Book Review: Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals


by Katie Salen Tekinbas & Eric Zimmerman

Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 672. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $72.00. ISBN: 0262240459

A Classic of Game Design Theory

While the situation has improved in the last decade, the game design literature has generally focused on the practice of game design, giving short shrift to the theory. This is why I was excited when Rules of Play, by Katie Salen Tekinbas and Eric Zimmerman, was published by MIT Press in 2004.

The book largely lived up to expectations. Weighing in at nearly 700 pages of relatively small type, this textbook-format tome is an excellent complement to the established game design literature.

Structurally, the book is fairly straightforward and is divided into four major sections: Core Concepts, Rules, Play, and Culture, each of which is capped by an essay or a game design by an established game designer written especially for this volume.

The first section discusses necessary back-ground ideas, defining important terms and presenting concepts to be built upon later. In this section that the authors accomplish one of their primary goals of the book: creating a critical game design vocabulary which, they argue, is an important step towards treating game design as a discipline. This is because you need such a tool to educate game designers, to pass skills and knowledge from one generation of designers to another, to facilitate audience-building by enabling critical discussion of games, and finally as a buffer against criticism, by giving "us" – a word which takes on new meaning later, when they discuss the numerous ways players become de facto game designers –vocabulary and understanding to defend gaming as an activity from those who would censor it. As the authors explain, "a critical vocabulary lets us talk to each other."

Of course, vocabulary is only the start of an effort to establish a "critical discourse for game design," and the last three sections of the book form the beginnings of that discourse. Each section highlights a specific schema, defined as "a conceptual lens we can apply to the analysis or creation of a game." For example, in the section on the schema "Games as Play," there is a chapter on "Games as Narrative lay," which examines both narrative elements of games and narrative as a result of game play. It is through these schemas that major insights regarding game design can be found. (For instance, the chapter on "Games as the Play of Pleasure" has an interesting discussion of the importance of short-term goals, which serve both to help players make plans in a game, and also provide moments of satisfaction when these goals are reached.) A lot of these insights will not be new to experienced game designers, but the systematic frameworks in which the insights are embedded are useful. Any given model may or may not be suited to an individual game, but as a whole they are a powerful collection of tools to produce insight.

The weaknesses of the book are in many ways mirror images of the strengths – it's occasionally too theoretical, too comprehensive, and too multi-disciplinary. It tends to wordiness, and occasionally the authors seem to base significant points on what one could argue is a word game, e.g., they draw upon the definition of play as in "loose" ("too much play in the fan belt") when defining the idea of "playing a game" or "game as a form of play." I'm not sure that I buy the construct, even if such creative pseudo-etymology is clever and occasionally insightful.

One glaring void in this comprehensive approach, ironically, is that the book doesn't really focus on games that are played for reasons other than pleasure. Military games are noted only in passing, large seminar games not at all, and it's probably safe to say that when one thinks of DOD gaming, such concepts as "Games as Cultural Resistance" (Chapter 32) are probably not the sort of idea that comes to mind. Indeed, much of the sections on "Play" and "Culture" might seem to be inapplicable to the type of gaming done at, say, the U.S. Naval War

That conclusion would be a mistake. The motivation as to why individuals play DOD games is certainly different than the motivation of your average Settlers of Catan player, but the mechanisms by which a player finds the experience meaningful probably isn't. A bored or alienated player is bored or alienated, regardless of whether he's playing in the latest first-person shooter on his own initiative or the
Global War Game because he was told to be there.

So, in short, I think the book is worth the time and the price tag, both for game designers in general and wargaming professionals in particular. The authors also penned a companion volume, The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, in 2005.


Note: Rules of Play is also available in paperback and several e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Christopher Weuve is a professional wargame designer and naval analyst, who over nearly 20 years has worked for the Center for Naval Analyses, the Naval War College, and the Department of Defense, designing and running wargames for research and education, serving as an at-sea exercise analyst, and supporting wargaming projects that helped develop the 2008 Maritime Strategy and the new AirSea Battle doctrine. His reviews reflect his own thoughts, and not those of any past, present, or future employer.


Reviewer: Christopher Weuve   

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