What Are Little Games Made Of...?

Ecologies of Play

This is an extended reply to a comment raised in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? If you haven’t read this earlier piece, you might want to start there.

BloxelsDear Bart,

What is it that we take a rule to be? Is it a wording, is it a practice, is it a formal constraint? This ambiguity about what we mean by ‘rule’ lies at the heart of the difference between the argument I developed in Are Videogames Made of Rules? and the counter-argument you provided at length in the comments. What I hope to do here is clarify my position by responding to your extremely detailed counter, and hopefully shed some light on what it might mean for anything to be ‘made of rules’.

I always appreciate it when you engage with my arguments because you have an unswerving desire to take off all the panelling and poke around with the interior workings. Sometimes, you even put it back together again afterwards! I wish peer reviewers were as interested in engaging with my arguments as you are, but alas the practices of the academy have strayed about as far from virtuous discourse as could be imagined.

Let me break down your observations and respond to different points one at a time, in the hope that this will bring out the points of interest in both our positions.

1. You’re answering your question as though it was being stated as ‘Are games made entirely of rules?’

I don't think this is quite right: no-one makes that particular claim, which is clearly excessive. But you’re correct that there is another aspect of the claim that ought to be unveiled. I don’t think the missing term is ‘entirely’ but perhaps ‘fundamentally’. If games were ‘fundamentally made of rules’ it would mean that everything game-like was comprised of rules (plus whatever else those rules worked on, including such diverse things as players, dice, polygonal models, tensor arrays and so forth). My claim here is that this is only true in so much as the fundamental (=impossible to remove) element of elements are translatable into rules. That still gives a special status for rules – but that status ceases to be ontological (i.e. about the nature of the existence of games). This point is so subtle I didn’t draw attention to it, since I really didn’t think anyone was going to engage with this piece. But I was apparently mistaken!

2. You discuss ‘games’ as though this is synonymous with examples of individual games, but ‘games’ and ‘a game’ are significantly different in the context of your question.

This is such a clever observation it may exceed my ability to do it justice! Broadly, you are correct to say this but my usage is not accidental, it is merely not explained in this piece. ‘Games’ for me is a term that broadly means [Superset(game)]. I don't have time here to expand this point (although I will return to this later this year…) beyond saying that ‘games’ for me is just a term for the set of all sets of whatever is called ‘a game’. But your objection still has bite: that superset can’t be directly identified with individual games, which are ‘merely’ elements in that superset. But, and here’s the key point, the superset is not amenable to access in any other way since it inherently denies the attempts at unification implicit to every attempt to provide a master definition of ‘game’. I ought to be more careful about how I draw those lines, and I thank you for making me think about this more carefully.

3. There’s an elision of important differences going on in your argument between the nature of a game meant to be played by people sitting in a room together with the human rulesmaster and a game meant to be played by strangers separated in time and space from each other and from a potentially non-human rulesmaster.

Here we may disagree. I accept the broad point, in that the possibility space of the former is on-paper much larger than the latter, but how locked down or open a game is to on-the-fly modification isn’t necessarily a function of tabletop versus otherwise. MUDs are the obvious examples of videogames with far more variability than any non-RPG tabletop game.

So I don't think I’m eliding those differences, as I don’t see this split in quite the same way. But you are surely correct that the subtleties of distinction here are something I largely brush under the carpet for brevity. But that’s what comments like yours are so good at teasing out of the woodwork!

On to your commentaries on my objections:

But games (as generally understood) do include rules of play as a required feature for comprehensible interaction with a product intended to entertain, so in that sense, games are made of rules.

I don’t think that can be right... the presence of rules is no evidence of constitution. Every car ships with a manual but you would not be tempted to say an automobile was ‘made of instructions’. This may sound flippant, but the point is not: I am saying rules are intimately tied to games as a discourse involved in their play. That discourse has most force in its role of helping players acquire (or apply) the player practices required to play any game artefact in the manner ‘intended’. But just because of this, I am suggesting that those player practices are constitutive of games; the rules are the helpful discourse surrounding those practices, but are not constitutive, per se.

...your question refers to ‘games’ in the plural, and your argument points out (correctly, I think) that games as an ecosystem for playing certainly do seem to include components that aren’t just about dictating how to play. But an ecosystem for play is certainly not the same thing as a game, which is the direct experience that will be had by most persons engaging in structured play.

