Games have Rules

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:

  1. The discussion typically begins with a pro-rules pragmatic statement along the lines of “games have rules”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

12 thoughts on “Games have Rules”

  1. Maybe the very naming of play mechanics as ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ is at fault as most people probably associate ‘rules’ with things that don’t inspire opportunity.

    Eventually the terminology will be there, but it is frustrating how language (of all things) is hindering reasoning.

  2. Cheating can occur in every game, but how much cheating occurs within the context of the abstract game rules, rather than in the meta-space above the game (i.e. installing hacked clients and aim bots, or simply reaching across to your friend, and throwing a controller out of their hands)?

    It seems to me that the meta-cheating is really not particularly a designer’s problem.

    But when exploits (undesired abhorrences) occur naturally in a possibility space, then, I don’t think it’s an issue of “accomodating” the exploit (unless it’s a positive abhorrence – i.e. rocket jumping). It’s more a case of fixing a broken game. A designer has no ownership over the possibilities exploited within the possibility space, but do they get to sculpt the possibility space itself? Absolutely! (I am answering my own questions.)

    However, fixing exploits is an art in of itself. Some naturally occuring strategies may actually uphold the verb-completeness of possibility space (a good thing!). In RTCW:Enemy Territory, it was possible to use “stacking” (standing on another player’s head) to jump over a wall which was meant to be breached only using a tank. Now, this feels like a pretty natural extrapoliation of having a physical presence in the world + being able to jump upwards. However, it was deemed an abhorrence. It was “Fixed” by creating an invisible wall above the actual wall. This introduced a pretty arbitrary limitation – it was simply a band aid fix to the problem (probably due to production restrictions). A more elegant solution probably could have been found without *adding* little rules to the game.

    I can understand why there are “anti-rule” people. Some possibility spaces can be carved without respect to the affordance of the rest of the system (verb incomplete). I’ve never met anyone I’d call “anti rule” though – sounds like another NvL polarization?

  3. I’m sympathetic to the post-structural viewpoint, but like the fallacy of saying rules are anti-player, describing the post-structural position as anti-rule is equally problematic. Its like describing people on opposite sides of the abortion issue as “anti-choice” or “anti-life”, the rhetoric becomes counter-productive to discussion.

    My collegue, Craig Perko, and I have both decided that between rules and fiction lies a social dynamic, and that this dynamic is inherent to play, and that rules simply provide an artifice to interact with, as if socially. He wouldn’t put it that way, he’d put it the way he does in a short thesis paper he published recently. You ought to read it.

  4. Aubrey, you’re right that I am setting up an x vs y polarization.

    You could also see it as a cup half-full vs. half-empty situation.

    Or humanities / design / phenomenology vs. sociology.

    My basic frustration is that any potential discussion about rules is always stopped in its tracks by a vague conflict between the two positions outlined above.

  5. The point about cheating is not that the cheats are somehow negotiating the rules or misinterpreting ambiguities or playing by a different set of rules. The point is that they have their own understanding of what the rules are, just as everyone else does, and yet they break those rules all the same.


  6. It’s quite surprising to see you contrast post-structuralist thought, which I identify with the practice theorists (Bourdieu, early Foucault, Giddens, de Certeau, etc) with a “pragmatic” approach, since both of these schools of thought seek to do away with the dichotomy of structure vs. agency. By framing a “pragmatic” solution as one which is interested in both the rules (structure) and gamer’s cheating and other actions (“the player’s side”, agency) you are recreating that dichotomy, not transcending it.

    So when you say, “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,” you are still privileging the rules. Looking at games as process would give pride of place *neither* to players’ intentions and acts, nor to the multiple structural constraints (including but not only the rules), by recognizing the open-ended processes that games cultivate.

  7. I do not believe there is any specific level or type of description that can capture all of the universe and human culture. This means that we need to talk about different things at different times.

    This also means that the concept of privileging is ill suited to explain what is going on here. To discuss rules does not mean privileging rules over something else.

    I understand what you are saying about process, but I don’t see it as an end all. We still need to discuss games in many different ways, including as rules.

  8. In the example you lay out here, Richard Bartle’s assertions only seem to pose discursive dissonance in the element of ‘everybody must’, rather than play or game per se, but that’s neither here nor there; it may just be what altered the course of debate on the day.

    I rather like the argument that rules interpret the unknown for players and describe event horizons to furnish the imaginative dimensions of play. They serve a syntactic function, poles in the sand, to describe possible acts.

    Good post; there is something in here that speaks about how the debate has formed before. It makes more sense when you describe it as magic users versus barbarians…

  9. Brook, your comment about the terminology of “rules” is an interesting one, particularly since one of my immediate associations for the term is a less usual one. In graphical design parlance, “rules” are lines laid across a piece to aid in ordered placement of elements.

    In this case, a “rule” is literally a guideline, and as such, it is an aid to successful design – people like things to be in order, at least to a certain degree. And, as with any guideline, a person who really knows what they’re doing can deliberately stray from it to create a creatively successful piece – often appearing strong and catching precisely because some elements appear jarringly out of place compared to the expected rules.

    In this situation, a rule is definitely an aid to “proper play”, and the existence of the rule allows the opportunity for unexpected and striking play specifically because they can be broken.

    This is merely an obseration, rather than a statement of position on the “pro-rules” or “anti-rules” matter – although I agree with Patrick that a more neutral set of terms would be preferable.

  10. Cheating can only occur when there are rules to begin with. Both acting in accordance with the rules and cheating can only exist if said rules exist. Just because the rules are not necessarily overt or cannot be explicated precisely, does not mean they are not there, or that games are not intrinsically a rules-following activity. There’s good reason why there are problems with explicating / understanding of rules, and several paradoxes arise when studying the subject philosophically.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein tackles this subject in great length and zealous rigour in his monumental Philosophical Investigations. In fact, “Language Game” is probably the key-concept to understand, if one wishes to understand the PI at all.

    If you have not yet studied Wittgenstein, I cannot recommend him highly enough.

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