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A new publication! The Rule Book by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola is published 12 March 2024

Published on 12.3.2024
Tampere University
Jaakko Stenros ja uusi kirja The Rule Book: The Building Blocks of Games
Photo: ITC-tiedekunta
How games are built on the foundations of rules, and how rules—of which there are only five kinds—really work.

Board games to sports, digital games to party games, gambling to role-playing games. They all share one thing in common: rules. Indeed, rules are the one and only thing game scholars agree is central to games. But what, in fact, are rules? In The Rule Book, Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola explore how different kinds of rules work as building blocks of games. Rules are constraints placed on us while we play, carving a limited possibility space for us. They also inject meaning into our play: without rules there is no queen in chess, no ball in Pong, and no hole in one in golf.  

- It is well known that researchers differ in their definitions and interpretations. The basis of this book is our observation that when thinking about the nature of games - what games are - researchers agree on only one thing: rules are somehow central to games. But that is where that consensus ends. For example, researchers do not agree on what rules are. In this book, we survey the different types of rules that exist in games that differ in many ways," says Stenros.  


In their book, Stenros and Montola discuss how rules constitute games through five foundational types: the explicit statements listed in the official rules, the private limitations and goals players place on themselves, the social and cultural norms that guide gameplay, the external regulation the surrounding society places on playing, and the material embodiments of rules. Depending on the game, rules can be formal, internal, social, external, or material.  


- We'll go through card games and ski jumping, larping and cockfighting, free-to-play mobile games and number-crunching, wheel-spinning and first-person shooters. By comparing these different games and their rules, the book seeks to understand how rules build infinitely different games and gaming experiences. Written and official rules are only one category; people also set personal rules ("I want to let my children win", "I don't want to kill in a game"), social norms play a central role ("fair play", "how long you have to think on your turn"), external regulation ("14 minutes of screen time left", "gambling is carefully regulated"), and frames set by material reality ("gravity", "human working memory is limited"). The game is made up of its rules, but the rules are also flexible, changing and interchangeable.  


Stenros and Montola have a long history together in games research and games.   

- Markus and I have been working together since 2003. Our first book together, Beyond Role and Play, was published in 2004. This book is also in a way a 20th anniversary celebration of our collaboration. In the meantime, we have both not only completed our PhDs, but also published four other books (Playground Worlds, Nordic Larp, Pervasive Games, The Magic of Participation. So The Rule Book is our sixth book together. Four of the books are edited collections, two are books we have written," says Jaakko Stenros.  


We have tried to make the book approachable with a wide range of examples. The Rule Book goes through many examples of different games and their rules. There's football and Mikado, Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000, Hole 2 and Pong. We've delved into interesting historical cases, such as the rules of betting around an English cockfight, quoted from a shameful patent application for the game Twister, dug up the world's oldest surviving 'rule book' from 2,000 years ago, and pondered basketball on the International Space Station. With numerous examples, the book also opens up thinking about games of all kinds: not digital games or board games, not gambling or sports, but games of all kinds.  



The Rule Book is published as part of The MIT Press 'Playful Thinking' series. The books in this series, including The Rule Book, are intended not only for an academic audience (researchers and students), but also for a wider audience. Amateurs interested in games and gaming will also find much to chew on in the book.  






Jaakko Stenros is University Lecturer in Game Studies working at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at Tampere University. He has published ten books and over a hundred articles and reports on games and play and heads the international Master's Programme in Game Studies.    

Markus Montola has published several books on role-playing, pervasive games, and larp, and has worked as a lead designer on mobile games such as Shadow Cities, The Walking Dead: Our World, and most recently Friends & Dragons. He is a cofounder of the mobile game studio Playsome.