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  • The Systems Approach: An Interview with Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman

    - Jill Duffy
  •  Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and chief design officer of Gamelab, believes in taking a systems approach to game design. Jill Duffy, editor-in-chief of, spoke to him recently about what that really means. As it turns out, Zimmerman professes to using a systems approach to resume writing, answering questions posed by an interviewer, and understanding how people cross the street. I wanted to ask you first about some things you said at the Games for Change Conference, which was about games being systems. You kind of went off on that [at the conference], so I thought I'd let you go off on that again. What does that mean: Games are a system?

    Eric Zimmerman:
    I think if you look at games as opposed to other forms of art, media, entertainment, they are more overtly systemic. You could look at a poem and say a poem is a system. It's a visual system of how the typography is arranged on the page. It's a system of meaning because words gain their meaning in relationship to each other ... There's a lot of meaning there. There's a system of imaginary images. There could be a system of formal patterns in the rhythms and sounds. A poem is a system, too.

    But a game is really a system in a very particular way. It's at its base mathematical. We can always reduce games to systems of mathematical and logical rules.

    With a game, rather than saying, "Here's a fixed set of words on a page," or a fixed set of images that are going to play out over time, you really have something that is more like a little machine, or little parts that are moving in relationship to each other.

    If you and I play a game of chess, we might end up playing a game of chess that none of us has ever played before in its exact combination and never will play again. That's possible because of the way games are made up of parts that interrelate to each other in dynamic ways to form a whole, whether those parts are the players on a soccer team with a ball on a field, whether they're the pieces on the chess board, whether they are virtual AI characters moving around in a 3D space on your screen that you're interacting with through a controller. And each of those parts has other parts. Each AI-controlled character may have a shape and a size and a sound and a health stat ... There are systems within systems in games.

    Now I think that's important for a few reasons. But as a teacher who has taught game design in the past, the one most fundamental way of thinking that is necessary to game design is thinking in terms of systems -- rather than, say, "I want to make this game about this character. I want to tell a story through my game. I want this character to look a certain way and have a certain feeling." That kind of thing is important, but that's more of a narrative approach.

    There are many many approaches to making games. With a systems approach, we're really looking under the hood of the game. ...

    [Using a systemic approach], we can express things in ways that only games can, through their systemic qualities of how to put players in cooperation or competition with each other, how they indirectly create pacing of events over time - not because you explicitly scripted them to, like in film where you know this scene is going to last five minutes, but instead, setting up possibilities that you hope will play out in certain ways.

    That ability to look at the system of the game, to extrapolate from its mathematical rules up through the player's experience and figure out how a change to a rule and a change to a way that it's structured is going to ramify into player experience -- that's the fundamental mindset that I try to instill in [students].

    When I'm teaching game design or when Katie [Salen] and I wrote Rules of Play, that's what I think is really crucial about understanding how games work and being a game developer: games as systems.

    GCG: I think it was Raph Koster who came up with this phrase "a grammar for game design." It really bothers me because what he set out was actually more of a vocabulary for game design. But what you're talking about is more closely related to a grammar.


    GCG: -- parts, that need to relate to other parts, and changing the order changes the meaning. That structure can be very revealing through the history of games.

    EZ: Yes. Absolutely. I think that rather than Raph Koster's program, which is a universal grammar, I think every game presents its own unique set of problems and ways that you approach and solve those problems as a designer. I'm not sure there's ever going to be a universal way of looking at structures or systems or grammar, or however you want to say it about games.

    It's more that it's a way of thinking about how the world is put together that means thinking of the world in terms of systems.

    For example I'm always fascinated by pedestrian crosswalks -- how the timing of the lights [works], and how long you have a yellow to a red, and whether or not through the timer all four lights are red, or whether one turns red immediately when the other opposing perpendicular light turns green. All that relates to the flow of traffic, the culture of the city, the kind of specific intersection that it is.

    That's systems thinking. How do all those parts interrelate to each other to form a whole, whether that whole is one pedestrian's experience of it, or whether you're thinking about the flow of traffic through the city in general?

    Or whether you're thinking about it in terms of cultural systems. In New York City, for example, we have very aggressive pedestrians, and I would say that the timing of our stoplights and walk/don't walk signals encourages aggressive pedestrian behavior. It actually gives you false confidence that you can always walk into a red light, because often you can walk into a red light, which encourages you to walk, and then encourages more aggressive behavior.

    That's an example of thinking of the world in terms of systems.


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