Rules of play (2004)

Rules of Play is a game design textbook I wrote with Katie Salen that takes a deep look at card games, board games, social games, and physical games, as well as computer and electronic games. The popularity of Rules of Play has grown each year since it was published and today it is used as the primary textbook in wide range of courses related to the design and scholarship of games. It also can be found on the bookshelves of many game designers and on many of the must-read lists of game design books.

The book is structured around four basic sections: an introductory unit that establishes key concepts, followed by three units that look at games as formal systems of rules, as the human experience of play, and as works of culture that interact with their contexts. Each chapter within these units is a “schema” that acts like a lens for understanding what games are and how they function. Formal schema include looking at games through information theory and cybernetic feedback loops. Experiential schema include games as social play, as pleasure, and as narrative. Cultural schema investigate games as rhetoric and as sites of social resistance. There is also a wonderful introduction by Frank Lantz and a handful of guest essays and commissioned games by designers including Reiner Knizia, Kira Snyder, and James Earnst.

I’m greatly indebted to Katie Salen for our years of collaboration on this book, as well as our patient and supportive MIT Press editor Doug Sery. Katie is also responsible for the book’s smart and delicious graphic design. Rules of play is available in paper and digital form and has been translated into several languages, including Japanese, Korean, and Portugese.


The Game Design Reader (2006)

The Game Design Reader is the follow-up to Rules of Play. It is an anthology of readings about the design and culture of games that Katie Salen and I co-edited.

We wanted to create a book that included a very wide range of both foundational and lesser-known writings on games. The Game Design Reader has selections from the earliest scholarly writings on games, including chapters from key books like Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games, and moves through important essays on games and folklore from Brian Sutton-Smith and Linda Hughes. Contemporary scholars of play like James Gee and Henry Jenkins are also represented.

Much of the book consists of writings from game designers like Richard Garfield, Bernie DeKoven, and Greg Costikyan that explore the theory and practice of game design. Every game design education should include seminal design essays like Richard Bartle’s Player that Suit MUDs and Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. Some of the best of games journalism is included as well, from writers like Tom Chick and Ian Shanahan.

Katie and I wrote a series of short essays for the book that help organize the many readings in different ways, emphasizing topics like game spaces, game communities, and the game design process. Each topic essay includes a curated selection of readings from the anthology and suggests further outside readings as well. Game design icons Brenda Laurel and Warren Spector also contributed original essays that begin and end the book.

Huge thanks to my co-editor Katie, who is also responsible for the book’s lovely graphic design. Thanks also to our editor Doug Sery at MIT Press and all of our contributors. The Game Design Reader is available in paper and digital formats.



In the early 2000s, I organized a series of online discussions between game designers, scholars, and critics. Participants included designers like Warren Spector and theorists like McKenzie Wark. The passionate discussions ranged from debates about topics like storytelling and addiction to theoretical dives into game rules, games and art, and the place of games in society at large. This book is a record of those conversations that was co-edited by Amy Scholder and myself.

As one of the first events that brought academics and designers together, RE:PLAY represents an early foray into sophisticated discussions of games and play. Not only does it offer a snapshot of the very beginnings of game studies and game design theory, it also raises many issues that are still being hotly debated today.

Thanks to my co-editor Amy Scholder, to Justin Hall for highly readable sidebar writing throughout, and to Katie Salen for the cover design. RE:PLAY is available in book format.



For several years at the Games, Learning, and Society conferences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I co-organized a series of "Real-Time Research" sessions with Constance Steinkhuler, Kurt Squire, and Sean Dikkers. These slightly-crazy events asked conference participants to conduct academic research at very the conference they were attending - to collaboratively come up with research questions, design a method, conduct it, and then present findings by the end of the conference. The results were always surprising and led to unexpected collaborations across disciplinary lines.

Real-Time Research is our record of these sessions, along with a step-by-step guide to running your own real-time research events. Giant thanks to my collaborators Sean Dikkers, Constance Steinkhuler, and Kurt Squire. Real-Time Research is available online at ETC Press.


Essays & Articles

Clash at Clash of Realities (2017)
• In 2016 I led a highly participatory session at the Clash of Realities conference in Cologne. This essay was published in the proceedings and outlines what I did and my design process. Big thanks to the Cologne Game Lab's Gundolf Freyermuth.

Don't Follow These Rules: A Primer for Playtesting (2016)
• Co-authored with Nathalie Pozzi and based on our experience teaching design at UDK in Berlin. The essay offers a structured approach to "playtesting" that can be applied to many different kinds of design. Published in the volume play|test.

Aesthetics for a Ludic Century - Ericka Beckman's Play with Games (2015)
• Ericka Beckman is a video and installation artist that has been making fascinating work for decades that engages in subtle ways with notions of play and games. Curator Fabrice Stroun asked me to contribute this essay to an exhibition catalog of her work.

Games, stay away from art. Please.  (2014)
• A response to the ever-present debate about whether or not games are art. My answer in this brief piece is that it's the wrong question to be asking and is usually based on antiquated ideas of what art actually is. Thanks to Polygon for publishing.

