Making the rules; the case of Halo (4.0)

“…one of the sweetest pleasures as a game designer is seeing your game played in ways that you did not anticipate” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003 p. 540).

Abstract: …


This is a preliminary version of my research design for the course game studies.


The cause for this research is my personal experience with the First-Person Shooter (FPS) game Halo on the Xbox console platform in a social group.

Introducing the research

The research concerns the rules of the game. More specifically, it is about changing the rules. Available content on online video site YouTube demonstrates that Halo is, and has been, played in radically different ways, probably not foreseen by the game designer. Examples are ‘Red vs. Blue’ and the so-called ‘Warthog Battles’. The research concerns one of the many ways Halo can be played, namely competitive multiplayer gameplay.

More specifically, the research is about the team-based Capture The Flag (CTF) gametype within a Local Area Network (LAN) context. Furthermore, the research only considers gameplay in the map ‘Sidewinder’. Halo’s design offers players the possibility to adapt the game rules, by setting “…custom rules for all the basic game types.” (MobyGames, 2011). However, not all elements of the game is customizable, which leads to creative solutions.

Defining game concepts

The paragraphs above contain potentially intimidating terms, such as FPS, CTF and LAN. They may seem rather exotic to the reader who is unfamiliar with them. Basic knowledge about these concepts is required for the reader in order to understand this paper. However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to review these concepts extensively. Therefore, I refer the reader to the Appendix, where I provide a short description of relevant terms.

Research Design

In this section the research question, the research method and the theoretical framework will be described.

Research question

The research answers the following research question:

1. What is the motivation of game players in redefining the rules?

The question is broken down in the following sub-questions:

1a. Why were the players not satisfied with the original game rules suggested by the designers?

1b. What was the goal of changing the rules?

1c. What did the process of changing the rules look like?

Theoretical framework

Participatory culture

The paper concerns participation research. More specifically, ‘games as a social phenomenon’, after one of the chapter titles in the “Handbook of Computer Game Studies” by Raessens & Goldstein (2005). Within ‘games as a social phenomenon’ the concept of participatory culture and the three domains of participation are used (Raessens & Goldstein, 2005 pp. 378-381). These domains are interpretation, reconfiguration and construction.

definition of the domains: … the reconfiguation part of the framework. Within ‘construction’ one can discern ‘modification’ and ‘creation’. The phenomenon of changing the rules is best described using ‘modification’. construction is about game-mods or game patches, which was not an option in Halo.

Rules of the game

“To play a game is to follow its rules.” (Salen and Zimmerman,2004, p. 117). However, the phenomenon of game rules is more complex than this sentence suggests. Rules are a fixed set of abstract guidelines; the game’s formal structure. The rules determine which actions are permitted out of all the possible actions. “Players voluntarily submit to the game, they limit their behaviors to the specific restrictions imposed by the game rules.” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 124). In effect, the game rules handicap the players. As soon as the players are in-game, they are inside the games’ articifial context, its magic circle. Here, all players must obey the rules to participate. In sum, game rules limit player action and they are explicit, fixed, binding and repeatable (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 125).

Elements of the game rules are situated on a continuum from unstated to stated. Salen and Zimmerman describe game rules on three levels, namely; implicit, constituative and operational rules (2004, p. 130). Implicit rules are the unwritten rules of a game, which is essentially about proper game behavior. The constituative rules of a game are the formal structures that exist below the rules presented to players. The operational rules are the guidelines players require to play. Boundaries between these levels can be fuzzy, especially between the operational and implicit rules. Here, the context is important in determining which rule belongs where.

