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Reviewed by:
  • Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals
  • Maia Engeli
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 670 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-24045-9.

Historically, play and games have been studied in a myriad of ways, from economists using game-like simulations to literary theorists studying the 'play' of meaning in language and literature. These investigations study games or play in the service of another field. Our intent, on the other hand, is to study play and games within the field of game design.

—Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

I expected Rules of Play to be about the design of computer or video games, using some specific, well-known examples. But this book takes a more insightful approach. It is not a game design guide and it covers the whole range of games: traditional children's games, board games, alternative games, digital games, etc. A basic assumption of the book is that "Games are as complex as any other form of designed culture; fully to appreciate them means understanding them from multiple perspectives" (p. xiv).

The book is written in a "serious" style, presenting well-researched and framed facts with references to literature and illustrative examples. The writing style came as surprise as well; I had—naively—expected a book on games to be written in a rather entertaining manner. Nevertheless, after getting used to the style, I felt it appropriate, with the exception of some lengthy and redundant explanations in the first half of the book. I appreciated the careful and unpretentious formulations. The authors describe the different aspects of game design from the present state of knowledge, carefully avoiding exaggerated claims, unrealistic assumptions or wishful clarifications.

The book is cleverly structured. There is an overall division between "Core Concepts" and "RULES = the organization of the designed system, PLAY = the human experience of that system, CULTURE = the larger contexts engaged with and inhabited by the system" (p. 6). Each section is divided into chapters and ends with the report of a game designer commissioned to write about his or her game design [End Page 414] process. Every chapter—and this is the part that makes the book an especially valuable resource—ends with a comprehensive, annotated list of further readings and a summarization of important concepts discussed in the chapter. I read the book from beginning to end, but it is also possible to access the content in a less linear manner. Each chapter is written in such a way that it can be well understood if read individually—the examples are always introduced in a concise way, and every reference to previous chapters is clearly indicated.

Here are just a few of the interesting themes and notions found in the book. Chapter 2, "The Design Process," introduces the notion of the iterative design process, emphasizing playtesting as an important aspect of the process. The "Core Concepts" section concerns basic aspects regarding the study of games, such as "Meaningful Play" (the generation of meaning through play) or "The Magic Circle" (the space and time within which the game takes place).

"RULES" starts with the statement that all games have rules. Game design is a second-order design process of "elegant" rules that create experiences. In the chapter "Games as Systems of Uncertainty" the reader learns about commonly held fallacies of player choice. There is also a chapter on "Breaking the Rules," noting that as a designer, it is important to know about different kinds of cheating. The three chapters on framing games, "Information Theory Systems," "Systems of Information" and "Cybernetic Systems," introduce and apply difficult theoretical frameworks too superficially.

"PLAY" is where I definitively started to enjoy the book. The authors define play as free movement in a rigid structure. Pleasure and the double seduction of play, metacommunication within the magic circle, simulation and aspects of reality are interesting aspects discussed. In the chapter "Narrative Play" the primary question is posed as "How are games narratives?" thereby taking a constructive approach and avoiding the "Are games narrative?" debate.

In "CULTURE," the boundaries of the magic circle get blurred. The issues include, for example, the...


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pp. 414-415
Launched on MUSE
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