Salen and Zimmerman: Rules of Play

[Readings] (01.24.09, 11:42 pm)

Salen and Zimmerman are something of the canonical and quintessential game design text. It is a big book, full of content, but my goal is to use it to think explicitly about game design and analysis principles around my research work. The book itself is about design primarily, but in discussing design it uses both theory and practice. Game design is similar to other forms of design, but the content of design is rules. One goal og the authors is to build a critical discourse for discussing games and game design, and I think they have been successful in this regard.

The authors borrow a quote from Clark C. Abt: “A game is a particular way of looking at something, anything.” This is relevant from the perspective of model and world building. The goal here is not to use universalizing (everything is a game), or overly specific understanding of games, but instead use multiple points of view. These are organized through “game design schemas”, which are particular ways for approaching games. It is possible and productive to look at games through many schemas, much like Sutton-Smith’s rhetorics of play. The schemas are organized into primary schemas of rules, play, and culture.

Meaningful Play

The idea of meaningful play used here comes from Huizinga. The authors expand on this idea. Meaning is descriptive (of outcomes) and may be discernible or recognized. Alternately, meaning may be evaluative, in the sense of understanding the relationship between actions and outcomes, reincorporating and integrating knowledge.


Design is a constructive process. Addressing design in general, the authors pose that “Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” This is very general, but the idea of a context enables a broad sense of the experience to be encountered by the participants. Meaning is understood semiotically now, as meaning within the system, but it may relate to meaning outside of the system. A relevant example of the interplay of meaning between inside and outside is in a controversial event in 1993 where Hasbro removed offensive words from The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. In game, the words lose meaning as words, but they are still offensive outside the game.


Games are understood as systemic, and the understanding of systems is borrowed from Stephen W. Littlejohn. Systems are composed of: (p. 51)

  • Objects: the parts, elements, and varialbes within the system
  • Attributes: qualities of the system and the objects
  • Internal relationships: how these objects work in relation to each other
  • Environment: what the context of the system is

Games may be understood in terms of several equivalent systems, but they may be understood within different system contexts. A game may be understood in terms of formal, social, and cultural systems. This is important to note, because it presents systems as a general interpretive and analytic tool.

Another key distinction within systems is the degree of openness in properties, what their relation is to their environment. A system is open if its internal mechanisms are visible and transparent, and if the internal properties are receptive to changes in the environment. Social and cultural interactions with games tend to be open, whereas formal systems tend to be closed. We can extend this reasoning and consider that formal systems are open when they relate to emergent effects that are derived from their environment.


One perspective on interactiviy is borrowed from Crawford. The authors define four multivalent modes of interactivity that can exist on several scales. In general, a system is interactive when its users have choices, and those choices are meaningful in some sense. It is possible for interaction to be designed, but it is possible for interaction to take place in a manner that is completely outside of design (talking while playing a board game, players on a forum about an MMOG). Modes of interactivity (p. 59-60):

  1. Cognitive interactivity; interpretive participation. This is intellectual between the person and the system.
  2. Functional interactivity; utilitarian participation. These are functional and structural interactions, generally pertaining to issues of usability. For instance, if the text on a screen is legible, or if pieces on a board game are easy to move.
  3. Explicit interactivity; participation with designed choices and procedures. This is the sense of interaction as normally understood between player and system. Choices, random events, and simulation belong to this category.
  4. Beyond-the-object-interactivity; participation within culture of the object. This is the idea of fan culture and cultural participation with the content and meanings of the game.

Choice is the primary means of interaction with game systems directly, and choices have several sub elements to them. These are described as follows: (p. 63-64)

  1. What happened before the player was given the choice?
  2. How is the possibility of the choice conveyed to the player?
  3. How did the player make the choice?
  4. What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices?
  5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player?

