Game Rules as Art

There is an ancient story of a game design that I think is worth remembering. It is the story of Senet.

Senet is one of the oldest games known to date, with boards and pieces dating back to 3500 B.C. It was a popular game in its time, representing something of historic importance to Egyptian society. The game has been pictured in paintings of tombs, and Senet boards were placed in graves as tools in the afterlife for esteemed persons. It is often portrayed as a bridge between the living and the afterlife, and its place in the Egyptian Book of the Dead underlines the spiritual importance of the game’s overall message. Senet artifacts are beautiful works of sculpture, engraving and clever combinations of technology, using all kinds of materials.

Unfortunately, however, the rules of Senet have been lost to us over the centuries. Without the rules, the game cannot speak, and its message, which was so compelling thousands of years ago, is gone. Senet, without its rules, is just a collection of pretty bits.

As an art form, game design is thousands of years old. Game designers today face the same fundamental artistic problems as their ancient counterparts. Senet illustrates how, for a large portion of history, game design was transmitted by spoken tradition, and how much can be lost. Nevertheless, enough has survived to instruct the modern game designer and remind us of our craft.

There is much understandable excitement in the potential for computer games to be the ultimate combination art form. There are games created today that combine dance, architecture, storytelling, improvisational theatre, music, painting and film-making in various ways.

Add to this amazing scope our ability to create shared online games, (where one to millions of players can communicate and compete) and it is easy to understand why computer game design is now in such a state of creative turmoil. It is hard to know where to begin with such choice.

Happily, there is a simple tool at the center of all game design, whose exploration requires no team or cost, and from which any game designer can learn by its consideration: rules. Furthermore, I believe that the creation and selection of game rules is an art form in and of itself. By this, I mean that the rules of a game can give an artistic statement independent of its other components. Just as a poem doesn’t need pictures and a painting doesn’t need music, a game needs nothing else apart from its rules to succeed as a work of art. It can certainly benefit from other elements but it doesn’t need them.

By examining games from this point of view, a game designer can swiftly advance the quality and artistic merit of any effort.

Rules as Art
Rules are not entirely obvious as art, especially within the recent age of computer game development. Computer games can record thousands of rules, and a computer can remember and execute decisions based on these rules without (much) difficulty. Instead of inventing specific rules and weighing each one’s meaning, it is easy to try and follow the path of simulation.

Today, many developers face a sea of choices about the representation systems that communicate their rule sets. To some extent, it is understandable that rules governing player choice have taken a back seat. This is largely because the simulation of complex, real-world phenomena (including human behavior) is an alluring mental challenge in and of itself.

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However, while attempts at simulation can be enormous fun to play, they are usually short-lived. Soon enough, our suspension of disbelief gives way, and we find ourselves examining the rules. We cast aside the fiction and graphics to peer at the underlying boundaries that define our ability to interact with the objects and systems being simulated.

Why do rules have such power over our minds?

I believe that childhood play is about practicing within the rules designed for adulthood, testing them out in a pretend world first. Later on, grownups deconstruct literature or art for rules (and the ways they have been tested) in a similar fashion.

Similarly, game rules are highly compact artistic statements which can be played with as the user experiments with the system to see if it contains lessons which may be of use. To be sure, the representation of those rules, and simulations of their results are certainly compelling, but it is the rules themselves that will define each player’s overall success. As a result, players scan for rules constantly.

Simple, easy to understand game rules are powerfully capable of delivering valuable lessons and artistic messages. In fact, I would argue that even when the designer is not trying to make any kind of artistic statement about life, players often find worthwhile lessons communicated by these rules. Rules that relate to the human experience and have far reaching consequences for a game: These are our brushes and violins.

Rules as Lessons
The point is best demonstrated by a few short examples of board games:

  • Chess: Anyone who has managed a large organization or is a student of history will have given a wry smile at the king’s place in Chess. He is incredibly powerful, moving in any direction… but slowly, slowly. He can only be defeated indirectly, by restricting his freedom of action.
  • Pachisi: In this game, the lucky get luckier – a rule imitated so often that it is easily overlooked. Many games deliberately unbalance the game by making the lucky even luckier. In Pachisi, if you get a great roll, you not only get the benefits, you get to roll again. Life certainly can feel like that. Those born into wealth are often also graced with attractive mates or good luck in business, for example.
  • Oware: This is a member of one of the oldest games families known, the Mancala family. In Oware, players sow seeds amongst houses representing the dispersion and acquisition of some commodity within a community. There are many versions, but in my favorite traditional version, a player is not allowed to wipe out an opponent even when he is able. In fact, the rules of the game go even further, stipulating that one must make a move that allows an opponent to play.

    Thus, a player must win without directly attacking his fellow player. This rule representing cooperative/competitive political situations within a small village is a wonderful model which applies just as well to modern cabinet politics, corporate maneuverings and immediate interpersonal relationships.

  • Snakes and Ladders (aka Chutes & Ladders in the U.S.A.): The original Victorian version of this game had the ladders labeled with virtues such as “Faith,” “Reliability” and “Generosity,” while the snakes were labeled with sins such as “Disobedience,” “Vanity” and “Vulgarity.”

