Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: Rules of Play.
Game Design Fundamentals
A Review by Julian Kücklich

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s book Rules of Play is a book about the Design of games with a capital D. The game designers-turned-authors do not get into the details of programming the AI for a first-person shooter, or the intricacies of creating a massively multiplayer on-line world. There is not a single line of code in this book and the term library is only used in its most literal sense. Instead, you will find quotes by linguists, anthropologists, semioticians and cybertheorists as well as journalists and novelists.

And of course Rules of Play is full of games: computer games, board games, card games, drinking games, ball games … more games than most of us are likely to play in our lifetimes. Some of these games are only mentioned in passing, while others are described in astonishing detail. On top of that, the book contains lots of pictures, a handful of corny jokes and some of the most thoughtful writing on play and games since Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens.

So far, so good, but why should you read this book? Because it will change your life. If you are not a game designer (yet), you will start looking at the world in a different way. You will find yourself in the supermarket, staring into space while devising a game about mad shoppers in merciless battle with restocking personnel. You will find yourself in a traffic jam thinking about how you can coax your fellow motorists into playing a game of Klaxonette with you. You will find yourself turning any day- or night-time activity into a game.

And if you already are a game designer? In this case, you stand a good chance of becoming a better game designer. Your perception of the internal workings of games will be heightened. You will see structure where before you saw chaos. You will see possibilities where before you saw dead ends. You will see opportunities for meaningful play in every nook and cranny of the game you are working on right now.

Meaningful play, by the way, is Salen and Zimmerman’s Holy Grail and it will soon become yours as well. In the very first chapter you will learn that the creation of meaningful play is the goal of successful game design, and by the time you are through with the book this will be your credo. Not that the authors are preaching; in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Their manner is always explanatory, plain and polite – a style that is utterly convincing without being overbearing.

Every chapter is clearly structured, with a neat one- or two-page summary at the end. These summaries will not only help you remember what you just read, they will also be useful for getting a sense whether the chapter is relevant to a particular design problem. Ultimately, Rules of Play wants to be a toolbox of design instruments in which every utensil has its place and a clearly identifiable function.

In order to achieve this, the book has been structured in a highly modular fashion. After reading the first unit, which introduces core concepts such as systems, interactivity and the magic circle, the reader can progress as she pleases. The remaining units, ‘Rules’, ‘Play’ and ‘Culture’, can be read in any order and the same principle applies to the units themselves: after familiarizing yourself with the terminology, you are free to explore the other chapters in any way you fancy. This modular structure is not only helpful for game designers in search for a quick fix for an urgent design problem, it also makes this book well-suited for use in the classroom. Rules of Play presents a cogent way of teaching game design, thus demonstrating that it is an art that can be learned and mastered.

In fact, if you are not a designer already, you will find yourself scribbling the first ideas for your own games in the pages’ margins soon after you have hit the 400-page mark. By then, you will be familiar with most of the actual design tools, and the rest of the book is dedicated to the refinement of these basic skills. But what are these design tools and how do they work?

Granted, their names are not likely to set your imagination ablaze. Unit 2, for example, introduces concepts such as ‘Games as Emergent Systems’, ‘Games as Information Theory Systems’ and ‘Games as Game Theory Systems’. But don’t judge a game by its box. The concepts behind these lacklustre names turn out to be very exciting once you realize the potential they have for your own games.

In ‘Games as Emergent Systems’, Salen and Zimmerman introduce two "horrible" games, i.e. games that lack meaningful play. Then they convert them into meaningful games step by step. First they add some social interaction, then a pinch of repetition and scoring and finally they increase the risk. It’s a bit like watching a cook transform a heap of dirty vegetables into a ratatouille. You’re not really sure when or how the ingredients in the pot turn into a delicious soup, but for some reason it becomes easier once you’ve seen how it’s done.

It will not come as a surprise that a book of this length also contains some less strong chapters. The chapters entitled ‘Games as Information Theory Systems’ and ‘Games as Systems of Information’, for example, seem to lack the enthusiasm of some of the other chapters, but the remainder of Unit 2 easily makes up for this momentary lapse of fervour.

The highlight of Unit 3 is Chapter 25: ‘Games as the Play of Meaning’, the first part in a three-chapter treatise on representation and play. Here, Salen and Zimmerman present a semiotic theory of games; in other words: they look at the way the elements of games become signs that create meaning. These signs are quite complex, as the authors demonstrate by using the example of the ‘health bar’ in Virtua Fighter 4. As Salen and Zimmerman point out, this device does not only communicate to the players their respective characters’ health levels, but also who is winning the match, how near the game is to finishing and the relative skill of the players. While the theoretical concepts introduced in Unit 3 might often seem rather lofty to practitioners, the book presents them as ways to solve concrete design problems, thus making them easier to grasp for those who prefer a more hands-on approach.

The same is true for the book’s last unit, ‘Culture’, in which Salen and Zimmerman take a look at the contexts in which play takes place. They start this unit by pointing out that "no game is an island," a statement that is then backed up by several poignant examples. Especially interesting are the observations about ‘The Landlord’s Game’, the predecessor of Monopoly, in the context of ideology, and about games that are shaped by their fan cultures such as The Sims or Ultima Online.

Ultimately, this leads Salen and Zimmerman to re-examine the premises from which they set out, and, subsequently, to re-formulate their game definition. The concept of games that transgress their own boundary, such as Majestic or Assassin, leads them to conclude that each game plays with its own disappearance. Crucially, this is also one of the functions of art. It is therefore only consistent that Salen and Zimmerman end with an appeal to the readers: "It’s time for games to recognize their role within larger cultural environments." Rules of Play will certainly play an important role in bringing this ‘ludic turn’ about.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2003. 672 pp. USD 49.95/GBP 32.95. ISBN: 0-262-24045-9.

Author’s Bio: Julian is a PhD student from Germany who is currently visiting STeM at Dublin City University.