Rule Variance: Examining the intrinsic/extrinsic rule spectrum

18 Mar

As with all my in-depth articles, there is a brief summary to begin.


You can place rules on a spectrum, at one end are intrinsic rules, which are upheld by the player’s choice to be subject to them and can consequently be altered, ignored or broken at any time- you can’t touch the ball with your hands, you can’t look at someone else’s cards, etc. At the other are extrinsic rules, which the player cannot alter, either absolutely or at least not without non-trivial effort. The random generation of bricks in Tetris is an extrinsic rule, as is gravity. Nothing you as a player can do can alter these rules. There are significant differences in the way players experience these rules. Three broad examples outlined here are Playspace, Permeability and Participation

  •  Playspace: Extrinsic rules define the absolute boundaries of a playspace, intrinsic rules define the actual boundaries of a playspace.
  • Permeability: Intrinsic rules are highly permeable- their boundaries are less clear and rigid, and more capable of unanticipated adjustment. Extrinsic rules are less permeable and consequently less adaptable.
  • Participation: Intrinsic rulesets must involve the player as an agent in the maintenance of the game and playspace, consequently they are participatory- all players are somewhat responsible for the character and direction of the game, leading to a process of participatory development. Extrinsic rulesets more clearly distinguish between ‘player’- one who submits to the ruleset and ‘designer’- one who creates the ruleset.

Identifying the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rules has a lot of potential importance for anticipating player behaviour in a given game, reconciling various theories of play and games and deepening our understanding of how playful/gameful situations interface with ‘real life’


Rules are the fundamental tool of the modern game designer, the putty from which we shape the creative shapes of our games. However, even away from games we subject ourselves to rules constantly. It is from rules that much of our society and culture springs. As such, there are few subjects more worthy of understanding than the varieties of rules and their properties, not just as gamers and game designers, but for a better understanding of the structure of culture and society itself.

Here I’m largely going to focus on a specific pairing of opposed rule types, one that has been made far more pressing to investigate by the advent of the video game and its meteoric rise to be one of our most prominent forms of entertainment. The distinction between these kinds of rules is simple: some rules are self imposed, some are not. We can call the former intrinsic rules, as adherence to them is regulated primarily by the individual upon which they rest. The only thing that prevents a wholly intrinsic rule from being broken is the subject choosing not to do so. The opposite we can call extrinsic rules, as they are imposed upon the individual by some concrete barrier or physical law placed there either by circumstance or by another individual. Unlike intrinsic rules, you cannot choose to ignore or break an extrinsic rule if you see fit.

Intrinsic rules are the framework of most human culture and complex behaviour. Their existence and effect has long been of interest. It was observation of intrinsic rules that caused Johann Huizinga to assert that the rarefied sphere of the magic circle was a fundamental part of all cultural activity. Games of intrinsic rules are amorphous and often confusing to someone who is not a player or participant, to understand them one must join, or at least be aware of, the restrictions each participant places upon themselves.

Intrinsic rules also give us our common language for interacting- or failing to interact- with rules. Cheaters who pretend to follow the rules, but break them. Spoilsports who have no interest in the game or respect for the rules at all. Playgrounds that are marked by symbolic boundaries that can be ascribed new values during play. Rules themselves are commonly held to be invisible, intangible boundaries maintained primarily by the individual’s willingness to adhere to them.

Videogame design, however, concerns itself almost exclusively with extrinsic rules. Especially in modern commercial game design, the designer does not expect their players to maintain an internal set of rules about what is and is not allowed in the game. The rules are set by the designer and imposed through software and hardware. The most obvious result of this is that the terminology described above cannot be used to describe such games- there can be no cheaters or spoilsports if the rules cannot be broken and a playground whose boundaries can vanish at the twitch of a synapse is a fundamentally different entity to a playground whose boundaries are set by encrypted binary which no player can alter (I imagine some will quibble here that code can be hacked and so on, this will be addressed below). The rules of a videogame are not the rules which other games use, to such an extent that I do not think many of those who studied the nature of games before videogames came along would consider them games at all.

