Can Games Really be Separated into Core and Shell?

2 minute read

Frans Mäyrä’s An Introduction to Game Studies delivers what it promises. It’s probably the best introduction to game studies available.

It discusses the central concepts in game studies, from the magic circle to game cultures, thoughtfully and clearly.

In order to make things more understandable, it simplifies some issues. Mostly, it does this successfully, but there is one thing I think it simplifies too much. It happens to be a thing that appears close to the beginning of the book and is clearly presented in a diagram, making it easy to learn and remember. Because it’s so clearly presented, it’s one of the few things all students pick up from the book.

I’m talking about the idea that there is both a core and a shell in a game. According to Mäyrä, the core of the game is its gameplay (“the actual rule structure”) and the shell of the game are its representational aspects (“the semiotic shell”). Sometimes it makes sense to discuss these separately, but I think more often it doesn’t. The problem isn’t that Mäyrä is strictly wrong, but that the idea is seemingly so simple that it’s easy to abuse and misuse. Another problem is that it has an inbuilt normative aspect, where the core is the important part and the shell is – in Mäyrä’s words – “extraneous”.1

The distinction only works in exceptionally simple cases, like Pac-Man or Space Invaders. It’s possible to change the aesthetic elements in these games and still retain most of the game. However, even simple changes can have a big impact on what the game experience is like. For example, there have been many adaptations of Space Invaders, where the aliens are replaced with other things, leading to games like Tax Invaders and Tax Evaders. The examples Mäyrä uses are similar, talking mainly about board games.

However, any sufficiently complex game reflects the themes, and the diegetic and narrative elements in its mechanics, making the distinction less useful in trying to understand the game. If these elements are interpreted separately, they they make less sense and don’t really help in understanding the whole. It’s still possible to do so, but it will probably not help with the analysis.

I have a case example you can contemplate in terms of core and shell: a Doom mod that replaces everything – and I do mean absolutely everything – with Tim Allen. If only the shell changes, then surely the gameplay must still be fundamentally the same?



Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. London: SAGE, 2008.

  1. There is a great word for this: coresessed. It’s “being unable to think about games in any other context than their core mechanic and neglecting everything else.”