For hundreds of years, the field of game design has drifted along under the radar of culture, producing timeless masterpieces and masterful time-wasters without drawing much attention to itself-without, in fact, behaving like a “field” at all. Suddenly, powered by the big bang of computer technology, game design has become a very big deal and the source of some provocative questions about the future of art and entertainment.
In addressing these questions, the book you are holding raises quite a few of its own. On its surface Rules of Play appears to be calm and reasonable, carefully laying out a broad theoretical framework for understanding the field of game design. But beneath this calm surface, the book actually stakes out a controversial position in a dramatic, ongoing discussion about what games are and what they could become.
In fact, from certain angles this book appears to have the burning impatience of a manifesto. What is the nature of this impatience? To some extent it is the frustration of workers who are asked to build a cathedral using only a toothbrush and a staplegun. Games are remarkably complex, both in their internal structure and in the various kinds of player experiences they create. But there exists no integrated set of conceptual tools for thinking about games. Until recently, if you were a game designer interested in the theoretical underpinnings of your field, you would be forced to stitch together a set of perspectives from sociology, anthropology, psychology, and mathematics, each of which brought its blindman’s view of the elephant, and none of which considered games as a creative domain.
More recently, within the field itself there has emerged a Babel of competing methodologies. Most of these have a practical focus on the nuts-and-bolts questions of the creative process of game design; few of them have attempted to ground their insights in a general theoretical system. But the impatience that gives this book its undercurrent of urgency is more than a response to the field’s underdeveloped level of discourse. Why, after all, does game design need a theoretical framework? There is something more than insight, knowledge, and understanding at stake here.
Remember that the authors of this book are not just academics looking at games from the outside; they are themselves active practitioners. Like many people working in this field, they are driven by the feeling that despite the breathtaking pace of recent technical and commercial advancement, games have remained creatively stunted. On the one hand, there is a sense of boundless potential, the much-dis-cussed possibility that games could succeed film as the defining form of popular culture for the new century. On the other hand, there is the reality of the game store-endless racks of adolescent power fantasies, witless cartoon characters, and literal-minded sports simulations.
To get a feeling for the sense of potential that fuels this impatience, consider the vast kinds of experiences games can produce-complex networks of desire and pleasure, anxiety and release, wonder and knowledge. Games can inspire the loftiest form of cerebral cognition and engage the most primal physical response, often simultaneously. Games can be pure formal abstractions or wield the richest possible representational techniques. Games are capable of addressing the most profound themes of human existence in a manner unlike any other form of com-munication-open-ended, procedural, collaborative; they can be infinitely detailed, richly rendered, and yet always responsive to the choices and actions of the player.
But where are the games that explore these diverse possibilities? Instead of the rich spectrum of pleasures games are capable of providing, we seem cursed to suffer an embarrassment of variations on the all-too familiar pleasures of running and jumping, of Hide and Go Seek and Tag, of Easter egg hunts and Cops and Robbers. And what happened to the explosion of formal experimentation during the early days of computer games? For a while it seemed that every other title was a fresh attempt to answer the question “What can you do with a computer?” Compare that with the current crop of computer games, the majority of which seem to be addressing the question “What can you do while controlling an avatar that is moving through a simulated three-dimensional space?”
This, then, is what is at stake: a vast discrepancy between the radical possibilities contained in the medium and the conservative reality of mainstream game development. And this is the way in which Rules of Play is more than a conceptual analysis of what games do; it is also an examination of what they can do, and by extension what they should do.
One of the implications of Rules of Play’s approach to its subject is that the proper way to understand games is from an aesthetic perspective, in the same way that we address fields such as architecture, literature, or film. This should not be confused with the domain of visual aesthetics, which is simply one facet of a game’s creative content. Like film, which uses dramatic storytelling, visual composition, sound design, and the complex dynamic organizational process of editing in the construction of a single work, the field of game design has its own unique aesthetic.
As laid out in the following pages, the real domain of game design is the aesthetics of interactive systems. Even before computers existed, creating games meant designing dynamic systems for players to inhabit. Every game, from Rock-Paper-Scissors to The Sims and beyond is a space of possibility that the players explore. Defining this space is the collaborative work of the game design process.
Rules of Play is perhaps the first serious attempt to lay out an aesthetic approach to the design of interactive systems. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, interactive systems surround us not just as the material reality of our lives but also as a key conceptual model for understanding the world and our place in it, just as mechanical systems did for the Victorians. This is one reason that the importance of this book’s project should not be underestimated.
There is a reasonable oppositional perspective to the one I have imputed to the authors of Rules of Play. It goes something like this: all of this talk about aesthetics smacks of pretension and self-aggrandizement. Games are recreation, their purpose is to amuse us, and we shouldn’t expected them to achieve profound levels of creative expression or relentlessly push creative boundaries. They are simply entertainment.
There isn’t much that you can say to this argument except to point out that pop culture has a surprising way of moving back and forth between the trivial and the profound. One person’s harmless waste of time might be another’s bid for tran-scendence-and games are certainly one of the best examples of how entertainment can be far from simple. In any event, the argument itself molds the subject of this debate. If enough people believe that games are meant to be mindless fun, then this is what they will become. If enough people believe that games are capable of greater things, then they will inevitably evolve and advance.
We know that games are getting very big, very fast. But it is too early to tell exactly what direction their evolution will take. At this stage the entire field has the unpredictable energy of something enormous, balanced on one thin edge, still vulnerable to the effects of even a slight pressure. Under the guise of examining this curious object, the authors of Rules of Play are giving it an energetic shove.
Of course, if you are holding this book then you also have a hand in it yourself.