I am at the State of Play symposium in New York, and by the end of the first panel, we witnessed a discussion about rules.
I have heard this discussion many times by now, but it tends to follow the exact structure that it did here. According to my notes:
Richard Bartle: In games, everyone must play by the rules, and people play by the rules because this gives fun that you wouldn’t have without those constraints. At the same time, there will also be people who cheat.
Conference participant 1: No no, there are many studies that players don’t play by the same rules, and don’t agree what the rules are.
Conference participant 2: Sure soccer has rules, but there is also a large aspect of cheating, so why not make the rules to accommodate this cheating?
I think I understand it now. Let’s say there are two positions here: 1) Pro-rules, and 2) anti-rules. Pro-rules people generally make pragmatic descriptions of the gameplaying activity, and anti-rules people commonly apply a general poststructuralist skepticism towards descriptions of structure. Here’s how the discussion plays out:
- The discussion typically begins with a pro-rules pragmatic statement along the lines of “games have rules”.
- The anti-rules person interprets this as saying “games have perfect rules created by an authority, the rules are always perfect, are never ambiguous in any way, players never cheat, and players are always in absolutely perfect agreement about all aspects of the rules, including written rules, house rules, and unwritten rules” and objects on all these counts.
- Pro-rules response: Eh yes, players cheat, and people may be in disagreement about what the rules are, but that doesn’t change the point that players engage in games well-aware that they have rules; players negotiate rules and tend to have a clear distinction between what is playing by the rules and what is cheating.
- Other anti-rules response concerns the idea that game designers should make the game more open, let players create rules themselves.
Here’s what I think: I think the pro-rules people (such as myself) make general pragmatic descriptions of games and gameplaying. And I think that these descriptions just push a very well-defined button for the anti-rules people that then hear something very different from what I believe is being said.
The anti-rules position additionally tends to claim to be uniquely taking the player’s side, and to uniquely be interested in how players actually use games. Eric Zimmerman once pointed out that talking about rules tends to get you pigeonholed as “anti-player”. This is obviously wrong.
I think a much better starting position for rule research would be to say you want to look at how rules are negotiated, constructed, upheld, and broken. But not to begin by a priori privileging (oh yes) rules being upheld, or rules broken as the preferred conclusion you hope to arrive at.