Pac-Man Things
Basic Introduction to Game Design

The formal systems of games and game design atoms

Cite this article as: Lennart Nacke. (September 12, 2014). The formal systems of games and game design atoms. The Acagamic. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from

Welcome to the second week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. Today, we are going to discuss the formal system structures of games (an introduction to its formal and dramatic elements) and game design atoms. This text follows closely from our textbooks (Game Design Workshop, Chapters 2 & 3 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 2); it also takes inspiration from the Salen and Zimmerman book Rules of Play (Chapters 5,6,7). Keep in mind that game design is a field of practice and even when you are reading all the information from this course, there is no substitute for working on some games at home for practice.

The Definition of Games

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 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 essentially guided by meaning-making. Continue reading