10 min read

The formal systems of games

In the second week of my Basic Introduction to Game Design course, I talk about games as systems, their formal structure and the elements that make games into games.

This is an except from a post first published at my own blog The Acagamic as part of my Basic Introduction to Game Design course. I hope this is useful to you.

Rather than pondering on the exact definitions of game here (many of which can be found in Rules of Play, Chapter 7), we want to look at what's most useful to us as game designers.

"Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges." (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)

This quote from the Rules of Play book encapsulates the main items that we should focus on as game designers: (1) Context, which can be the spaces, objects, story and behaviours that you encounter in games. (2) Participants are your players that act upon your game context for example via manipulation or exploration. They inhabit your game world to play. (3) Meaning is a concept that we have already mentioned in the last week when we talked about meaningful choice. When players take actions in your game, meaningful play should emerge from the agency that players feel. Meaning here is tied to the value of significance of something encountered in a game for the individual player. Even in real life, meaning is important to us because it helps us navigate through our world and interpret the people and the world around us. Our everyday interactions are guided by essentially guided by meaning-making.

"Design is the successful application of constraints until only a unique product is left." (Don Norman)

To develop a game, it is best to constrain ourselves at the start of our design process to some core elements of games. We begin by brainstorming elements that we find in all games. The results of such a brainstorm from class is shown below. However, as mentioned in the above Extra Credits video, there is no progress in exhaustively defining what exactly a game is. We simply use this as a starting point to wrap our head around the elements in games that we are going to work with as game designers. We have to start somewhere to develop this new medium and this list serves as a good starting point. 

Brainstorming Games
What are the elements of a game?

Games as Systems

A game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality. (Chris Crawford)

We have already identified games as a space that exists as a subset of reality with boundaries and rules (we have even mentioned the concept of the magic circle in class, see below for an extra credits video on the concept).

We have already identified games as a space that exists as a subset of reality with boundaries and rules before. Games can be seen as sets of elements, but they are much more than just a set, often having internal relationships and states of elements that help them interact. At this level, it is most sensible to refer to games as systems. Now, systems can be seen as sets of items that can affect one another. The interaction among these set items can form patterns that are distinct from its individual parts (i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). Littlejohn and Foss discuss four system elements that are mentioned in Rules of Play (p.51) as well:

  1. Objects. This refers to elements, variables or parts of a system. These could be physical and/or abstract nature.
  2. Attributes. These are the properties or qualities that a system and the objects within the system can have.
  3. Internal relationships. The objects in a system are usually in an internal relationship to one another.
  4. Environment. Systems are influenced by their context that surrounds them.

Games can be framed as different forms of systems as well, such as formalcultural or experiential systems. If you analyse a game as a formal mathematical system, you analyse a it differently than if you analyse it as a cultural or experiential system. These systems are often embedded in one another. A cultural system encompasses the experiential and formal system of a game. The main difference between framing games as a formal or as an experiential system is that formal systems are closed (they can be analysed independent from their environment) and experiential systems can be closed but also open (i.e., they have some form of exchange between the system and the environment).

The easiest way to start seeing games as systems and to uncover their shared properties is to look at two games and compare them in terms of their commonalities and differences.

Formal elements help create a games' structure. The relationship between these formal elements is what forms a game. Therefore, as game designers we have to get acquainted with these formal game elements. This is not an exclusive list of game elements and by combining them, it is possible to create different game elements, to create novel forms of interaction and gameplay. With these tools, you will hopefully be able to create meaningful decisions in your own games.

  1. Players. Game design calls for players to interact with one another and the game system. Players are voluntary, active participants in the entertainment activity. They partake in it, they consume it and they are invested in it. They can be potential winners of the activity. When players adopt the lusory attitude, they can enter the Magic Circle of games and immerse themselves in the game world. This means that there is usually an invitation to play, such as recognizable rituals or social offerings for playing. The invitation to play is important for players to have a lusory attitude.The number of players can be variable or fixed for a game. Players will have different experiences based on the amount of other players partaking in a game. Different players can adopt different roles during play. Players can play in teams and define actions for team members. Within role playing games, a player role can facilitate or inhibit a player action, but often players have different play styles, which allows for different matches even when players play the same role.

