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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.

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.