This is a short summary on „Storyspaces and Rulespaces“ from the MA in ePedagogy Design I’m currently working on.
Wey-Han Tan (April 2008)
Rules define the boundaries of the player’s actions and give them direction and jurisdiction. As shown in the ambivalence of games and toys (Sutton-Smith), they provide both limits and freedom, but also usually require unquestioned acceptance (Caillois) for the player to play a game.
As well as the method of teaching (see the learning paradigms) has repercussions on what is learned beyond the overt content, so does the use of certain types of rules affect the playing experience and the situating of skills and knowledge learned in-game.
I’m giving three examples: Rules can be created to demand competitive behaviour from the players or foster collaborative strategies; rules can include a systemic feedback between elements like in a complex simulation, or can be causally linear like in a jump-and-run; and rules may provide for a small set of playing material on an easy-to-manage playing area (checkers), or a virtually unlimited playing field with a match of emerging playing pieces to find and select from (ARG „World Without Oil“).
For topics like „How does our economy work?“, „How do I do research on a topic?“ or „How do I get safely to school?“, the choice of rules demanding and thus fostering a certain behaviour is an important design decision.
If you play a game, you accept the given rules as constitutive for playing the game („a ruled system“), as you would trust a fairy tale to have a happy ending. After all, one of the most pervasive meta-rules of games is that a game is outfitted with a rule system that facilitates „playing“ (Scheuerl, Huizinga, Caillois), and you’ll get irritated if the game for example cheats on you like in „Starpower“, breaks its boundaries like Psycho Mantis does in „Metal Gear Solid“, or won’t let you stop playing like in Cronenberg’s movie „eXistenZ“. As a player, you have to trust that the game is and stays exactly what it is, while you play in it. This, in fact, defines you as a game-player.
On the other hand, if you’re a GBL-designer or -facilitator, you probably want a game adapted for specific educational objectives. At this point, games may turn into something else, into something configurable („a rule system“). If there are moves *inside* the game, there are also moves *with* the game – along the dimensions of its rules. This, in fact, is an act of meta-playing (games as reconfigurable toys) or meta-gaming (goal oriented, bound by meta-rules).
What is a dimension of rule?
If you analyse games, you’ll notice that different rules may be (roughly) grouped together by the influence they have on a certain set of actions usually available to players – or humans in general.
A classic example would be a set of possible rules allowing or demanding certain forms of co-operation in a game. Maybe its a single player game; maybe two players compete against each other; maybe several groups compete, but cooperate within their respective group; maybe a large group collaborates towards a common goal; or maybe the mode of co-operation is shifting or is entirely up to the players, etc.
GBL-Gamedesigner may ‚move‘ a certain game along this rule dimension, in this case trying different possibilites of cooperation – and see how this change may support the concept they want the player to get a grip of. Or they can just do it for spicing up or balancing an otherwise already known game mechanism. Like in a ’normal‘ game, not every meta-move is successful, but, also like in a ’normal‘ game, failure leads to a deeper understanding of the meta-game.
Practical use of rule dimensions in GBL-Design
First, the right combination of rules may ease and support the ‚right‘ situating of the content, thus allowing the player to experience an integrated game without cognitive dissonances and breaks: E.g. a game that tries to teach basic economics may include a motivating competitive element, but in a game teaching about affirmative action („Gleichstellung“) a competitive element may be an antagonistic statement. So, not every topic would be equally well suited to be put on a trivial pursuit question card.
One caveat: Of course this harmonising use of rules can also be subverted to let the player ‚feel‘ the inherent paradox or hidden complexity of a certain topic. Sometimes the rule representation can take the nature of an involuntary comment on the topic, for example in „eLECTIONs“, where the US presidential elections depend on a fair share on money spent and random media events, as does the association with the narrative framing of playing a board game of chance.