Manifesto for a Ludic Century (2013)
• This audacious little essay was originally written for  A Gameful World, edited by Steffen Walz and Sebastian Detering. Prior to the book’s publication, I worked with Heather Chaplin and to publish the essay online. Some responses.

Foreword to The Well-Played Game (2013)
• When Bernie DeKoven republished his classic book about play with MIT Press, he asked me to write something for the new edition. This essay connects Bernie’s amazing book with contemporary ideas and movements in games.

Foreword to Characteristics of Games (2012)
• A short introduction to the amazing book on game design by Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, and Robert Gutschera. I make a case for books that go deep into understanding the nuts and bolts of games, lest we miss the tress for the forest.

Jerked around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later (2012)
• This infamous essay sets the record straight about all of the misconceptions that have sprung up around the concept of the “magic circle” since the publication of Rules of Play.

There is Magic in Games (2008)
• The forward for the second edition of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop!, this short essay tries to capture the spirit of what is meaningful for me about game design.

Gaming Literacy – Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the 21st Century (2007)
• Originally written for (Re) Searching the Digital Bauhaus and later for The Video Game Theory Reader, this essay considers game design as a model for new kinds of literacies.

Introduction to FIGMENT (2007)
• This unpublished essay was written to accompany FIGMENT, a game I created for a book called Switching Codes. (The game was published, but the essay was not.) I include it here because it represents my first use of the concept of the “Ludic Century,” which has found it way into other papers and talks.

Creating a Meaning-Machine – The Deck of Stories Called Life in the Garden (2007)
• An essay about the design of my interactive paper book Life in the Garden, written for Second Person, that discusses the joys and challenges of procedural writing.

Hustle and Flow – The Intangibles of Running a Game Company (2006)
• Included in the book Business and Legal Primer for Game Development, I wrote this essay with Gamelab co-founder Peter Lee. It contains advice about creating company culture, a sense of employee authorship, and other crucial but “intangible” aspects of running a game studio.

Redesigning Shopmania – A Design Process Case Study (2006)
• Co-authored with Gamelab Senior Producer Catherine Herdlick, this essay describes in detail our late-stage design iterations on the Gamelab title Shopmania.

A Bill of Rights for Game Developers (2005)
• This intentionally provocative thinkpiece was based on a keynote I gave at the Montreal International Game Summit. It was originally published for the International Game Developers Association website and subsequently as a feature at

Learning to Play to Learn (2005)
• Co-authored with Gamelab game designer Nick Fortugno for, this practical design piece outlines common pitfalls in designing games for learning and suggests some solutions.

The Missing Piece (2003)
• This catty little rant about the game industry was written for an early issue of the German game magazine GameFace and later republished in the Australian Playthings.

Creating a Culture of Design Research (2003)
• This mini-essay was published in Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, a book that Brenda Laurel put together, and it outlines strategies I used in crafting the company culture at Gamelab.

Play as Research: The Iterative Design Process (2003)
• Also a chapter of Design Research, this piece outlines the basics of iterative design by examining how the games SiSSYFiGHT, LEGO JunkBot, and LOOP were created.

Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four naughty concepts in need of discipline (2004)
• This essay appears in the volume First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Although the book came out after Rules of Play, I wrote this essay much earlier, and the “four naughty concepts” were to become foundational concepts for Rules of Play.

Sexplaythings (2003)
• I was asked to contribute something for an issue of Print dedicated to the theme of sex. My response was to design seven concepts for games on the theme of sex.

Do Independent Games Exist? (2002)
• Written many years before “indie games” became an industry buzzword, this two-pronged meditation on the problems with the game industry was first published in the catalog for the museum exhibition Game On.

No Future (circa 2001)
• This choose-your-own-adventure style interactive story about the ad world was written with game designer Frank Lantz for a design magazine that decided not to publish it, citing the difficulty of scattering the essay throughout the pages of an issue.

Thinkpiece for “Playing by the Rules: The Cultural Policy Challenges of Video Games” (2001)
• In addition to addressing and critiquing the question “Are videogames art?,” this paper spends most of its time detailing a Canadian court appearance I made as an expert witness in a videogames trial.

Against Hypertext (2000)
• A diatribe against the hypertext model of interactive narrative, this essay was written as a response to a piece by Stephanie Strickland, both of which appeared in American Arts and Letters #12. Despite this essay, Stephanie and I get along very well.

The Rules of the Game (1999)
• This essay on boardgames and their implications for design was published in the first (and only) issue of If / Then, a design journal in book form edited by Janet Abrams.

Rules, Play and Culture: Towards an Aesthetic of Games (1999)
• This short essay on game design, co-authored with Frank Lantz for the now-defunct Merge Magazine, was the first appearance of the rules/play/culture schema which was later to find full fruition in the structure of Rules of Play.

Technologies of Undressing: The Digital Paper Dolls of KISS (1996)
• This essay was written with film scholar Elena Gorfinkel and was spurred by our mutual fascination with the internet culture of Kisekae dolls. It was published in the now-defunct tecnhoculture journal 21C and the design journal Zed.