Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Textbook Review: Rules of Play

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Rules of Play" (Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman)

I’m really glad this book was written. It was the first book ever written about game design that actually looks like a textbook. It’s big, it’s heavy, it has lots of small-print writing with exercises at the end of each chapter and a bunch of appendices at the end. Its very existence gives the entire field some modicum of academic merit.

The content does not deal so much with how to design games per se, but instead gives many different ways to critically analyze games. For example, if you consider a game as a system of rules, you are going to see it differently than if you look at that same game as a narrative, or as a sociocultural activity, or… well, you get the idea. It is therefore useful to game designers only in the most abstract sense of gaining a deeper understanding of what these things called “games” are, these things that we work with every day.

As a bonus at the end of each of the four sections, there are the rules for a game you can play (I found most of them to be quite good). In addition to the game itself, we can also see the designer’s notes about how the game started out, what kinds of things were found in playtesting and how (and why) the designer addressed the game’s shortcomings. This insight into the brain of a designer-in-motion is most interesting, and practically worth the (hefty) price tag of the book on its own. There’s also an essay by Reiner Knizia, which also makes for great reading, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit the theme of the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, this book has a few weaknesses in its presentation. The writing is a bit on the long side. As a game designer, I found that if I just read the bullet-point summary at the end of each chapter, I usually got all of the information I needed; actually reading the chapter itself was a waste of time. (Yes, I read every chapter first, just to make sure.) I’m not sure if this is just from my experience; if there are any students in the audience who can say whether this was true for them as well, please post in the comments.

Also, the authors have this unfortunate tendency to create their own vocabulary. Their new terminology mingles liberally with established industry jargon, but with no mention of which is which. I can’t fault the authors for this (what else could they do?) but it does make it more difficult to use this as a textbook: my students who go to GDC should know what an Avatar is, but if they start talking about “schemas” and “constitutive rules” and “transformative social play” they’re just going to embarrass themselves.

Students: I doubt any student would choose to read this on their own. Most of you don’t enjoy reading to begin with, and a book this abstract would probably bore you to tears. You may be forced to read it as part of a game design class (and if so, you have my sympathy) but otherwise, you’re safe avoiding it for the time being if you want to be a game designer. If you’re more interested in game critique or game studies, you’ll probably find this quite useful and fascinating. I could never figure out game studies people.

Instructors: This book would be perfect for a “Critical Game Analysis” class that acts as a dual requirement for Game Studies and Game Development students. I’d expect it to be an upper-level class, simply because of the highly academic writing in the text. For any course focused entirely on game design, there are better texts; as noted above, this book does nothing to explain how to actually design games.

If you do use this book for a class, be sure to differentiate between the terminology used that already exists, versus that which was created by the authors. Your students should be able to speak clearly about games to people who haven’t already read Rules of Play.

Professionals: This book took me about half a year to read through from cover to cover (in my spare time, granted). You can get all the same benefits in a fraction of the time by just skipping to the end of each chapter and reading the summary, then going back and looking up anything that doesn’t make immediate “well, duh” sense to you. Also read the Knizia essay and commissioned games, of course. Do that and you’ll finish reading it in a few days.

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