (“schemas”) rather than ready-made tools. Rules of Play lays out, as its subtitle promises, a number of fundamentals. It does not, despite the commissioned games, provide “recipes” for practicing game design. The schemas are too abstract for “instant” praxis, and admittedly this is not their purpose. Still, why weren’t the schemas discussed in more detail in relation to the commissioned games?


In conclusion, the major contributions of Rules of Play for game design and theory are for teaching design theory, developing and adapting concepts for game analysis, inspecting the premises of one’s game design, setting goals for the design and playtesting and iterating a game’s variations after the first design is completed. This contribution is vast indeed, as it ranges from tweaking rules to creating social play among players, and engaging them in “metagaming” and producing new content for a game. Salen and Zimmerman promise to give “clarity and form” to the design trade, and this is what they deliver. The delivery, though, is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that there seems to be a presupposition that the reader can come up with a game by his or her own means – and probably we all could – but what schema is to be used then? Replicating what one knows? From which part of the framework do I start? How do I design a “system” from scratch? These are questions that are mostly addressed only indirectly, and the exercises included presume that one is not a complete beginner, or does not suffer from “designer’s block.” Because of this, Salen and Zimmerman’s theory – and those who teach it - can benefit from the introduction of other methods, such as the game design patterns approach, and vice versa.


For game scholars, the discussion of several theories might seem light and trivial – although it is worth noting that the discussion is, after all, restrained by what is suitable textbook material. Some aspects, like Roger Caillois’ categories of different game activities, or game players as content-producing audiences are explored rather superficially, at least in theoretical terms. Once an academic learns the theoretical basis of the book, she begins to crave more. However, it would be fruitful to see the various theoretical openings in Rules of Play (information theory and complexity, for example) as starting points for more detailed studies. In practice, this book is quite difficult to reference:  a scholar has to consult the original sources and possibly adapt the authors’ arguments to his or her own purposes. There is no doubt that the book functions as a useful facilitator for game studies, guiding students to interesting paths of original thought, as well as to threading the seemingly age-old yet necessary debates on “interactivity” and “immersion.” In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman have created a valuable hub of game-related references and resources. The hub is not neutral, but it would be pointless to criticize the authors for bringing the work of Brian Sutton-Smith or the New Games Movement into wider acknowledgment among game designers and scholars.


Near-miss combos and fumbled rolls

In a book of 700 pages there is bound to be some inconsistencies. As for the structure of the work, it tries to cover so many topics, that some units are bound to be celebrated as original openings for theory and practice, while others appear to summarize already over-theorized topics, such as positive/negative feedback, interactivity, gender issues, etc.


Nevertheless, discrepancies between chapters are apparent, especially relating to the book’s style of referencing and definitions: the latter part of the book (the unit titled “Culture”) does not fare as well as the beginning. Existing media and cultural studies research and theories on audiences isn’t taken advantage of fully. Dialogue between units and chapters could have been more consistent: At times it seems that similar phenomena are first discussed under one notion, and later under another. For example, what is the difference between a “core mechanic” and a “procedural characteristic”? A multitude of perspectives should not lead to a muddle of definitions. Also, the use of “representation” and “narrative” seems to falter. They begin as proper, compact definitions, but slowly turn into black holes, concepts that assimilate everything remotely related. Signs become “narrative descriptors,” mental speculation of game states in a Poker game suddenly equals “narrative tension,” and representations start to tell stories by default. The same goes for concepts regarding psychological desire to play: the welcome discussion on “autotelism” (p. 332) – intrinsic motivation to play games just for the fun of it – seems to fall into oblivion, as suddenly “narrative sense” substitutes it as the motivation to destroy the blocks in Breakout, or contexts of conflict based on competition are substituted with narrative contexts (p. 399).


Concerning the various topics, leaving particular theoretical stones unturned is somewhat puzzling: There are no passages on drama theory or characterization regarding either games’ narrative elements or the game experience. Why are classical rhetoric devices not examined in relation to formal structures of games for instance, on a smaller scale rather than as culture at large? Genres are not discussed directly either, which is peculiar, as one common function of “genre” is to function as a design blueprint. I am not asking for a repeat of the genres of, but rather for a look into genre in the same critical fashion as many other notions are treated in the book. The same goes for other concepts in the second half of the book, such as “community” and “cultural rhetoric.” The latter is adapted from Brian Sutton-Smith, and puzzles those familiar with media and cultural studies, as essentially what is discussed equals the contemporary use of “discourse” and “ideology” in the mentioned fields. Rules of Play does not entirely avoid the trap of romanticizing the participatory cultures of fan production either. Well, these are among the many seeds that future game design theorists may pursue further: lines of thought and methods to complement efforts like Rules of Play.


Rules of Play

Dedicated to Pong lovers?

Finally, there is one notion this reviewer wants to draw attention to: the “implied player.” Even though Rules of Play tries admirably to broaden the discursive scope of game audiences, and mostly succeeds, it would have benefited from even a brief discussion of who is the implied player that plays the numerous games the authors address over the course of the book. There are countless “you’s” or “players” to whom Settlers of Catan articulates a narrative context, or who make meaningless choices, explore permutations of a system, roll dice, bluff and so on. Who is this “you” or “player”? How skilled is she? What kind of mathematical, motorical and logical strengths or weaknesses does she have? Does this player understand the rules? Does he recognize where the magic circle begins and ends?


Because Salen and Zimmerman posit an ideal, theoretical player, who by average knows how to play and who is familiar with a number of gaming contexts, “meaningful play” is always a possibility. Even though the discussions of game pleasures and skills are complemented by the authors’ experiences from game design, they remain strongly hypothetical. Or do they? The implied player of Rules of Play loves Pong, even to the extent that s/he considers it “retro hip.” Your reviewer is guilty as charged on both counts, but I wonder if a 14-year-old teenage boy and a 50-year-old woman might be innocent of these allegations? Just as important as it is to ask who these potential players actually are, is to ask whether they know Pong at all, and who will design games for them, rather than for “us”? Rules of Play discusses the underlying rhetoric and ideologies of games and play valiantly, such as the gender issue; but what is the ideology of meaningful play? Clearly there now exists a book-length rhetoric about it, as acknowledged in Frank Lantz’s introduction to the book. Most probably it will sprout into a full-grown discourse within game design theory and game studies. Will it articulate and sustain a certain “cultural rhetoric,” or hegemonic, of us Pong lovers along the way?


Super Meaningful Book

This opus warrants a read by both novices and experts of game design and studies, whether or not it provides the key to unlock one’s design or analysis problems - Rules of Play is guaranteed to get thoughts rolling at a steadily accelerating speed. It is the Super Monkey Ball of game design literature: lucid yet sophisticated, highly re-usable and inspiring.


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