Lesson3 header
defining game design + writing the rules of Pac-Man
+ understanding “formalism”


student work from the Pac-Man rules exercise


What is Game Design?

I’m four posts deep into this series and before I go any further, I wanted to address a basic question: What exactly is game design anyway? Since these little essays are about learning game design, it seems appropriate to ask.

In practice, “game design” is a slippery concept. In a particular company or academic program, game design is often lumped in with programming, project management, storytelling, or creative direction. In the game industry, often a game designer is also the programmer, or the project manager – or perhaps everyone on the production team might together be playing the game designer role.

It’s probably best not to try and ever define “game design” once and for all. Instead, my class proposes a series of different ways to understand game design. In this early stage of the course, I like to define game design as making rules. Here’s what I mean by that: when you purchase a board game, what are you actually getting? The physical materials have art direction and visual design: illustrations on the board, type design on the cards, the layout on the back of the box. But a lot of what you are purchasing is the game design: the actual rules of the game.

Some of the rules might take the form of instructions in a rulebook: how to set up the game, what to do on your turn, and how to win. Other rules are embedded in the materials themselves: for example, is the board a track? A grid? A map? How many spaces or regions does it have, and how are they connected? If there is a deck of cards, how many cards are there? What information is on the cards? How many of each type of card? Some person or group had to make these decisions. Determining the structures of the game – the aspects of the game related to its identity as a dynamic, interactive system – that is what is means to make rules.

A rules-centric approach is a very dry and restrictive way of looking at game design. It’s a formal approach to game design (more on that below). But it’s often incredibly useful. In my Game Design 1 class, there are three main units – one looks at games from this rules-based perspective. The second looks at games as human experience, and the final one considers games as culture. But rules are where we start – that’s just my own approach to the discipline.

Every game developer should think like a game designer. One final note about game design in practice. In every game I’ve ever made with a group, even if someone was spearheading the game designer role, everybody had input into deciding how the game was structured – from the producer to the audio designer to the network coder. Pedagogically, I support the idea of game design as a discipline that can stand shoulder to shoulder with fields like computer science or graphic design. But game design is so central to making meaningful games that everyone on a game development team should be able to think like a game designer and play some part in deciding the rules of a game. More about that in future posts.

In-Class Exercise: The Rules of Pac-Man

Below is an exercise that explores this notion of games-as-rules. It combines a structural analysis with a visual communication challenge.


In-class exercise


Analyze the underlying rule-structures of Pac-Man and then visually communicate them to the class

• understand how Pac-Man works as a formal system
• enumerate the rules that define one aspect of the structure of Pac-Man
• communicate those rules to others

Before the exercise
Make sure that everyone understands the basics of how Pac-Man works. A video of the arcade version of the game is a good way to remind everyone of the basic game features.

Then have the class brainstorm the types of rules that they want to analyze. Make a list of the general classes of rules and structures that make up Pac-Man. These might include interactivity, scoring, game spaceghost behavior, etc. Don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect categories – it’s OK if they overlap.

Analyze + Design!
Divide into groups. Each group takes one of the categories and has to dissect the structure of Pac-Man into the logical rules that define the behavior of that aspect of the game system.

The second part of this exercise is to visualize the rules however the group wants. Using supplies like posterboard, markers, paper, scissors, etc. the groups can make lists, diagrams, puppet shows, skits – they can use whatever means they want to communicate the rules and structures they defined. I like to encourage groups to use as little text as possible and also to create something more than just text on a page.

Discuss & Critique
There is no right or wrong answer to this exercise. In fact, part of the point is to realize how many different ways there are to analyze the same game. Usually there end up being radically different approaches to understanding and visualizing rules, from complex equations of game icons to detailed maps and diagrams to interactive paper simulations.

The critical discussion of each group’s work should focus on both aspects of the assignment: the rules-based analysis of the game, as well as the success of the visualization strategy.

Sidebar: No Bullshit

One of the promises to my students – and also my promise to you, dear readers – is that although some of these exercises and assignments might seem wacky, I put them all through the no bullshit test. That means everything I do as a game design teacher helps build some kind of skill or understanding that is actually useful to designing games.

It may be directly useful, like a concrete technique that can be applied in the digital development process. Or it might be indirectly useful, like the way that strength training and stretching isn’t actually running, but still helps runners go faster and win more races.

The Pac-Man exercise has both kinds of utility. Retro-engineering the rules of a digital game is probably of more indirect use – it’s not something that you are going to do on a typical game project. However, the cognitive muscles that get exercised from this kind of formal breakdown are precisely the same ones that you need when you are analyzing and modifying your own game design during the iterative process.

On the other hand, the visualization of the systems and structures of Pac-Man is directly applicable to making games. At least 50% of design is communication – to your fellow developers, your publishing funder, your Kickstarter backers, your players during the game itself – and we all need better practice in visually communicating complex ideas and systems.  So the Rules of Pac-Man exercise definitely passes the “no bullshit” test.

A bit of history: “formalism” in perspective

Because this post is about game rules, I thought it would be a good place to address the idea of formalism in game design today. Among the game design cognoscenti, the term “formalist” is bandied about quite a bit, usually derisively – it conjures up an image of someone nerdily obsessed with rules and structures, divorced from the idea of games as something that takes place on a human level, or within society or culture at large.