    The game’s rules are possibly derived from an older Indian game of spirituality. As a lesson about life’s nature, Snakes and Ladders is interesting work: Firstly, it is entirely luck based, and secondly, no matter how well someone appears to be doing, there is always a chance he will land on a snake (a sin) and be whisked back down the board.

  • Go: The rules of Go have informed numerous areas of thought from politics to business. It is a timeless statement of conflict, focus, and the management of influence and direct control. The elegance and aesthetic beauty of this game’s rules are, perhaps, the finest invented so far.

I am not suggesting that all game rules are a deliberate form of artistic expression. Backgammon, for example, is an old and a great game, but its rules have no obvious meaning beyond being a fun gambling game, possibly derived from Mancala. However, I do claim that the creation of a set of rules within which the successful player must be creative is a form of expression exclusive to the domain of game design. No other art form does this.

Rules in Context
Let’s examine some systems to see how rules have been designed so far. Here, we shall divide games into types, according to where the rules are created and where they reside during gameplay.

Type 1: Rules are created in advance by a game designer (person or team), and there are few enough that they can be held in the player’s mind during game play.

This class includes most family board games. In the digital age, we’ll call simple or action computer games Type 1a. (We’ll get to “a” subsets in a bit.)

Type 2: Rules are created by a game designer and held in a book or umpire during play, with limited rules being held by the player’s mind at any one time.

This type includes more complicated cardboard war games. Computer adventure games would be Type 2a.

Type 3: Rules are created by a game designer in advance, and as it is played, extra rules are created or changed by an umpire or player.

This type includes pen and paper roleplaying games, as well as professional military umpired war games.

Type 4: Rules are created at the start of the game by the player or umpire and modified as it is played.

This type includes children’s play or make believe.

With the exception of Type 4, the designer’s selection and creation of rules in advance sets the framework for the entire game. In Type 4 games, the designer is creating rules freeform to suit the situation and audience; this can become a team activity with several players becoming the game designers.

Rules and Machines
What is the relationship between these rule contexts and computing machines?

For types 1 and 2, there are computer (artificial) equivalents as noted in the examples. I have called them Types 1a and 2a.

As you can see, there are no 3a and 4a examples, because they do not exist yet. Type 4a would have the rules created at the start of the game and modified by an artificial player or artificial umpire.

If we could design computer contexts for Types 3 and 4, how would they behave? What would the player experience? Would they be capable of expressing a meaningful message?

One can imagine a Type 3a game that inherits from pen and paper roleplaying games or umpired war games. The players would be motivated to do things “beyond the rules” – and an artificial umpire would generate new rules in response to this desire, in real-time. We can call this a “judgment system.”

For example: “I want to commandeer those civilian vehicles and use them to transport my infantry section to the next town, ahead of the main battalion.” The umpire then decides the chance of this scheme’s success, which is not covered in the rules.

It’s not difficult to imagine games where the number of possible unique inputs is far beyond the number of represented rule-creating restrictions within the judgment system. This is the problem with natural language processing – and the reason we do not yet have automated game mastering for roleplaying games.

However, there may be an easy point of entry, here. Easier first steps can be made by creating an artificial umpire who can weigh competing emergent outcomes and make a rule out of the one which would best suit the game.

Compelling 4a games are perhaps the hardest to imagine. Having the computer create a new game for us, even as we sit down to play – this is close in difficulty to the different dream of interactive stories.

As above, however, there may be some easier paths and entry points for approaching this goal. Having a game build a variety of simple game types and respond to what the player prefers seems theoretically possible without first devising a fully human level of AI. We do not have to create the world as a first step. A simple puzzle game will do just fine. We also have the advantage that human players want to help and provide feedback to the system to make it more enjoyable.

If we could realize such a system, and its libraries of rules were well-annotated and significantly generative, would an artificial artist emerge? Perhaps, but the creator of this artificial artist would be a game designer.

The Art of Rules
The possibility of such a system links the knowledge of long-dead designers to our present… and to an unexplored future.

There are plenty of opportunities for all kinds of art, from a massive and grand composition involving millions of players each playing their role, to the artful execution of a single, solitary game as it is created on the fly by an artificial game designer. As we approach this future, the fundamental skill necessary for creating and selecting the right rules grows in importance.

Thankfully, we do not have to worry about such grand speculations to practice the art of rule creation and selection; after all, game designers have been doing it for thousands of years. We merely have to pay attention.

There are many parts of a working computer game that dictate and translate player responses. World geometry, physics, music, character design; it’s tempting to regard the game’s actual rules as less important, modifying them in support of simulation systems and other game elements. Instead, studying the rules in advance and crafting a message from them represents one of the clearest and easiest creative opportunities for game designer. It is within these rules that the players will inhabit and practice their own art.

Author’s note: My thanks to Robin Hunicke for kindly reworking the piece for form. I am also indebted to Charles London for corrections and edits. Finally, Ray Mazza, Matt Goss and Hunter Howe for their insights.

Rod Humble is Vice President and Head of the Sims Studio at Electronic Arts. He has been in the games industry for 15 years as a designer, executive producer and head of studio.

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