I should note here that there is no binary opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic rulesets. In reality, I’ve found that extrinsic rulesets typically ‘play host’ to a variety of intrinsic ones, acting as a limiting space in which games of the traditional intrinsic kind can emerge more smoothly. This would place most videogames in the same conceptual space as Salen & Zimmerman’s ‘game system’- a set of props which can be given any value the player desires such as a deck of cards or a chessboard. Even so, intrinsic and extrinsic rules exist at opposite ends of a spectrum of sorts, so any given real world example is going to be more complicated than representing one or the other form of rule in pure isolation.

Let’s now have a look at some of the properties in a given ruleset that vary as you move towards one or other end of the spectrum.



Intrinsic and extrinsic rules have different relationships to the player’s experience of space. As mentioned above, extrinsic rules can only define the outer boundaries of a playspace, what the player is absolutely allowed and not allowed to do. Intrinsic rules on the other hand, limit what player believes they are allowed to/should do (note that this belief is often shaped conscious self-limitation such as fighting with only certain weapons despite others being available). You could say that extrinsic rules define the absolute playspace while intrinsic rules define the actual playspace. There is a very basic tendency in players to perform a process of exploring the limits of an extrinsically imposed playspace then, once these have been established, to contract the playspace intrinsically and focus their play around ever tighter and more intricate intrinsic rulesets. You can watch this even with infants placed in a new space- first they explore, then once the capabilities of the space are determined, a particular area of interest is focused on- trying to bounce a ball as high as possible, re-arranging bricks to make new shapes and so on.

This observation is pertinent as it reminds us as game designers that the software or hardware we design isn’t really a game, but structures within which players are more likely to participate in a certain specific kind of intrinsically maintained game than they would normally be. For example, players in an MMO might be more likely to engage in cooperative, goal oriented play than they would otherwise thanks to the capabilities and focus of that ‘game’.

Consequently, it is not just important that the absolute playspace has an interesting shape, but that when it begins to shrink as ever more intrinsic rules are added by the player, the shape remains interesting. Ideally, in fact, it may become more interesting as some minor area of the absolute playspace becomes the sole focus of the player. A game cannot be purely designed to be experienced as a whole. Each individual aspect must be engaging and capable of being combined in a myriad of different ways with any other.

As a side note, it’s best to be careful about thinking in terms of structuring a game to very clearly direct a player towards a certain kind of intrinsically maintained activity or play- achievement hunting, for example. Thanks to the nature of extrinsically imposed playspaces, the clearer the intended boundaries, the more strongly many players will press against them to see just how resilient they are- you’ll be careful with a wall made of crepe paper, but nobody’s afraid of giving a brick wall a good hard shove. What harm could it do?



Permeability refers to the ease with which a given ruleset can be adjusted, broken or abandoned on the fly. As mentioned above it is an oversimplification to place intrinsic and extrinsic rules in binary opposition. Few extrinsic rules are truly, utterly unbreakable- only those imposed by physical law. A player with enough dedication can theoretically move mountains to adapt the extrinsic rules of their playspace, but this is unlikely in practice. Not only does it delay the play itself, but especially when it comes to modern software, the player must have accrued a high level of technical skill to make the changes, not to mention break that most terrifying of all creations, the EULA. On the other end of the spectrum intrinsic rules are, while in the abstract able to be dissolved on a whim, sometimes more difficult to break than it would seem to an outsider. Force of habit alone provides a barrier to many experienced players, as do traditions and social considerations.

However,  intrinsic rulesets often allow for their own spontaeneous adjustment. For example, a friendly soccer match is governed by intrinsic rules that are more than capable of altering the number of players, the size of the pitch, the form of the boundaries and even what can be used as a ball. A formal competition match, on the other hand, would not only have a set of carefully worded rules with associated penalties for violation, but even more rules that concern how the match might be arranged, teams selected and so forth.

The first case is an example of an intrinsically centered game to the far end of the spectrum, one whose rules are extremely permeable- able to cope with circumstances requiring they be softened, broadened or contracted on the fly. The second case is a game somewhere in the middle of the spectrum- the rules are still maintained intrinsically by the participants, but there are more hoops to jump through for those rules to be altered. A traditional single player videogame is an example of the other end of the spectrum, wherein a player must learn high level software development skills and in some cases break the law if they wish to expand the rules of the game. Such a game could be called highly impermeable- the rules are set, and functionally impossible to modify without the designer’s input.



