Bioshock and the 9 Elements of a Game

Posted: February 4, 2013 by annieewbank in Uncategorized

What makes a game? That is the topic of this blog post. In the book “Rules of Play”, Salen and Zimmerman analyzed nine different “elements of a game”. Bioshock fulfills most of these criteria, even though many of the scholars who developed each element of gaming did so long before video games even existed.

The criteria are as follows:

Rules: There are rules, though the game tries to give you as much freedom as possible: there are some features of the landscape that cannot be altered, you can carry only so many of one item (though you can hold unlimited items if you only have one of each.)


You can carry only so many machine gun rounds, for example.

Goal-oriented: The game uses map markers and a golden arrow at the top of the screen to guide the player character through different quests, though occasionally the arrow disappears to encourage the player to wander aimlessly or find the way themselves.

Activity, process, or event: The player in Bioshock must actively choose their path. In the game, the player has a choice between harvesting or saving creatures called “Little Sisters”. The player gets an immediate benefit from harvesting a substance called “Adam” from the Little Sisters but if the player saves them, they (apparently) turn back into the little girls that they once were. The game requires the player character to make a moral decision that could have an effect on the gameplay.

Involves decision-making: The player character can decide where to go and what quests to pursue, and how they go about it. However, there can necessarily only be a certain number of options for a player to pursue, considering that the world of Bioshock is a self-contained system and every action must be taken into account by the game designers.


The golden arrow you see at the top of the screen lead you to your next goal.

Not serious and absorbing: Hardcore gamers and casual gamers approach games very differently. I wouldn’t want to tell a hardcore gamer that the plots of their favorite games were “not serious”. As for absorbing, I believe modern gaming to be extremely absorbing, more like gambling, where people want to play “just a little more” to get to the next goal. As for me, I know I had a hard time not playing “Bioshock” instead of writing this blog post, haha.

Never associated with material gain: There are many competitive gaming competitions that people train for and win large prizes for. However, just like in the competitive gaming world, for every professional player there are thousands who play just for fun. Bioshock is a single-player game, so it cannot be played for profit.

Creates special social groups: For better or for worse, “special social group” definitely describes gamers, who like any other social group have their own in-jokes and knowledge. Bioshock has many fans (I’ve been hearing spoilers for the game for at least five years now.) However, Bioshock is not a two-person game, so people do not interact with each other through Bioshock.

Voluntary: Is me playing Bioshock voluntary? Well, no, it’s homework and I wouldn’t have picked up Bioshock myself if I had a choice. But most gamers would have played it for fun.


The pistol is my weapon of choice.

Uncertain: Are the outcomes uncertain in Bioshock? Less so than a lot of games. You can choose the difficulty, from easy to hard, and if you die, you respawn nearby. Dying is not a huge inconvenience in Bioshock, so there isn’t a huge amount of uncertainty. But there is still limited autonomy for the player and things jump out at you a lot, so.

Make-believe: Bioshock takes place in 1960, and the player character is a rugged action man fighting for his life in a city run by Ayn Rand at the bottom of the ocean. I sure hope it’s make-believe.

Inefficient: Playing Bioshock is useful to me, since it is my homework. But aside from the usual argument that playing games increases your hand-eye coordination, I am not sure what benefit playing Bioshock would have on someone’s life. Except extreme fun (I like it a lot! I have played much more than the 1 hour required.)

A system of parts: There are resources to be picked up, monsters to be shot, and levers to be pulled. Bioshock is a complex system where using one thing can effect an entire level and the gameplay. It’s all related.

A form of art: The settings in Bioshock are beautiful and intricate, and the music and animation is fabulous. It’s a labor of love, albeit one where you can set corpses on fire. The video game is undoubtedly a work of art. A game can take years to develop, and major endeavors can employ the work of hundreds of writers, artists, animators, programmers, and musicians. Despite the massive creative effort that goes into many games, shooters especially are dismissed as mindless violent entertainment, usually by people who haven’t played them.


It’s also extremely scary!!

Bioshock is obviously a game, and it fits pretty much all of the criteria that people have outlined for an activity constituting a “game”. However, it is apparent to me now that whether something is a game depends on the player as much as the game.

  1. suzannescott says:

    This is certainly comprehensive, but I would have liked to see you pull a few of these elements out and really dig into them. The comment you close your post with, the idea that “whether something is a game depends on the player as much as the game,” is an interesting point, and directly related to the notion that games require (or should be designed to encourage) a “lusory attitude” amongst the players. I would have liked to see you expand on this, particularly in terms of the moral decision-making processes you describe above. General note for the next post- more depth, less breadth, otherwise good work.

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