So, which rules are really the true rules of the game? In other words, do the rules as formal structures of a game have a bearing on the game’s formal identity? (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 134). Implicit rules are crucial, but are also similar from game to game. Thus, these are not of the essence. In turn, it is “The constituative and operational rules of a game [which] work in concert to generate the formal “meaning” of a game.” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 134). In the end, the three levels assist in determining a clear ruleset which relates to the actions and outcomes of meaningful play. When rules are ambiguous, the game is destroyed and the players lose their interest. In turn, a game needs individuals, players, for support. Without players, there is no game. “When a game creates ambiguity, it is always within some larger frame that is clearly articulated and shared by all players. … Rules themselves must ultimately be unambiguous.” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 137).

Conflict is an intrinsic element of every game (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 250). “One core principle of conflict in games is that it is fair. Game conflict is impartial conflict: it is premised on the idea that all players have an equal chance at winning, that the game system is intrinsically equitable, that the game’s contest takes place on a level playing field…” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 260). Such a fair game would eliminate all extraneous variables so that the player with the most developed skills wins the game. This would give what Caillois, quoted by Salen and Zimmerman, describes as “…precise and incontestable value to the winner’s triumph.” (2004, p. 260). However, in practice most games strive for, but hardly ever accomplish fair play.

“Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals” (Salen and Zimmerman)

“Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds” (Juul)

“Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games” (Wright).

[[[Raessens says that he adheres to “technological interactionism” (p. 379) and I follow him in this regard. Here, social processes are influenced by technological developments as well as human negotations. This means that I will take into account both the negotiation of rules in a group setting, as well as the (re)configuration of the game elements.]]]

Research method

The research concerns a case study. The research method used in this study is qualitative fieldresearch. More specifically, participatory ethnography, since the researcher participated in the group himself. The analysis is based on semi-structured interviews with a sample of respondents from the group of players. The interviews were conducted by means of Skype voice-over-IP telephony. The answers provided form the basis on which I can answer the research question.


The social group varied in size between 12 and 16 males who played together on a regular basis. In 2006 the players’ age varied from 16 to 22 years. In 2010, all players were either having applied sciences and/or university degrees or actively pursuing them.

It is important to note that the social ties of the group were formed a priori to playing Halo. The people involved were living in the same city and going to the same highschool, some of them in the same class. Furthermore, there were also familial ties within the group, with three and two people being brothers.


The interviewees were selected from the group in question. The sample size is [n=???????]. Sampling was based on the behavior variable frequency of play, i.e. the interviewees were the most frequent players of the group.

Value of the research

Scientific value

The research is valuable for both academics as well as game designers, because it provides insights into what game players demand from the rules of the game and the opportunity to change these rules. The goal is to produce games that appeal even more to game players.The FPS-genre is at this time still very popular, with recent releases regarding the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor franchises. Although the research concerns a case study, Halo can be considered a typical FPS game. This speaks in favor of the generalisability of the research within the FPS-genre.

Societal value



The research answers the following research question:

1. What is the motivation of game players in redefining the rules?

The question is broken down in the following sub-questions:

1a. Why were the players not satisfied with the original game rules suggested by the designers?

1b. What was the goal of changing the rules?

1c. What did the process of changing the rules look like?

trial and error experimentation, try a lot. democratic as far that majority ruled.

“The virtue of a map is judged by its ability to generate “good” game play, where game play means that neither side has an unfair advantage and where tactics and strategy have to be employed in order to win.” (FPS text)

“Playing with a game’s technical features also marks the development of creative responses to the rules created by the developer. … Playing is not simply mindless movement through a virtual landscape, but rather movement with a reflexive awareness of the game’s features and their possible modifications.” (FPS text)

“…complex social world that participants enter willfully. It is a world of rules and social conventions that often appear invisible to outsiders and may well remain invisible to new insiders until conflicts arise between players. Through the playing of the game and negotiating conflicts one learns the meaning of the game, the meaning of “having fun.” And that “having fun,” is bound up with creative actions taken to enhance the pleasure of the game.” (FPS text)

“Players learn rules of social comportment that reproduce codes of behavior and established standards of conduct, while also safely experimenting with the violation of these codes. This “learning,” which comes through a creative restructuring of “social heritage” appropriated from the world outside the game, is evidence of the profound “ambiguity of play” (Sutton-Smith 1997). (FPS text)

