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Book Review: Characteristics of Games

Characteristics of Games (by George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, and K. Robert Gutschere) was a fascinating read and challenged more than one assumption I had about topics I felt were quite cut and dried.  This book starts at the foundation of design by examining topics such as number of players, game length, and types of games.  The book introduces some new vocabulary and contains some excellent appendices that give good summaries of topics such as Game Theory.


Characteristics of Games is a thorough treatment of many aspects of games.  Each topic is fairly well explored, with annotations and exercises for the reader.  It is essentially a course book, one that wouldn't be out of place in a game design class.

Having read through Rules of Play, I felt like a lot of new ground was still explored.  Some of the basic ideas are not as rigorously explored, such as the difference between a game and activity.  The author's make it clear that they have considered the distinction, but do not find value in splitting hairs (in their eyes).

There is also the occasional bit of humor that keeps the material light.  Overall, the book is on the denser side, but there are also plenty of graphs and other illustrations.


One thing I greatly enjoyed was the appendix covering Game Theory, or rather two types of Game Theory.  I really dislike hearing that "Game Theory says This" or "Game Theory says That".  One, stop anthropomorphizing an idea.  What people really mean to say, is that they have used Game Theory (presumably Von Neumann) to prove their point.

It is the same as saying "Excel says you should invest 20% of your income into your 401k".  No it does not.  Game Theory is a tool for analyzing and predicting human behavior, but it is all based on a model (or matrix really) of payoffs.  This model is built by the user.  So, just as Excel is a tool that can be used to prove any point, even contradictory ones, the same is true of Game Theory.


The Bad

My complaints of the book mostly stem from the fact is it written as text book, but not a standard one.  Most text books that include exercises provide a key of answers, so that students can check their work.  Not Characteristics of Games.  I understand some of this, as some of the exercises do not have have concise "correct" answers.  However, may of them do.

It is very frustrating to see a question, such as to determine such and such probability, and have no way of checking if you are correct.  This is a basic feature of a text box, to confirm that students understand the theory presented.  To skip this is frankly a noob mistake on the part of the authors.

The other issue with the book is the focus; it is more on defining and quantifying aspects of play, then actual game design practice.  This is fine as the purview of the book is clear, however, if you are looking for concrete design practice, this is not the resource to look to.

The Good

This book provides a serious look at many aspects of games and successfully tries to quantify and objectify aspects of game play.  From my perspective, much of game design is about feel and gut instincts.  Which makes the field feel as if it is still in the early stages of growth.  However, this book does a great job of exploring the building blocks of games such as units of game play length, number of players, etc.

When discussing units of game play length, they talk about 'atoms' as the smallest complete unit of play to 'games' where a victor is determined.  The book also examines 'campaign' vs 'match' and gives examples from several genres of games.

Some of the new terminology introduced I found myself using in discussions.  For example, one of the new terms is 'agential'.  This denotes something based on player actions or player-centric.  I have found it useful shorthand that is easily understood by people, without having read the book.  It is contrasted by game characteristics that are 'systemic' or deriving from the systems of a game, rather than its players. 

The Conclusion

As the book itself makes clear, it is a not a game design book.  Rather it facilitates discussion of game design topics.  By looking at basic concepts such as heuristics, it maps out the conceptual space of games.

However, some of the topics covered are crucial to game design.  Concepts such as complexity tree growth and game balance (to name a few) are essential to game design.  I would say this book is more about theory than practice, but by understanding the concepts within, I feel the application of those concepts will be improved.

Who Should Buy This Book

Anyone who wants a thorough exploration of game aspects, such as player elimination, teamwork, rules, game balance, game arc, etc.  This book covers new ground from "Rules of Play" and I would recommend this book to anyone who considers themselves a student of game design.  It definitely contributes to the definition and analysis of games.


  1. I really like Characteristics of Games overall -- I use it as the textbook for an Intro to Game Design class I teach in the UW System. I don't agree with all of it, but it is nice that some of the information syncs with my own experiences, but it also diverges in interesting areas that make for good discussion points with students. It is definitely more a textbook examining games than a guide on designing games, but it covers a lot of ground.

    Regarding the "Game Theory Says This" feedback, I can appreciate where you are coming from, but Social Contracts and Game Theory are specific disciplines within economics, which tends to look at these abstract concepts in very concrete terms -- assuming that the basic laws of economics apply, the assertions are based on decisions or outcomes in which the person making the decision is a) acting rationally and b) acting in their own self interest. The thing is, gamers aren't rational, so while Game Theory may say the math leans one way, the human animal doesn't always follow the math, especially in game play or game design, where we make many of our decisions based on or influenced by emotion, empathy, circumstance, etc.

    That's a big long nerdy response, but it's the sort of thing I love discussing about game design -- there is no one way to do it. There are ways that the "science" of game design as a discipline say is mathematically better or worse, but it's the instincts, gut feelings, and alchemy of science & that inner voice that disagrees with it.

    1. No worries, I enjoy discussing game design too. I totally get the Social Contracts disciplines, I am mostly looking toward popular entertainment that was/is throwing around that phrase. I saw one show that said something along the lines of "elemental game theory says this geo-political crisis can be resolved via blah blah". I forget which show.

      I just think it is important to understand that it is artificially framed. For example, the Prisoners dilemma makes sense as it is framed, but add in another variable, like the cost of retribution for working with the police/turning against your partner. That isn't represented at all, but by adding that value, say number of years subtracted from normal lifespan, then it would dramatically alter the outcome of the dilemma, still using the standard principals of rational actions, etc.

      If the prisoners were to lose the rest of their live (assuming they would live more than 10 years) then it would not make sense at all to co-operate/betray.


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