I was first introduced to the idea of formalism during my undergrad education as a painter at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. Many of my professors were former students at Yale, studying under Joseph Albers. Albers’ book Interaction of Color and his focus on fine art as pure visual abstraction had a tremendous impact on the art world and on art education itself, especially in US universities. My professors would say things like “there are no ideas in art” – meaning that art was about line, color, composition and other purely visual and perceptual elements. To them, art was not about psychology, politics, narrative, cultural identity, social critique, or anything besides the rarified realm of the essentially visual.

This point of view is considered “formalist” because it is concerned with the “form” of painting – the material qualities of the medium itself. For a while I dutifully towed this line, taking (and then teaching) Albers-inspired classes where we used squares of colored paper to investigate the visual properties of color. We discussed any painting, regardless of its subject matter or context – whether it was a Renaissance crucifixion or a Modernist abstraction – as flat arrangements of pigment on a canvas.

But my own personal rebellion against formalism was coming on fast. My art schooling was taking place in the art world heyday of the late 80s. Art stars like Barbara Krueger, Jenny Holzer, and Jeff Koons were making visually stylish and intellectually mischievous conceptual art; Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian were reinventing socially conscious, narrative performance art; Martha Rosler and Karen Finley created raw feminist works in video and on stage; and Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful and provocative photos were causing violent eruptions in the cultural fault lines where art meets politics.

Suffice to say, halfway through my time in art school I rejected a focus on the pure visual qualities of painting and started doing work that was more in line with the contemporary art of my time. I put down my paintbrush and my artwork blossomed into a wide range of practices. I transformed rooms through projected-image installations; I performed whole evenings of deadpan performance art; I even did a number of media hoaxes. One night at 4am I secretly put a massive sign on the art building that said “ART PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION CENTER.” Eventually my lifelong love for making games started entering into my art activities as well, and my projects became more interactive. I began the gradual shift towards becoming the game designer I am today.

At the same time, I’ve never really forgotten my formalist training as a painter. When I became a professional game designer in the early 90s, I realized that game design had not yet had a formalist moment. What was the “form” of games? What was the narrow, essentialist understanding of a game design practice? There was not yet any language of game systems and game interactivity, or a clear understanding of what set our cultural form apart from others. There wasn’t any formal authority to rebel against! I had pushed back against formalism as an artist – but as a designer, I missed it. I wanted to be the loyal opposition to something that didn’t yet exist.

This is why, when Frank Lantz and I started teaching game design in the 1990s, and when Katie Salen and I later wrote Rules of Play, we started with rules. There was no foundation to the discipline of game design, and we felt the obligation to help invent it. We weren’t the only ones. The late 90s and early 2000s were a time when formal languages for understanding game design blossomed. It’s a sign of our aging discipline that people can now make arguments against establishment formalism. I welcome the enemies of formalism in game design – it’s about damn time!

There’s a lesson here. The greatest thing I learned from my formalist training in painting was actually not about painting. It was about the nature of knowledge itself: what it means to define a creative practice as a craft, or as a discipline, or as a set of ideas, and how such a practice relates to culture at large. In other words, the important thing to ask is not What is painting? or What is game design? Instead, the real question is: What is gained and what is lost when we define it in a particular way?

Any discipline or field is the sum total of lots and lots of people asking these kinds of questions and answering them in different ways. It’s been great to see how games have emerged from nerd culture to mass culture and game design has developed from an invisible activity living in the cracks between programming and pixels to become a disciplinary practice onto itself.

Games are not one thing. They are many things. If you want a comprehensive introduction to what games are, a formalist approach is necessary but not sufficient for understanding games. Whether you are embracing it or throwing it in under the bus, formalism is a narrow, nerdy, limited view on games – with remarkably great utility. As these blog posts move through the syllabus I posted in the first installment, we’ll gradually take the formalist blinders off and move into the broader landscapes of games as play and as culture.

Further reading

There are many great books and essays about games from a rules perspective. I recommend Greg Costikyan’s I have no Words but I must Design, as well as Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. (Both essays are included in The Game Design Reader anthology I co-edited with Katie Salen.) For book-length works on the subject, Jesper Juul’s Half-Real is an insightful read. The 800-pound gorilla of game formalism (literally!) is Patterns in Game Design by Staffan Bjork and Jussi Holopainen. 

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This series is dedicated to my co-teaching collaborators and other game design instructors who have taught me so much, including Frank Lantz, Katie Salen, Nathalie Pozzi, Naomi Clark, Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, Tracy Fullerton, Jesper Juul, Nick Fortugno, Marc LeBlanc, Stone Librande, and Steve Swink, and the NYU Game Center faculty.

I also want to thank some of the many many teachers that have inspired me throughout my life, including Gilbert Clark, Enid Zimmerman, Weezie Smith, Susan Leites, Gwynn Roberts, Pat Gleeson, Janet Stockhouse, Janice Bizarri, Sensei Robert Hodes, and Sifu Shi Yan Ming.

Special thanks to Frank Lantz, Nathalie Pozzi, John Sharp, and Gamasutra editor Christian Nutt for their input on this essay series.