Having said that, its certainly been a useful read to give me a foundation in some of the core concepts of game design and I'm going to attempt to regurgitate some of the things that seemed most useful. As much as anything else, the process of writing about the book is an interesting test of how well I've understood it so I have to warn you, dear reader, that this blog entry may sound more like me 'working stuff out' than presenting a lucid thread of thoughts!
Perhaps the best place to start is with Salen & Zimmerman's definition of a 'game': "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict defined by rules that results in a quantifiable outcome."
There's obviously loads to chew on in that definition but let's begin with 'system'. Basically S&Z describe games as systems in that there are a set of parts that inter-relate to form a complex whole. Think of a basic game like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Within this game, the three objects are the 'parts' and they have specific relationships with each other that make up a larger game system. This game system is not naturally occurring in nature, it is a 'designed' construct that's been invented by a person or group of people. The term 'design' is full of ambiguity but for S&Z, a game designer creates a context for play by creating a GOAL for players to pursue and set of RULES that limit what they can do in pursuit of their goal.
So the game designer creates a system of inter-related parts, a goal to pursue and RULES. Now its time for the players to do their thing. S&Z talk a lot about this moment when a player crosses the boundary between the 'real' world and the 'artificial' space of the game, using the term 'Magic Circle' to describe the literal or metaphorical space within which the game takes place. On entering the 'Magic Circle' players voluntarily accept that they are entering a space that has a unique set of rules. This acceptance of rules that limit player action is called the 'lusory attitude'. The lusory attitude basically means - voluntarily accepting limitations on what you can do because its more fun to do so. For example, a child playing a skipping race accepts the rule of skipping over her rope from start to finish, even though it would be more efficient to drop the rope and run. Why does she skip? Because under the 'lusory attitude' its more fun to encounter the challenges that the RULES provide.
So a player has entered the Magic Circle that the game designer has constructed. They've got their goal and they accept the rules. The next thing is to take ACTION in pursuit of the objective. This brings me onto the very first 'core concept' in S&Z's book: 'Meaningful Play'. They define meaningful play within a game system as ACTIONS that produce OUTCOMES that are clearly 'discernible' and 'integrated'. What this means is that, in order for game play to be 'meaningful' the player has to see the outcome of his action (discernible) and this outcome has to have some kind of knock on effect on the overall game system (intergrated). This idea of 'meaningful play' links closely into 'interactivity' which is such a hot topic of debate in a theatrical context. As I said in the last blog, most interactivity in drama is not 'meaningful' because even if your action as a participant creates a short term outcome, its rare to have a sense of that outcome being 'integrated' within the larger system of the drama.
The challenge for me as a fledgling game designer/dramatist is to create game/drama systems of GOALS and RULES which promote meaningful play by ensuring that player actions can have discernible micro outcomes, moment by moment, but also contribute to macro outcomes within the larger game structure. This is a huge challenge.....I'll say it again.....this is a huge challenge. Salen and Zimmerman describe the range of possible actions and outcomes within a game as the 'Space of Possibility'. As a dramatist, the idea of creating a conventional story structure with all of the flexibility of the 'space of possibility' of games seems pretty much impossible. So this project is challenging me to re-think the ways in which narrative can be constructed, moving away from singular 'authorship' to a more free flowing sense of narrative 'emerging' from the actions/outcomes of players.
Wow, its not easy trying to conflate hundreds of pages into a short and pithy blog. I hope what I've written makes some kind of sense!
Thanks for reading!