Second, for a game designer this movement in known rule dimensions is one of the most basic tools of game-designing. Take ‚Monopoly‘ and shift the rules from competitive to collaborative, or take the ‚Sims‘ and change limited ressources like money to unlimited credit, and you get entirely different games, leading to an entirely different gaming experience for the player. Beyond that, new technologies, games from different cultures, or transmedial influences constantly expand the rulespace.
Examples for rule dimensions
The following small collection of rule dimensions are *by no means* exhaustive, but may give a hint on where the „Spiel Spiel hat“ (where the game can ‚move‘ – in german, the word „Spiel“ not only means game or play, but also a slackness, a freedom to be moved).
Please keep in mind that, if the rules don’t exclusively prohibit an action, it may be allowed – thus a willful omission can be a ‚rule‘, too, if perceived as such by the players.
Mode of Cooperation
Number of players
Mode of jurisdiction
Handling of Information
Complexity and Emergence
Mode of Cooperation
This regulates how the players treat each other: as opponents, as potential allies against other players, as neutral jury of their actions, as collaborators, etc. Many games foster a shifting of this mode according to different phases of the game. For example in „Settlers of Catan“ the players will first be fierce competitors for ressources, will then build up more or less stable trade alliances, and may at last team up work against the most likely winner.
Number of players
How many players are allowed or needed to play? A fixed number or a a variable one? A game may change in character when you’re playing it alone, with two people, three, four, six, a small group, a class, a lecture hall, thousands or potentially every denizen of the internet.
Games usually have a beginning and an end, either marked by a time limit, a victory condition to be reached, or just by agreement of the players to stop. There are also potentially infinite games possible, either by a very large number of of constantly changing participants, or by dedicated sporadic playing of the same game.
Many games use gaming material for play, and some of this material is per rule to be found, accumulated, controled and/or owned to play successfully or be victorious. This material may be limited, can be expanded during gameplay or by certain actions, or can even be potentially unlimited – the last one especially in games of communication. For example in Monopoly you’ll compete for money from the bank and from the other players; in soccer there’s only one ball to play with; in Go the board allows only for 19×19 gridpoints to compete for; but in „World Without Oil“ you’ll have a growing supply of ideas and stories to reference to, and in „Passively Multiplayer Online Game“ you’ll have all the internet to ‚own‘.
A game usually takes place in a defined area, whilst the area may be of importance for gameplay – like in soccer – or just a convenience – like playing cards at the same table. This area may be a board, a room, a house („hide and seek“), a playing field („Tennis“), a yard („Tag“), a whole cityblock or city („Pacmanhattan“), the entire world („Geotagging“), and also virtual spaces like the dataspace of the internet („Passively Multiplayer Online Game“) or just your computer (most commercial computer games).
This is often a technical or pragmatic question, thus can be often overlooked as a rule dimension. How may the player interact with the game and other players? Most often in e.g. board games this is restricted to moving playing pieces, the visuals of the game material, as well as spoken or written speech. In computer games, it’s mainly visuals and audios, combined with movement of the mouse, use of the keyboard, and also written or spoken speech. But what about a game like soccer, where mobility, movement, position and gestures play a crucial role? Many games can easily be modified by changing the interface required to play it. For an easy example, there are audio and haptic variations on „Concentration“ („Memory“ in german) using matchable materials identifiable by sound or touch when you shake or feel into little boxes with different materials. There are games like „Pacmanhattan“, where players play „Pacman“ by running around in a grid of real streets. And there are, of course the various approaches on exergames, requiring to use hand, arm, body or feet movement to play.
Mode of jurisdiction
This could also be expressed by algorithmic versus interpretative mode of rule enactment and enforcement. To which level are the actions according to the rules uniequivocally decidable? Is there – at least theoretically – always exactly one calculable optimal move in the game, are there several moves possible, or is the quality of the move subject to the decision of the coplayers? In japanese „Go“, the game ends when both players agree that there are no sensible moves left; in the german boardgame „Activity“ players have to use pantomime, clay modeling and drawing to express concepts judged over by the other players. On the other hand, Tic-Tac-Toe or checkers have both clear rules of allowed and forbidden moves, and supposedly an algorithmically discernable best move in a given situation.