A video game is half-real: we play by real rules while imagining a fictional world. We win or lose the game in the real world, but we slay a dragon (for example) only in the world of the game. (Half-Real, Juul)


-game design: options for customizing objects
-As a game designer you dont design the behavior of the players. You design the rules. It is not allways possible how the rules will play out. (S&Z p. 168).
-participation: players co-create with the game designers, because they are the interpreters and thus the ones who make meaning. Game designers produce games for players.
-social rules, games as social phenomenon: negotiating and reaching consensus about what is a legal and what is an illegal move. The sphere of permitted moves is smaller than the possible moves (Rules of Play). This can overrule the availability of objects.

Limitations of the research

The research provides in-depth insights on a relatively ‘small’ area, since it concerns a very specific combination of peripherals, software and people. Thus, the results might be hard to generalise, at least beyond the FPS-genre. This is due to the unicity and specificity of the case and its situation within the context.

It can be argued that the participation of the researcher in the group is a weakness, because it may cause bias. Therefore, issues such as interpretation and personal factors may lead to different results when replicating the research. To complicate matters, replicating this type of research is difficult in itself, due to situational circumstances.

The group in which the researcher participated played together between 2003 and 2006. At this the researcher had no intent of doing research, so he participated on an equal basis with the other participants. Therefore, there was no role stress of being participant and researcher at the same time. However, this brings the potential disadvantage of ‘going native’. Furthermore, data collection took place in 2010, about four years after the group stopped playing on a regular basis. This period between the events and the collection and analysis may have negative effects, such as respondent’s diminished ability to recall events from their memory.


in-text citing:

Academic sources

Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Jesper Juul

Games as participatory culture. Raessens, 2005
Handbook of Computer Game Studies. Raessens & Goldstein

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 670 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-24045-9.

Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games. Wright.

Non-academic sources


Game dictionary:
Sidewinder bird’s eye view, by Esemono:
Typical FPS screenshot, here in Halo Sidewinder:

Campen en base-campen en acceptability:

First Person:

Warthog battles:


Description of game concepts in alphabetical order

Camping, Camper, Camp

Camping is the action of staying in the same place (the camp) for long periods of time, usually in hiding, and just waiting for the an enemy to come by. (Gaming Dictionary, 2011).
To camp is to stay in the same spot for a long time (the camp) in order to attack the enemy when they come by.
– A camper is someone who stays in the same spot for a long time (the camp) in order to attack the enemy when they come by. A camper is usually frowned upon in the FPS community.

Capture The Flag (CTF)

Capture the Flag is ”…a special mode usually found in multiplayer games, where two teams will engage in battle and try to take the opponent’s flag in order to bring it back to their own base, while protecting their own flag.” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011).


The console is “…an entertainment system, portable or not, which lets you play video games.” . This research concerns the Xbox console.

First Person Shooter (FPS)

A First Person Shooter is “…a game which puts you in the driver’s (or killer) seat. You will indeed be seeing all the action through the eyes of the character you are playing…” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011). The first person game player sees “…through the eyes of the protagonist.” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011).

This type of interface in Halo looks like:

Halo: Combat Evolved

Halo is “…a first-person shooter with considerable driving elements and the first game in the popular Halo series… Halo also has a significant multiplayer component with …capture the flag with the unusual addition that the flag takes your weapon spot while you are holding it, so shooting your way in and out of the base on your own is not an option … There is also a game editor which allows you to set custom rules for all the basic game types. All the playable weapons and vehicles from the campaign mode are available in the multiplayer maps with the ability for members of the same team to share the game’s distinctive Warthog vehicle, which is essentially a small truck with a mounted gun on the back.” (MobyGames, 2011).

