An Economy of Rules (part 1)

My last entry about design rules was neither deep nor thorough, but judging by the comments it seems to have found some resonance.
There are rules, and there are rules, and there are laws, and principles, and constraints, and axioms, and maxims, and on and on. Why, we have more words for rules than an Eskimo has words for snow. :) What I’m interested in is not so much what the rules are or how they can be classified (I don’t believe there can ever be a satisfactory classification scheme), but where rules operate and how they come to be.
I’m interested in not a taxonomy of rules, but an economy of rules.

I’m talking about design rules, or creative rules, and not the rules of play. This isn’t a lud[i]ological analysis, with games as the object, but an economic analysis of lud[i]ology itself. Well, that is my stated intention, we’ll see how far I get.
One useful model for the creative process is discussed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. In this model, the creative process can be examined in six layers: idea, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. While Scott developed this model to examine comic books, it maps nicely onto other activities as well. (I have yet to determine if this is Scott’s original model or from some unidentified source.)
The layers, in reverse order:
surface – the immediate presence of something, the first thing you see/hear/touch. For digital games, this includes the packaging, the graphics, the audio. All those superficial things that get you to pick up the box (or move the mouse).
craft – the technical skills used to create the thing. For games, this would be the quality of the programming, knowledge of certain applications (Photoshop, 3ds max), and some aspects of interface design (such as usability).
structure – how the elements work together. For games, you might include the narrative of the game, the “gameplay balance”, gameplay duration and replayability, level design, and variety of challenges.
idiom – the style or genre of the work. The lexicon being used. For computer games, this includes the conventions drawn from common game genres (FPS, RPG, 4X, and so on), the underlying objectives of play (”Complete all the levels”, “Rescue the Princess.”), cliches and stereotypes.
(Idiom is tricky, because the idiom for one artform may simply be the surface of another, e.g. anime versus an anime-style RPG. Anime has its own language, or idiom, and the surface of anime is simply the presentation of the form (high quality printing, vivid colors). In an anime-styled game, however, the visual style is just the surface of the game, an interchangeable costume. But there are also conventions of the game genre (”Collect the five spirits.”) which generally accompany the anime-styled game. The convention of anime graphics is underpinned by idiom, and critiqued as surface.)
form – the large scale classification of the work. Book, music album, game — in which store would you find it? Form and idiom tend to transgress on one another. For example, is Sim City a game or a toy? “Sim games” appear to be an established game genre, yet they lack certain conventions shared by other games, such as victory conditions and progress indicators. When game design starts to explore the [quite fertile] territory of form, it tends to make mayhem with the idiomatic conventions of the game, as well as rewrite the rules for structure, craft, and surface. Form-oriented games tend to be games that fall outside of established genres. [More on this at a later date. -B] For computer games, the form of the work is the computer game.
idea – what the work says. McCloud describes idea as: “The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes of the work… the work’s ‘content.’”
* * *
Returning to rules, it seem natural that each layer of the creative model would encourage the formation of certain rules. Now I said I wasn’t interested in a taxonomy of rules. By taxonomy, I mean a comprehensive classification scheme, and a mapping of rules onto McCloud’s model is unlikely to be comphrehensive. There are rules which attempt to counteract, and rules for defining new rules, and rules for prohibiting. Keep these in mind.
rules of surface – Rules which try to maintain high standards of quality, which are generally from the publisher’s perspective. Standardization of packaging, of physical media. There are a number of implicit surface rules which have been made obsolete-yet-still-implicit by technology, such as rules about frame rates and resolution.
rules of craft – Like the rules of surface, there are rules that are obsolete-yet-implicit, like the sharing of resources on a multiprocess system. There are the rules of programming craft, such as which languages and libraries to use, which methodologies to follow. When the rules of craft are not satisfied, lud[i]ological analysis tends not to address the deeper layers of the work.
rules of structure – This is the big battleground of lud[i]ology and the hardcore gamer. Rules about linearity or non-linearity. Rules about gameplay duration. Rules against degenerative exploits. Rules about “the kind of game I’d like to see”, such as Miller’s God Concept. Rules about player agency.
rules of idiom – The rules of idiom determine which genre a game falls into. Games that fall outside of an idiom have to be judged by their own idiomatic rules, through they are more often than not judged by the ways in which they fail to fit into an established genre. While some would define idiom as a lexicon, others would define idiom as the set of inviolable rules.
rules of form – These rules tended to transgress into and out of idiom. Otherwise, from the perspective of form, a game is a game because it follows the rules of form.
rules of idea – Rare are the ideas which transgress the rules of games, which do not also transgress the rules of culture. Game about killing people that don’t violate American mores about killing people are not transgressive.
(to be continued…)

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