This is a fascinating claim in itself, and I love the whole idea of ‘an ecosystem for playing’, which you derive from my arguments. Miguel Sicart, in Play Matters, also talks about ecologies of play (drawing against actor-network theory), and it is one of the more engaging aspects of his book. This distinction between ‘games’ (as an ecosystem for playing) and ‘a game’ is extremely subtle and intriguing. As a game designer, I am always trying to leverage my experience as a play ecologist, and vice versa! The ecosystem for playing could be taken as the set of all player practices plus the set of all toys or components that can be played with – and that is a very different way of thinking about games and play than attempting to found an ironclad definition.

…’a game,’ for most individual games, can perhaps fairly be said to be ‘made of rules’ in that formal rules comprise a good majority of the stuff that defines that particular game.

Here I am obligated to explain why treating player practices as constitutive is a more robust interpretation than treating rules as such. And the clearest answer I can offer is that any player can learn to play any game without any access to the rules, provided another player is available to induct them into the practices of the game. The fewer new practices they must acquire, the easier this is.

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

For videogames, the distance between the rules and the player practices is even greater and we have two possible claims for what the rules might be: they could be the game design documentation (in so much as it is accurate to the game artefact) or they could be the programmed code of that artefact. I hope it’s clear that the former option won’t hold up. Most game design documentation is only a scaffold (albeit a tremendously helpful one – it’s one of the two things my company has specialised in producing). The latter option is more challenging to refute. My claim here is that programmed code constitutes rules for the computer but not for the player. This is one sense in which “Videogames are made of rules” – but since the computer does not play the game we must at least concede that this sense is substantially different from what that phrase would usually be taken to mean.

Now the program code is an important part of any videogame. In this piece, it is ‘what the players play with’, like the board and pawns and cards are ‘what the players play with’ at the tabletop. But I am claiming it is misleading to say “videogames are made of rules” because my general argument about what “games are made of” applies to videogames too. The rules in a tabletop game are a translation of the player practices; the programmed rules in a videogame are also a translation of this kind – indeed, multiple translations: the programmer translates the intended player practices and artefactual properties into symbolic code, then the compiler translates that into machine code. The machine code is a set of rules for the computer, of course, but not in any game-significant sense. Because of the translations, I say that the developers of a game are players-by-proxy in the game that all players play with a videogame artefact. That might be the most revolutionary claim I’m making here – and I don't expect many people to follow me on this. But I do want to assert the validity of this understanding.

I wonder whether considering this argument – being clear about whether your assertion refers to ‘games’ or ‘a game’ – might help to strengthen your argument.

This is one of the most intriguing assertions in your comment, one that builds on this distinction between ‘play ecosystems’ and individual game experiences. But I hope it’s clear that individual game experiences are comprised of player practices and the artefacts played with just as much as play ecosystems are. What the play ecosystem has over and above this are the development circumstances that place additional constraints upon what can be played. The play ecosystem offers a more complete picture – but I still contend my argument applies to those individual play experiences as well.

If your goal is to argue that any randomly-selected individual game is mostly not made of rules, I think that’s going to be much the harder (and more interesting) sell.

I hope in the preceding remarks I have had a reasonable shot at making that sale! I appreciate that no-one is obligated to follow me into my rabbit hole… but anyone who does will not find anything substantially out of place with my way of arranging things. And it gives a much clearer perspective on both ‘games’ and any particular ‘game’ by entirely setting aside individual definitions of ‘game’ as merely aesthetic statements (as I introduced many years back now with Implicit Game Aesthetics).

Now we come to a specific objection that requires some redirect...

Your arguments use D&D (more generally, pre-video tabletop games) as an example, and that’s fair; it’s a game, but it has a large quantity of input supplied on the spot from human players. But you then use D&D as a template for judging other games, and because they also have human input you conclude that all games are like D&D (because all games have human input) and thus all games, like D&D, are mostly not ‘made of’ rules.