Handling of Information
This is an important, manifold aspect of games. In mathematic game theory one differentiates between games of perfect information like Chess, where every player knows every event, every move past and present in the game, and games with imperfect information like Poker, relying on private or unknown information about the game. Other aspects of information handling may be the amount of information as ressource for playing – can it be ‚used up‘ by the players, as in quizzes with a closed ressource of questions? Will it provide it’s own ressource of information by reconfiguring a defined amount of variables, like in the countless possible of Chess or Poker parties playable? Or will it generate it’s own information and playing stock through the creativity of the players, like in toying or some massive multiplayer games like the Alternative Reality Game „World without Oil“?
Some games tend to be one-shot-games once the informational ressource is spent, e.g. by knowing all answers or the way to solve an adventure. Some games may remain attractive by the reconfigurable information generated and played with. And some for the same reason, but with a more emergent, unforeseeable development of the pool of information drawn upon.
What Caillois would call „Alea“ (the dice) is the role of random events are playing in a game. This may vary from a game based 100% on randomness, like Roulette, to games with absoulte control of the players over the events happening in-game, like in Chess. Randomness can excite and bring a moment of uncertainty into a game of wits (like in real life), but may also frustrate if one’s skill, craft and dedication in a GBL-environment is brought to naught by a random event. In „Simcity“ for example it is recommended for the beginning player to switch off the disaster-option, which may randomly destroy portion of the budding city with floods, fires, riots or Ufo-attacks.
Does the gaming environment – the playing material and the coplayers – always behave in a constant, rule regulated way (Chess)? Are there different phases of gameplay, with the use of different rulesets, like in many of the more complex Conflict Simulation Games? Maybe a computer game adapts to the current skill level of the player, so called „Rubberbanding“, to keep up suspension and challenge, just within her ability. A game may also either support a negative feedback loop, so a player’s advantage will multiply with his successes and vice versa („Risk“, german „Risiko“); or, on the other hand, may support a positive feedback loop to make it harder for the most succesful player, because his coplayers will team up on him (also „Risk“).
Another combination, very often used as motivation in computer games, is a „level up“, expanding the player’s abilities, most of the time accompanied by more powerful opponents or increased difficulty of play.
Is the ruleset itself accessible to the player, either from within the game („Calvinball“, „Nomic“, „Thousand Blank Cards“) or from the outside? Most computer games are hermetically sealed to prevent technical tampering from both sides, but there are always semantic modifications possible, like „Speedrunning“. In contrast, the rules of commercial physical games can usually be out-of-play negotiated over by the players („House Rules“, „Hausregeln“). Communicative games often get reconfigured, or rely on accessible regulations in the first place.
Complexity and Emergence
This is no rule per se, but may be supported or hindered by rules. If a game reaches a certain level of complexity, i.e. there are several system elements connected via interaction and feedback loops, the play may ‚react‘ to certain actions of the players in a way not foreseeable by the inventors, and thus also challenges the players to invent ‚workarounds‘ to rules or discover hidden feedback loops not obvious in the publicy known rules. For example Tic-Tac-Toe will have nearly none in-game variation. Molyneux‘ „Fable“ leaves much freedom for the player, as do the „Sims“, thus eliciting the ‚misuse‘ of system elements (like finding complex ways to kill your Sims). Nearly all games with strong communicative elements will automatically have an emergent quality, unless it is regulated by rules to prohibit such behaviour threatening the integrity and balance of the rule system.
For example trading and haggling in „The Settlers of Catan“ is only allowed for the player making his move, thus preventing a chaotic atmosphere of a marketplace, and strengthening the strategic aspects of the game. On the other hand, in games like „World Without Oil“ relying heavikly on communciations, or „BridgeBuilder“ with a high degree of abstraction, complexity and striving for emergent gameplay is a tangible and valuable goal of the game.
Examples for other rule dimensions
Turn based – real time / synchronous moves and sequential moves