Chapter 3, Rules of Play (Salen and Zimmerman)

In this Chapter, Salen and Zimmerman explore a definition of “meaningful play,” which they see as—and emphasize should be—the goal of successful game design. “There are two ways to define meaningful play,” they note—“descriptive and evaluative,” wherein “[t]he descriptive definition addresses the mechanism by which all games create meaning through play” and “[t]he evaluative definition helps us understand why some games provide more meaningful play than others “(p. 55).(1) “Meaningful play in a game,” their descriptive definition states, “emerges from the relationship between player action and system outcome; it is the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the system responds to the action. The meaning of an action in a game resides in the relationship between action and outcome” (p. 55). Their evaluative definition further states: “[m]eaningful play is what occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernible and integrated into the larger context of the game,” where “[d]iscernability means that a player can perceive the immediate outcome of an action,” and “[i]ntegration means that the outcome of an action is woven into the game system as a whole” (p. 55).

My instinct, when considering educational games in relation to these definitions, was to say that the evaluative definition was much more important. On second thought, however—not only is it vital that one take the descriptive definition seriously, so that its (poor) design doesn’t distract from the more evaluative-related design of the game, of the learning one is trying engender; but, if done well enough, these more descriptive elements can also aid learning. Perhaps an analogous argument is that the best musical scores in cinema are those that are nearly invisible enhancements to the film, that are so well integrated from the visual that the two elements work as one.

(1) Please note: All page number references are from the DAISY text version of Rules of Play.