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  • Game Studies: Physical Elements Of Play

    - James Kinch

  • Rules

    The book, Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen uses an entire chapter to attempt to define what a game is. They discuss David Parlett's definition of formal and informal games. Informal games refer to that of when something is created on the spot with little to no rules or structure. However, formal rules use a "twofold structure based on ends and means" (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003). ‘Ends' refers to that there can be a winner and ‘means' is how the players will get there. In this case what the rules are, equipment that can be used and how it can be used.  Taking this definition, a formal game has all the elements that can be applied to the games that this essay has previously covered from Monopoly to online roleplay sessions (unless a game is not finished, in which case there is no ‘winner').

    One of these components, the rules, physically state the way that the equipment should be played with thus taking the rules away or having poorly written ones could lead to a different game being altogether, especially over a prolonged used. This isn't necessarily a negative, however. Games should be able to be interpreted in different ways, something that has happened with Monopoly (again) over the seven generations of people (Robinson, 2017) that it has been played with.

    By encouraging people to use their own house rules, players have been able to create unique versions of the game that have taught others about wider issues. In a case study called, "Modified Monopoly", Morten Ender describes a unique version of the game that he used to teach his cadets more about social and socio-economic inequality. All drawn randomly from a hat, cadets were given a family and roles within it. These formed 8 families with different "levels of social class" with some families starting with more money and a higher potential to earn more. The families were all asked to sit with equal access to a Monopoly board around a conference table. The way that Ender has written the study is for others to copy his example and potentially use it in a classroom setting. With this in mind, as a game progresses, he notes that "lower SES family players will be quieter, more withdrawn, and socially and physically distanced from the game." Players even go so far to the point that they "stopped coming to class" (Ender, 2004) as they were not engaged with the game.

    While this is a more extreme example of changing how Monopoly is played, it should not be understated how much a simple rule change can affect the game and the experience for others. For instance, let's say that two households next to each other played Monopoly with two simple different house rules. Household 1 let's players collect £500 for landing on ‘Free Parking' while household 2 let's players start with £2000. Each household will have a very different game to the other's.

    Household 1's game will be more likely focused around landing on Free Parking as it would let a player regain a 1/3rd of their starting money without the need to land on a ‘Chance', ‘Community Chest' or by gaining a Monopoly whereas household 2's game will see players buying up more property and not letting it go to auction, possibly reducing the amount of trading and player interaction.

    In the event that these households were to play together, they would need to decide which ruleset they would want to play. By playing both rules, it is possible that the bank could run out of 500s due to the inflation of money or the game could last longer as players won't run out of money as fast. By playing only one of the household's rules, the other household would be at a disadvantage as they would have to adapt their strategy to the other's. Alternatively, by playing by the original rules, both households would be at a disadvantage, however, it would level the playing field.

    In these examples, the household's rules are generally a verbal contract agreed upon before/during play for the first time. Over a prolonged time of playing, it would become normal for the players of the respective household to use their own rules, therefore not needing to discuss it regularly when playing. In these cases, it can be argued that the written rules are not needed as players know their own rules and therefore won't refer back to the game's original ruleset.


    The physical elements to games make up a lot of the experience that the players have. This is generally found in themes of the game such as in the tokens or the board. However, in some cases, it should be noted that the experience can also be based upon the mental/verbal elements such as in parameters/unwritten rules and the players who participate in the game together rather than what is written down.


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    EA Salt Lake, 2011. Monopoly Streets. Salt Lake City: EA.

    Ender, M. G., 2004. Modified Monopoly: Experiencing Social Class Inequality. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 8(2).

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    Robinson, M. T., 2017. Career Planner - The Generations. [Online]
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    Zimmerman, E. & Salen, K., 2003. Chapter 7 - Defining Games. In: Rules of Play. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 86.


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