There is an ancient story of a game design that I think is worth remembering. It is the story of Senet.
Senet is one of the oldest games known to date, with boards and pieces dating back to 3500 B.C. It was a popular game in its time, representing something of historic importance to Egyptian society. The game has been pictured in paintings of tombs, and Senet boards were placed in graves as tools in the afterlife for esteemed persons. It is often portrayed as a bridge between the living and the afterlife, and its place in the Egyptian Book of the Dead underlines the spiritual importance of the game's overall message. Senet artifacts are beautiful works of sculpture, engraving and clever combinations of technology, using all kinds of materials.
Unfortunately, however, the rules of Senet have been lost to us over the centuries. Without the rules, the game cannot speak, and its message, which was so compelling thousands of years ago, is gone. Senet, without its rules, is just a collection of pretty bits.
As an art form, game design is thousands of years old. Game designers today face the same fundamental artistic problems as their ancient counterparts. Senet illustrates how, for a large portion of history, game design was transmitted by spoken tradition, and how much can be lost. Nevertheless, enough has survived to instruct the modern game designer and remind us of our craft.
There is much understandable excitement in the potential for computer games to be the ultimate combination art form. There are games created today that combine dance, architecture, storytelling, improvisational theatre, music, painting and film-making in various ways.
Add to this amazing scope our ability to create shared online games, (where one to millions of players can communicate and compete) and it is easy to understand why computer game design is now in such a state of creative turmoil. It is hard to know where to begin with such choice.
Happily, there is a simple tool at the center of all game design, whose exploration requires no team or cost, and from which any game designer can learn by its consideration: rules. Furthermore, I believe that the creation and selection of game rules is an art form in and of itself. By this, I mean that the rules of a game can give an artistic statement independent of its other components. Just as a poem doesn't need pictures and a painting doesn't need music, a game needs nothing else apart from its rules to succeed as a work of art. It can certainly benefit from other elements but it doesn't need them.
By examining games from this point of view, a game designer can swiftly advance the quality and artistic merit of any effort.
Rules as Art
Rules are not entirely obvious as art, especially within the recent age of computer game development. Computer games can record thousands of rules, and a computer can remember and execute decisions based on these rules without (much) difficulty. Instead of inventing specific rules and weighing each one's meaning, it is easy to try and follow the path of simulation.
Today, many developers face a sea of choices about the representation systems that communicate their rule sets. To some extent, it is understandable that rules governing player choice have taken a back seat. This is largely because the simulation of complex, real-world phenomena (including human behavior) is an alluring mental challenge in and of itself.