When players sit down to play a tabletop role-playing game, one of the ways of understanding the situation is that there is an implicit contract between the players that sets out their relationship e.g. that the Games Master is in charge, that the players will try to minimize their use of player knowledge etc. Indeed, this was the premise behind the shortest tabletop RPG design ever published, Contract, which I designed with Rob Briggs – the complete game rules fit on the back of the character sheet! Each character sheet is explicitly a contract between the player and the Games Master.
The same concept of an implicit contract of play can be applied to videogames. Here the tacit agreement is between the players and the developer or designer - but it has different terms. Often, this contract is assumed to say 'you the player can do whatever you want in our world, but we set the challenges you must complete' or something similar. However, it is plausible that a game could specify a different implicit contract – indeed, there is already considerable variation in the tacit terms. Consider what players are presumed to accept from an MMO, a Free-to-play game, or kart racer as just three simple examples. The implicit contract of Animal Crossing is radically different from that of Grand Theft Auto, even though both are putatively sandboxes.
It is possible that by inviting the player to accept a different kind of contract, a game could invite the player to role-play, that is, to play in character (like an actor) instead of acting out (i.e. rampaging across the game world). Imagine how game narrative could be mounted if the player is invited to play as the character they have assumed the role of, rather than expecting to ‘be themselves’ (i.e. be mindlessly destructive because they are casually isolated from the consequences of their fictional actions). This could even be underscored by a scoring or reward mechanism based upon co-operation with the game’s intent, although this would risk overjustification.
Assuming the introduction of the new ‘terms and conditions’ could be done elegantly, might this kind of uniquely defined implicit contract of play offer a radically different kind of game narrative?