Local Area Network (LAN)

LAN abbreviates the descriptive term Local Area Network. Such as network connects computers in a common location (Gaming Dictionary, 2011). Here, the network consists of four Xbox consoles located in a house, often in two rooms due to the divide of the group into two competing teams.


The map is the “…game universe you are in when you play a game.” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011). This research is limited to one specific map called ‘Sidewinder’.


This research concerns multiplayer gameplay. This means “…a video game that can be played by a few players … over a network, over the Internet, or in a LAN.” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011). Halo allows a total number of 16 players to play at the same time in the map Sidewinder.


Peripherals are “…hardware (as opposed to software) extension … device[s] used in computer science, like a mouse…” (Gaming Dictionary, 2011). Example of peripheral devices in relation to the Xbox console are the controller, network cables and the network hub/switch.


Health Pack

Active Camouflage



Sidewinder is one of the 13 available multiplayer maps of the game Halo. From a bird’s eye perspective the map resembles a horseshoe. “The main feature of this map is the ice patches on the front of the horseshoe in between the bases… On the outer edge of the map are two large cliffs that are connected to each base with teleporters. … On the inner edge, there is a network of tunnels which lead to the opposing bases. Four power-ups can be found in the lower section of the tunnel. There is a Sniper Rifle, two Shotguns, Health Pack, Plasma Pistol, Pistol and an Assault Rifle inside each base.” (Halopedia, 2011).

From a bird’s eye perspective, the map Sidewinder looks like this:

Interview transcipts

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3 Responses to Making the rules; the case of Halo (4.0)

  1. Ruben Feldblum schreef:

    Hey Mark,

    het lijkt alsof je het hele onderzoek al hebt gedaan met de conclusies en de grenzen van je onderzoek. Wel indrukwekkend, maar ik vraag me wel af of je het onderzoek nog moet doen (conclusies?), of dat je al mogelijke conclusies hebt opgeschreven (soort van hypothese?). Je hebt wel een volledige opzet, en volgens mij ziet dat er keurig uit. Ook goed dat je een lijst met links hebt naar allerlei mogelijke onbekende concepten hebt gegeven zodat de ‘leek’ kan opzoeken wat dit zijn.
    Je hebt als methode gekozen voor een etnografische methode, namelijk interviews. Ik hoop voor je onderzoek dat (heb je zelf al aangegeven) er geen complicaties ontstaan voor je resultaten.
    Tenslotte vind ik wel dat je opzet wat overzichtelijker kan zijn. Toen ik het las moest ik een paar keer goed kijken of een bepaald stukje afloopt, of nog doorgaat. Probeer hier op te letten want het leest dan een stuk makkelijker.

    Maar petje af!

  2. Raema schreef:

    Hoi Mark,

    Je opzet ziet er goed uit. Ik ben het wel met Ruben eens dat je een duidelijkere structuur kan aanbrengen door kopjes en sub-kopjes te gebruiken.

    Je maakt ook gebruik van een casus maar legt niet uit welke dat is. Een kleine beschrijving is wel op z’n plaats. Misschien moet je de casus wel introduceren voor de onderzoeksvraag, zodat je vragen concreter worden. Je onderzoeksvragen zijn namelijk op het eerste gezicht ietwat abstract, want je hebt het bijvoorbeeld over regels die gebroken worden. Maar aan welke regels refereer je? Pas na een stuk verder te lezen wordt dit duidelijk.

    Verder is het geheel duidelijk en goed uitgewerkt.


  3. Ryanne schreef:

    Hey Mark,

    Ik sluit me aan bij Ruben, het is allemaal nog wat onoverzichterlijk. Ik zie dat je mijn feedback heb verwerkt, super 🙂 Ik zie dat je sommige dingen nog moet uitwerken, waar (??) staat, zoals bijvoorbeeld de maatschappelijk waarde van je onderzoek, kijk hier nog even goed naar. Verder, je hebt echt duidelijk voor ogen wat je gaat doen, goed bezig!


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