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May 21. Games as Systems. Game Systems. Games are systems Formal elements create a dynamic experience in which the players engage

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May 21

May 21

Games as Systems

Game systems

Game Systems

  • Games are systems

  • Formal elements create a dynamic experience in which the players engage

  • “How the interaction of the formal and dramatic elements is structured forms the game’s underlying system and determines a great deal about the nature of the game and the experience of the players.”

    • Fullerton

Game systems1

Game Systems

  • Game systems – set of values that affect one another within an environment to form a larger pattern that is different from any of the individual parts. Experts often pick up on these patterns and exploit them in order to excel.

  • Zimmerman and Salen describe four elements that constitute a system:

    • Objects – parts, elements, variables Formal elements like game pieces.

    • Attributes/properties – qualities or properties of the system and its objects. Rules. Formal elements. Your book also includes here behaviors.

    • Internal relationships – The objects have relationships. Crucial characteristics of systems.

    • Environments – Systems do not exist in a vaccum but are affected by their surroundings.

Games as systems fullerton

Games as Systems - Fullerton

  • Objects

    • Basic building blocks

    • Physical, abstract, or both

    • Ex.) Game pieces, players (avatar/character)

Games as systems

Games as Systems

  • Properties

    • Attributes of the objects

    • Color, location

    • More complex attributes = less predictable relationships with other objects

Games as systems1

Games As Systems

  • Behaviors

    • Potential actions that an object might perform in a given state.

    • More potential behaviors = less predictability within the system

Games as systems2

Games as Systems

  • Relationships between objects

    • May be hierarchical, through physical space

    • Choices made by the player may change relationships

    • Chance or rule sets can determine relationships

System dynamics

System Dynamics

  • A system requires that all elements be present for it to accomplish its goal.

  • Greater than the sum of its parts. Relationships matter.

  • Sense of possibility



  • System structure

  • You give your player resources, but how do you allow your player to manage those resources?

  • Items of exchange

  • Agents of exchange

  • Methods of exchange



  • Simple bartering

    • No currency

    • Fixed amount of product

    • Relative value of resources doesn’t change

    • Trading not restricted

  • Complex bartering

    • No currency

    • Relative value of resources can change

    • Total amount of product in the economy changes over the course of the game

    • Trading opportunities may be restricted (by turn, for example)

    • Oregon Trail



  • Simple Market

    • Fixed amount of product

    • Money supply can grow

    • Prices are fixed within a system

    • Trading not restricted

  • Complex Market

    • Economy often sustained beyond a single game session by any one player

    • Player to player or player to system trade

    • Trading not restricted

    • Amount of product and money supply can grow in a controlled fashion

Example of a complex market

Example of a Complex Market

  • World of Warcraft Economics Guide



  • Meta, as in metaphysical

  • Means the game or its economy has spawned a real economy outside the game’s boundaries

  • Buy WoW accounts online

Why have an economy

Why have an economy?

  • Use to advance or hinder player’s progress in the game

  • Can transform rudimentary games into complex systems

  • Can build community within your game

Emergent systems

Emergent Systems

  • Disconnect between the rules and the way the system plays out

  • “A modest number of rules applied again and again to a limited collection of objects lead to variety, novelty and surprise. One can describe all the rules, but not necessarily all the products of the rules – not the set of all whole numbers, not every sentence in a language, not all the organisms which may arise from evolution.”

    • Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man



  • Variety, novelty, surprise

John conway s game of life

John Conway’s “Game of Life”


  • Using three rules, we can see emergence of a game system.

  • From simple beginnings, life-form-like patterns could develop.

  • Shows how rules can lead to emergent behavior

  • Most game theorists do not consider it a game

  • Example of emergence and complexity

Game of life

Game of Life

  • Birth: If an unpopulated cell is surrounded by exactly three populated cells, it becomes populated in the next generation

  • Death by loneliness: If a populated cell is surrounded by fewer than two other populated cells, it becomes unpopulated in the next generation

  • Death by overpopulation: If a populated cell is surrounded by at least four other populated cells, it becomes unpopulated in the next generation

  • = Complex and unpredictable results

Examples of emergence in games

Examples of Emergence in Games

  • Bluffing in poker

    • Not put in the rules, but emerges from game playing experience

    • Hiding your money in Monopoly. No rules about WHERE you have to keep your money so people fake being out of money for pity.

Second life

Second Life

Second life1

Second Life

Second life2

Second Life

Anatomy of a choice interacting with games zimmerman salen

Anatomy of a Choice – Interacting with Games (Zimmerman/Salen)

  • Anatomy of a choice:

    • Stage 1: What happened before the player was given the choice (internal event) Addresses the state at which point a choice must be made. Addresses the context in which a choice is made.

    • Stage 2: How is the possibility of choice conveyed to the player? (external event) Are there buttons? Empty spaces? How does the user know he or she can make a choice, and what that choice could be?

    • Stage 3: How did the player make the choice? (internal event) Mechanism. Button? Enters text?

    • Stage 4: What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices? (internal event) How does the action influence outcome immediately and later in the game?

    • Stage 5: How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player? (external event) Does something blow up? Is a space now filled and can’t be used later? Provides context for the next choice that needs to be made.

Anatomy of a choice

Anatomy of a Choice

How can you screw up giving the player choice?

  • Make them feel that the choices they make are arbitrary. Outcomes aren’t meaningful. Stage 4 failure.

  • Not knowing what to do next. Stage 2 failure. Need an arrow or highlight the next part on the map or something.

  • Losing a game without knowing why. Player didn’t get enough information about the current state of the game. Stage 5 failure. New state of the game not represented clearly enough to the player.

  • Not knowing if an action had an outcome. Player didn’t get adequate feedback on whether or not an action was taking. Stage 3 and 4 failure.

Interacting with systems

Interacting with systems

  • Information structure (helps at stage 1)

    • To make decisions, players need info about the current state of the game objects and their relationships

    • Open information structure – player has complete information about the game state

    • Hidden information structure – player does not receive certain information about their opponent’s game state.

    • Can use a mixture.

Interacting with systems1

Interacting with Systems

  • Control – How will players control the game?

    • Keyboard, controller, paper and pen, cards? Core mechanics. Also an element of play.

    • Indirect control as in Rollercoaster Tycoon? Player changes variables to influence the state of the game.

Interacting with systems2

Interacting with Systems

  • Feedback – In system terms, implies a direct relationship between the output of an interaction and a change to another system element.

    • Positive (reinforcing) loop – Player is rewarded. In Jeopardy! The player who answers correctly gets control of the board.

      • Output grows or declines. Creates satisfying risk/reward scenarios. Balancing relationships may be used to keep player’s progress in check.

    • Negative (balancing) loop – Player has something taken away. If you win a point you skip a turn, for example.

      • Try to counteract the effects of change.

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