A third observation is that the position of ‘designer’ varies with the form of rules that predominate in the game. Game designers are a relatively novel position in the history of games and play. Arguably, the first professional game designers may have been crossword editors in the early 20th century, prior to this the concept of a game as something constructed and outlined by a single individual was a rarity. Instead, games ‘evolved’ through a cooperative process of iterative development in player communities and a subsequent process of fragmentation into a variety of forms and subsequent re-codification before arriving at their formal incarnations. With no single author and consequently no ownership of game concepts, game design was carried out in real time by players, altering the rules on the fly.

What we now call game design and the greater use of extrinsic rules arose hand in hand. Game props became more complex, less able to be scrapped together from tin cans and old newspaper. To make designing games a commercially viable enterprise, those games needed to have some property that was difficult for players to reproduce. The game required a magic box to which only the designer knew the secret. The revolution came with the very epitome of the magic box, the arcade cabinet. At last the game designer had a medium under their control, a closed system that produced wonderful games which could not be easily taken home and appropriated. No longer was it necessary to hand the player the ability to change the game just so they could play it, no longer did the player need to be a conspirator, trusted with the secrets of the craft. It is no understatement to say that the modern videogame industry built its financial success off this one property of videogames.

The clearest result of this development is that it has created a social divide in play spaces between the average person (player) and, to draw analogies to political rhetoric, a privileged elite (designers). One joins the elite by having the skills required to create, modify or adapt the mysterious gears that spin inside the magic boxes of today’s games. The most important realisation is that this activity differs from the fluid evolution of intrinsic games in that the process of design and development is clearly distinct from that of play and occurs ‘outside the circle’, as it were. The more extrinsic rules are implemented to control the shape of the play space, the more this is necessary: The further, in other words, the gap between ‘designing’ a game and ‘playing’ it. On the other hand, the more intrinsically based a game is the more it requires the player’s participation in a shared goal and direction to succeed. Consequently, the terms ‘designer’ and ‘player’ drift closer together the more of the game is defined by intrinsic rulesets.

So it behooves us as designers to really look at ourselves and wonder what we are. We are a new breed, a role in a social process millennia old that has only recently gathered any kind of influence or power. When designing games with heavy elements of player agency and participation, an awareness in the divide between intrinsic and extrinsic rulesets may even define the success of a project. The participatory/communal and designed/external spectrum in game culture has existed for far longer than videogames- it’s an underlying theme in everything from Caillois’ Man, Play and Games to Sparisou’s Dionysus Reborn. With game design reaching the point where it seeks to become a mature discipline among other creative schools, investigating the relationship between the creator and audience is a priority, one I hope to talk about frequently hereabouts.



This is a big topic, one I’ve tried to cover in only the most general sense here.  A lot of these early blogs will be about big ideas, and I’ll narrow down particular areas of interest later based on circumstance and discussion. One particular note of interest I’ll draw attention to here is the relevance of this area of theory to the infamous magic circle debate.

For those not in the know, the term ‘magic circle‘ has been incredibly controversial in game design and game theory circles for some time. It refers to the idea that games take place in a different space to ‘real life’. When the term was coined by Huizinga in the 1940s, this circle referred the restrictions players underwent by submitting to intrinsic rules. Eric Zimmerman later appropriated and redefined the term to refer to the extrinsic rulesets of designed games in the book Rules of Play which, as a seminal game design text, has become next to canonical in the videogame design community. The result has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth throughout the various scholarly communities interested in games. I believe this is largely due to the failure to recognise and address the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rules and the bearing that has on working with the magic circle concept.

There’s a lot more to be going on with, from using the model to explore how to encourage players in a videogame to enter into the sort of play the designer intends for them, to the formation and tendencies of the incredibly complex metagames that surround complex open world or competitive videogames, but I think this is a good place to leave it for now and come back to this in the future.


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