Book Review

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's
Rules of Play:
Game Design Fundamentals

reviewed by Stephen Sniderman

For anyone interested in designing a game, Rules of Play (published by MIT Press, 2004) is a treasure house of suggestions, ideas, examples, and insights, but it is much more than merely a how-to book. It is, to my knowledge, the first book to tackle head-on many of the most vexing philosophical questions about the nature of games and their place in our culture. In the process, it also raises important sociological and psychological questions about our experience during play.

Salen and Zimmerman set themselves a gargantuan task, to cover game design from every conceivable perspective (such as “Games as Systems of Uncertainty” and “Games as Social Resistance”), and in my opinion they have established an excellent, much-needed foundation for this emerging academic field.

I suspect that anyone who ventures into this exciting area will find S and Z’s brainchild enormously valuable. In Madison Avenue’s oxymoronic terms, Rules of Play is an instant classic. As one who thinks about games all the time, I can’t help but appreciate the ground-breaking work they have done.

In preparing their magnum opus, S and Z have obviously done their homework. Before offering their own (usually very sensible and practical) answers to key questions—such as, What is a game?, How does play differ from other activities?, What makes a game work (or fail to work)?, and What makes a game fair?—they cite a wide variety of sources (including me!), and spend a good deal of time comparing other thinkers’ definitions and solutions to each other and to their own.

They have carefully surveyed the field of “game philosophy,” such as it is, and they use their research to great advantage. Their analysis of others’ views is always scrupulously thorough and treats every source with reverence. However, when a writer’s position, in their opinion, has an obvious limitation, bias or quirk, they respectfully point it out with the clear intention of improving our understanding of a thorny issue.

They also refer to, provide samples of, and carefully analyze games of every conceivable kind, including children’s games, gambling games, dice games (such as Thunderstorm and Pig), digital games, abstract strategy games, educational games, role-playing games, co-operative games, family games, familiar games, commercial games, party games, outdoor games, sports, brand-new games, ancient games, meta-games, massive-participation games, and tongue-in-cheek games.

In almost every case, their purpose is to show how a game works, not how it fails to work. As a result, they convincingly demonstrate that games of all kinds can engage a player deeply, even when there is no skill involved, even when there is no winner, even when the rules are incredibly simple. They explain why games which seem to have nothing going for them (like Chutes and Ladders) have satisfied players for generations.

As a result, they have changed my mind about what makes a game successful. Because of S and Z’s persuasive discussions, I now understand key aspects of games that I have ignored for my whole life (and I’m retired now). I think my new awareness will help me create more universally appealing games.

Among other things, they have shown me how the physicality of a game (the board, the pieces, etc.), as opposed to the concept underlying it, can affect a player’s experience. They have convinced me of the value of a narrative to make the competition more fun and more dramatic. They have made clear to me how the method of keeping track of the score (on paper, on a board, with tokens, etc.) can make as much difference as the rules themselves. In short, they have opened up whole new areas for me to think about and shown me that there’s a lot more to designing games than I ever imagined.

Just as important, Rules of Play clearly articulates concepts and premises which for me have always been intuitive and, therefore, rather vague. Even when S and Z tell me things that I thought I already knew, they clarify my thinking by putting concepts in new frames (or “schemas” as they call them) and pointing out unexpected relationships. Sometimes, they just provide (or pass on) useful names for ideas that would otherwise never come to earth.

For example, their oft-repeated notion of “meaningful play,” a central topic in the book, is extremely helpful as a way of thinking about games. Similarly, I’m intrigued and invigorated by one point they (wisely) stress over and over:  the rules of a game do not control the behavior of the players; they merely provide a framework within which that behavior takes place.

Game design, they tell us frequently, is a second-order problem. Frankly, I never realized that and consequently have spent way too much energy trying to anticipate and control the choices of people who might be playing my games. I will be forever grateful to S and Z for pointing out this simple (but less-than-obvious) principle.

But I’m even more grateful for its corollary—the idea of emergence, which, for me, is the single most important truth in the book. Emergence refers to all the things that happen in a game (or any other human activity) that cannot be predicted by the rules. Although S and Z did not invent the concept (and give ample citations to those who did), they present it so that it becomes an inspiration to me as a game designer and a would-be game philosopher. I can’t wait to start applying this notion to the games that I design and to the articles about games that I write.

Of course, Rules of Play is not perfect. As effective as the writing is, the text is unfortunately marred by occasional typos. Some of my students in a (college) course in game design found it overly abstract and/or repetitious. One said that she did not find it particularly helpful in her attempts to create a game. None of my students, in fact, is as impressed with it as I am (but that may be simply because, for them, it’s a textbook).

In addition, S and Z make some claims with which I have quibbles, and I have told them so. For example, they classify puzzles as games, but that doesn’t work for me. In each case, to their credit, they have written me back and defended their position or graciously acknowledged where they think I am right.

However, my admiration for this book comes not from the precise definitions, answers, or advice it offers, but from the ground it breaks. To me, Rules of Play is something genuinely new—and something very necessary. By asking all the right questions, modeling a strategy for answering them, expressing difficult concepts in reader-friendly language, exploring neglected areas of play, organizing the field of game design, and offering unique ways of thinking about games, it invites the rest of us to get involved in the discussion.

This is the book I’ve been anticipating for years without even knowing I was waiting; the book which demonstrates that games are vital to our mental health and deserve to be taken seriously as an art form/cultural phenomenon; the book that will, perhaps, finally, legitimize this whole field of creativity and enjoyment.

If you love games, if you play games, if you design games, if you have questions about the nature or function of games, do yourself a favor and read Rules of Play.

The Life of Games
No. 4  (April 2007)
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