Defining Games

The authors perform a fairly comprehensive analysis of definitions of games made by various game scholars, and define a great grid comparing their definitions. The result is clearly that games are general and reach into a diversity of categories. The authors then formulate their own definition of games: “A game is a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” A such, “Game design is the process by which a game designer creates a game, to be encountered by a player, from which meaningful play emerges.” (p. 80) The two border cases given are puzzles, which, by their definition, are games, and roleplaying games, which by their definition, are not, but may be closer to games or farther away. The authors do not mention simulation games such as The Sims, but I suspect that this would be on a borderline category closer to the negative category, because there is not really conflict implicit in the system.

Defining Digital Games

Digital games tend to have the following properties. This is not to say that non-digital games do not have these properties, but that digital games usually must have them: (p. 87-88):

  1. Immediate but narrow interactivity. Immediacy is the key element, but the scope and nature of the interactivity is confined along the narrow bands of along which one can interact with a computer.
  2. Information Manipulation. Games work by containing information and hiding it from the player, and they can hold large quantities of information encyclopedically.
  3. Automated complex systems. Games may be automated, but they tend to hide the system underneath.
  4. Networked communication. They can facilitate communication between players, albeit on confined channels.

The Primary Schemas: Rules, Play, Culture

Primary schemas are ways of looking at and analyzing games. The primary schemas are oriented along formal, experiential, and contextual dimensions. The authors borrow the idea of schemas from Ortony and Rumelhart (!). The issues in developing schemas are:

  • Schemas have variables: They provide a frameworkd into which new information may be integrated.
  • Schemas can embed: If a schema includes a concept, then it may contain schemas for thinking of the subcomponents of the concept.
  • Schemas represent knowledge at many levels of abstraction.
  • Schemas represent knowledge rather than definitions: Schemas are encyclopedic rather than definitional.

Rules on Three Levels

There are 3 kinds of rules: (p. 130)

  1. Operational: the explicit instructions, such as the instructions on the box of a board game, or the range of options available to players in a digital game.
  2. Constituative: the underlying formal structures beneath the game. These may be understood at a procedural or mathematical level.
  3. Implicit: these are the rules of play, which affect the social conduct around the game, but these rules are generally not specified.

Games as Emergent Systems

This chapter discusses rules, complexity and emergence. Complexity is a sweet spot between periodicity and chaos. Complexity and emergence basically become an aesthetic of rules. The subject of complexity ties into the dyanmics part of the mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics trio devised by Mark LeBlanc. The authors describe that game designers should learn to think about game design on a second-order, developing an intuition for how mechanics will affect the emergent complexity that results from a game system. This is intrinsically tied to the understanding of rules and is at the heart of rules-based approaches to game design.

Breaking the Rules

Rule breaking is important in thinking of how players engage with games, simulation and social games especially. We can think about rule breaking as pertains to formal games, but also as how it pertains to the looser kinds of social games (and rituals) where interaction has an essentially game-like format. The authors develop a taxonomy of rule breaking according to player attitudes, and this leads to a classification of player types. Thinking of the policies of rule breaking relates games to ethical and moral systems. The kinds of attitudes that are important are: the player’s adherence to the rules, the player’s interest in winning, and the player’s degree of lusory attitude. This leads to the following five player types:

  1. The standard player: is the measure by which others are judged. The standard player respects the rules, has an interest in winning, and a lusory attitude.
  2. The dedicated player: is interested and driven by the mastery of the game. Has an intense interest in winning and a zealous lusory attitude.
  3. The unsportsmanlike player: is intensely interested in winning, is not interested in breaking the operational rules, but will violate the implicit rules. Both the unsportsmanlike player and the dedicated player are interested in a mastery over the rules.
  4. The cheat: violates the formal rules, usually covertly, but does so with the interest of winning the game. So the cheat has some degree of lusory attitude, in that he is invested in the outcome, but not the process of reaching it.
  5. The spoil-sport: wholly violates the rules of the game, has no interest in winning, no lusory attitude, and actively breaks the magic circle. An example is the Twister player who pushes over the other players.

There is another kind of player in single player digital games who resembles the unsportsmanlike player or the cheat, who plays a game in attempt to break it or uncover what is underneath. This is a process that is both interested in the workings of the game, but also is aimed to defeat the spirit of play in the game. This kind of player is especially dangerous in games that are about fictional adaptation, because the player is interested in exposing the border cases, and disrupting the game flow.