  2. Objectives. As we have already mentioned in the last lecture, objectives are important for the motivation of your players to engage in gameplay. The best game goals seem attainable but are still perceived as challenging. You want to be able to work as hard as necessary to achieve your own objectives as a player in a game. Examples are getting the most XP at the end of a game or staying alive until the end of the level. The player's need to complete objectives serves as a measure of player involvement in games. Here are some examples:
    1. Capture. Players have to avoid getting captured or killed while destroying some opponent properties (commonly some form of terrain or units).
    2. Chase. Players have to elude or catch an opponent.
    3. Race. Players have to reach a goal before anyone else does.
    4. Alignment. Players have to align their pieces in a spatial or conceptual configuration.
    5. Rescue or Escape. Players have to get some defined units or items to safety without being compromised.
    6. Forbidden Act. Players have to get the opponents to break the rules or to abandon a strategy.
    7. Construction. Players have to construct, maintain, or manage game objects.
    8. Exploration. Players have to explore unknown game areas.
    9. Solution. Players have to solve a problem or puzzle (sometimes before the opponents solve it).
    10. Outwit. Players have to gain and use knowledge to outwit their opponents.
  3. Procedures. These are actions or methods of play allowed by a game's rules. They can be specific instructions of what actions to take during play. They can also refer to a specific set of controls. In a computer game, they would serve to process the input of a player. Procedures can specify actions that are impossible or inefficient outside of the magic circle of the game. Essentially, you have to answer who does what where and when and how? Player actions as specified by procedures can be split up into the following:
    • Starting (How the game in put into play, also leading into onboarding of players)
    • Progression (These are the ongoing procedures running during gameplay)
    • Special (These are actions that are only available based on other elements and changes to the game state)
    • Resolving (These actions bring your game to an end)
  4. Rules. These are the exact objects and concepts of your game; they are the building blocks of the game system. As a game designer you want to be able to describe the actions for all possible situations in your rule set. Your rule set specifies everything a player can and cannot do. This means that you often have to limit the actions a player is allowed to do and you have to think about reactions of the game to player actions. Rules are the authority of your game world. They are like a code of honour that players adhere to when entering play (this is tied to the lusory attitude of being willing to enter the magic circle). If players don't follow the rules, they are leaving the game. In summary rules serve three main purposes:
    1. Defining objects and conditions
    2. Restricting player actions
    3. Determining effects on players
  5. Resources. These are game objects that have a value for players in reaching their individual objectives. The value of these items can be determined by their scarcity and utility. The value for players (i.e., utility) is often scaled by how much an item helps a player achieve a goal. As a designer you control the availability (i.e., scarcity) of an item, you can help guide the player to find resources and you can put systems in place that govern how resources are managed and when they become scarce. Common resource examples in games are
    • Lives
    • Units
    • Health
    • Currency
    • Actions
    • Inventory
    • Time
  6. Conflict. Conflict emerges through procedures and rules in the game that prevent a player from achieving their goal. Objectives often guide players to these conflict situations. The main conflict in many first-person shooters is to stay alive while player or non-player characters try to kill you. The conflict in Pinball would be to keep the ball from rolling out of the playing field only with the mechanical devices (often flippers) the machines provides to you.
    Conflict emerges when objectives guide players toward rules and procedures that work against the player goal.

    Three types of conflict are common in games:

    1. Obstacles. These can be in physical or mental form. Physical obstacles could be the length of your Pinball flippers or the bumpers that the ball bounces off of. Mental obstacles can be a missing item to complete a riddle in an adventure game or the challenge of calculating the right numbers in Sudoku.
    2. Opponents. Other players in a game or computer-controlled enemies.
    3. Dilemmas. These are problematic choices that a player is faced with. It's a strategic decision, where the consequences have to be weighted before proceeding.
  7. Boundaries. The is the border to the real world (the separation of the magic circle and real world). This also relates to actions that are only possible in a game but would have much different consequences outside the game boundaries. It can also relate to the playing field, the skybox, or other limiting geometry in your game world.
  8. Outcome. The outcome of a game has to be uncertain to foster player interest. In games the outcome is often measurable (e.g., points) and uneven (i.e., one team/person has to win). Winning conditions are different from player objectives. Since players have invested much time and emotion into a game, it is hard to create a resolution that satisfies this investment of players.

"Every game is its rules - for they are what define it." (David Parlett)

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope this introduction was helpful to you. Feel free to read more at my blog.


Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, California
Audio Engineer

Digital Extremes

London, Ontario, Canada
Communications Director

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, California
Senior Producer

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
Lead UI Programmer
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more