I don’t think this is quite the line my argument is developed upon, but it is a clear point in my argument where additional clarification is required. The point is not about the near infinite agency of tabletop RPGs – if it were, everything would be a pale shadow of that. The point about D&D I was making here is that the ways that it was played were not specified by the rules at all, but grew out of different cultures of play (different player practices). Thus contemporary tabletop RPGs descend from the role-play lineage that stresses the taking on of a fictional role, and some computer RPGs are, at the very least, inspired by this style of play. Conversely, roguelike games descend from the rule-play, dungeon bash approach which was all about murderizing monsters for treasure (an approach that was also more likely to engage with permanent death, a feature the roguelikes have tended to inherit). These wildly different play cultures, the player practices of which continue to have lineage descendants even now, were not in any way specified by the rules of D&D.

You might want to object that this is a special case, that the play of videogames is more tightly constrained by the programmed artefact, and hence the rules. But that’s not exactly what you find when you look. Spawn camping is not prevented by any formal rules of online games, it is a normative constraint of the community of players. We can express that as a rule – but it is not manifested as a rule in that community but as a practice. Players know what not to do and why – but ask them to put that into words (to translate it into rules) and you will get myriad versions. The practices are consistent. The rule is an afterthought.

What about single player games? Let’s take a classic style Resident Evil. It is in no way part of the rules of these games that two players pad pass (“you do the fighting”), or that you creep save by returning often to the safe room, or that you speed run and never save. Those are the actual player practices. They are informed by the construction of the programmed artefact, of course, but my claim is that it is what players actually do – both with and against the intentions of the developer – that constitutes the games being played with Resident Evil.

Now for the crucial finishing move: the construction of the programmed artefact is also a product of player practices, those acquired by the developer from other games that they then conserve and modify to make their own game. That Resident Evil can be translated into rules is an undeniable fact. My claim is only that it is the player practices that comprise the game – both as-played, and as-made. Any rules we would care to state are best understood as translations of those player practices.

This is the line of argument I'm developing here. It’s subtle, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is an extremely robust position.

Humans in a room together can make up a lot of things as they go. But to deliver the required perception of fairness (which I know is a whole other subject of interest to you), a game must be defined as composed mostly of rules that are stable, that are enforced equitably for all players, and that can be applied automatically by a computer program. (See ‘code is law.’) The farther you go from humans-in-a-room to MMORPG, the more that individual game is indeed ‘made of rules,’ because it has to be in order to achieve its intended function. The more that players are separated and unable to agree on rules ad hoc, the more the rules must be codified and enforced as written... and thus the greater percentage of ‘the game’ is constituted by the rules.

My claim is that this perception of fairness is rooted in normative practices that are translatable into rules but are neither enforced nor learned not practiced as rules in any tangible sense of this term. Yes, the programmed artefact is a key part of the propagation and enforcement of those practices. But the artefact is a translation of the normative practices imagined by the developers translated into ‘computer rules’ (code), which are not game rules in any viable sense, and they are only ‘law’ by analogy to physical laws, which are only ‘law’ by analogy in the first place! The players learn these practices from either direct engagement with the artefact itself, or from reading translations into rules in FAQs, wikis etc. The artefact is immutable under standard conditions, sure, but it is not made of rules – or at least, not in the sense of game rules. It is made of machine code, which are rules for computers, but these rules are not even remotely like game rules, and no FAQ, wiki, or player can give a translation of these that would make sense of their actual play.

You make one final point of great interest...

I further suspect that it’s acceptable to think that most games are made mostly of rules as a requirement for recognizability. I love Minecraft’s emergent outcomes probably more than most gamers. But I can still think it’s made mostly of rules or else it wouldn't be recognizable as Minecraft.

Here, you make a fascinating deeper claim – that it is the rules that constitute the identity of the game. I have great sympathy for this claim. But if you accept my argument that any attempt to describe Minecraft in rules is only a translation of its player practices, this point becomes the observation that it is the specific constraints upon which player practices develop – and the affordances these permit, upon which the player practices diversify – that constitute the identify of a game. And here, expressed in this arcane yet salient fashion, lies the very possibility of saying that something is “basically the same game.”

I thank you enormously for your deep engagement with my argument. I hope in developing a reply, you can see why your argument could not be persuasive for me. But it is more than entertaining for me to engage in these deep discussions: it helps me clarify what it is that I mean to say. And that is invaluable.

With grateful thanks,

Chris.

Further discussion on these points is always welcome, so feel free to share your perspective in the comments.

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