Defining Play

The authors general definition of play: “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.” (p. 304) There are three kinds of play activities as pertains to games: Game play, ludic activity, and being playful. The latter is the most general, but all three relate to ideas of performance as described by Schechner. Game play is play within the magic circle, within the space and time and the formal rules of the game itself. Ludic activity is engagement with material means of interaction with objects of play or games, but not necessarily within the context of a formal structure. Playfulness is freedom, though it may be tight freedom, within social or cultural systems. This is a good type of division of activity to examine within simulation games, for instance. The authors pose that games are both a subset of play, but play is also an element of games.

Games as the Play of Experience

Play is about the experience of playing games. This is tied to the cycle of interaction, and the authros introduce the idea of a core mechanic to form the experiential blocks of interactivity. The core mechanic an the activity that players perform repeatedly or predominantly within the scope of a game. The core mechanic is both the interaction and the activity of play in a game. Designers often neglect or take for granted the core mechanics in creating games. It is a crucial element to keep in mind when thinking about design.

Games as the Play of Pleasure

This chapter discusses teh pleasure of games, which are wrapped up in the captivating powers of play. They pull from Mark LeBlanc, Michael Apter, Callois, Csikszentmihalyi, and Halford and Halford. Some of this relates to behavior theory, reinforcement, and conditioning, but it is largely wrapped in the ideas of goals and desire. The idea of flow is introduced, but cautioned, that flow is not a golden solution to every game, and it is not necessarily always desirable. The key element is how to provide and negotiate rewards and pleasure between the game and the player.

Games as the Play of Meaning

Games can represent, and games are representations. They create complex internal systems of meaning, which relate to the outside through presentation and performance. The act of play involves both presentation and interpretation. As wholes, games are representations in that they represent something whole in the world: a roleplaying game might represent a fantastic narrative, a fighting game might represent hand to hand combat, and so on. Within the games, the games can represent, by representing characters, stories, ideas, and objects.

Games as Narrative Play

The authors discuss the problematic relationship between games and narratives. The conclusion they come to is that to create a game narrative is to create a narrative system, essentially a fictive world. The narrative system is a system of parts, with elements, relationships, and so on. In roleplaying games, narrative elements are integrated into the game mechanics.

Games as the play of Simulation

Simulations are the means by which whole games are representative of some larger system. “A simulation arises from the operation of a system in which every element contributes in an integrated way to the larger representation.” (p. 439) Borrowing from Warren Robinett, the authors examine simulation as composed of four elements:

  1. Simulations are abstractions. The simulation cuts away large swaths of detail, and reduces the subject being simulated to some stylized or statistical qualities. The key design skill associated with abstraction is deciding what to include and what not to.
  2. Simulations are systems. A simulation is made of smaller interrelated parts. The attributes defined by abstraction must have some relevant meaning within the system, affecting how objects react or are related to other things, otherwise the attributes are superfluous.
  3. Simulations are numerical. Or, alternately, they are logical. In order for the system to formalize its rules, the objects and attributes of the simulation must be formulated numerically or logically. In order for a simulation to work, its abstraction must tie back to its logical formulation.
  4. Simulations are limited. Models are necessarily incomplete. A common belief in games is that simulations are better if they are more complex, but this is  false.

Games as Open Culture

Open culture is the idea that players have control over their experiences and allows freedom of use. Will Wright has described a model of open game design that is shaped like a pyramid. In this model, the players are the producers. At the top of the pyramid, there are the fewest participants, and they design tools for use with the game. The next level are the players who make use of these tools to design new content and objects. The next layer are those who distribute content, and create web sites and share material. At the bottom of the pyramid are the players who make use of the objects created by the above layers. All of these layers can be filled with players, not designers.

Open culture is about open systems, where players are given or are able to devise tools to create their own play.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSalen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric
TitleRules of Play
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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