Does it make sense to say that videogames are made of rules? We might say that about boardgames or playground games, but even in these cases it’s not clear ‘rules’ are enough. Ultimately, is there anything that underpins all kinds of games and gives them something like ‘atoms’, or is the whole notion of a some common element lying beneath all games suspect?
Since Minecraft appeared in 2009, game developers have been becoming far more open to the idea of letting players control their own play experience. One of the distinctive features of Mojang’s all-conquering sandbox is the freedom the player has to determine the regime that governs their player experience – just building, exploring without monsters, struggle to survive, pursue adventure, and so forth. While options go back to the early strategy videogames, who inherit the flexibility of their tabletop predecessors, Minecraft's choices go further, changing the fundamental nature of the games being played. This has been a trend far wider than any one game: Bethesda’s Oblivion in 2006 ruffled some players’ feathers by providing a difficulty slider that could be changed whenever the player wanted, even if this voided all challenge as a result. This concept of player-controlled difficulty (which differs from choosing a difficulty at the start of a game that you must then abide by) has become increasingly widespread, for all that certain games, such as Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, build their player experience upon a static – and wickedly high! – degree of challenge.
As an example of these general trends in game design becoming more pervasive, consider 2012’s co-op pirate RPG Windward. At the start of each game, a screen appears (pictured above) from which the player decides upon the set up of the overarching conditions for what is about to be played. They can select whether other players can bring in already powered-up ships from other worlds, whether items scale-down to the level of the current area to keep the game challenging, choose whether the factions are already at war, determine the degree of the restrictions on capturing towns, and set their own difficulty level by tuning the strength of enemy ships and the pacing of combat. These choices are framed as ‘Options’. But clearly these decisions alter the rules of the game about to be played, and do so to a degree that in the 1980s and 90s would have been inconceivable to the videogame community.
Giving players control of fundamental aspects of how a game plays is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps little more than a century old. Late Victorian boardgames and early twentieth century tabletop games offered variations in the rulebook that are equivalent to the options in a game like Windward or Minecraft. In tabletop games, what became known around the sixties as ‘house rules’ have always existed: players alter certain rules of a game they’ve been taught to satisfy their own player experience, then teach those rules to others. It is this that has created a great many of the established card games, as well as variations of many other games such as mah jong (the British version, for instance, has a concept of ‘special hands’ wildly alien to the traditional Chinese game). As already mentioned, early strategy videogames inherited some of this flexibility, but they kept the core idea of a tactical or strategic battle challenge and never flirted with, for instance, removing combat and letting the player simply explore. It is that kind of radical shift in the players’ choices that Minecraft pioneers.
Jesper Juul and Miguel Sicart asserted in the 2000s and 2010s that one of the unique qualities of videogames is the inflexibility of their rules. I have argued against that: as a relic of 8-but computer gaming, I’m extremely comfortable with changing the rules of games – I peeked and poked a great many games on the Commodore 64, for instance, usually to make it more plausible to complete them in something less than geological time. It is easier to change the rules of most videogames than, say, a professional sport. Also, I’d like to note that personally I'm thrilled when people hack my own games for their satisfaction, even when it breaks the experience I intended (trainers for Ghost Master, for instance): it shows they care about the game I made.
Of course, multiplayer online games – whether World of Warcraft or Pokémon GO – have tighter security. Players of the former, however, can appeal to Blizzard for desired changes to the rules with at least some possibility of being heard, while players of the latter are out of luck: Niantic have their hands full just keeping the 65 million player infrastructure working. Nonetheless, it cannot be considered a conceptual tenet of videogames that their rules are fixed, as Juul and Sicart suggest. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything ontologically unique about videogames... their apparent uniqueness says more about their players’ aesthetic values than the artefacts in question. If you are unconvinced, try comparing Sega’s electro-mechanical arcade games of the sixties with early arcade videogames in the next decade.
Now it makes a certain kind of logical sense to say a boardgame is ‘made of rules’ and that understanding can be extended to videogames. As I have suggested many time before, the game design practices of early videogames descended directly from those of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or the Avalon Hill strategy games. But there is a cost to this description: the material components of those tabletop games are not made of rules... rules may constrain what appears on a D&D character sheet up to a point, but there is much that goes on in that regard which cannot reasonably be considered ‘rules’ – the description of the character for a start. An attempt to make rules the ‘atoms’ of games will come up against these loose ends, as well as the unavoidable fact that a polyhedral die is not a rule, for all that rules can be related to them.
The same problem extends to videogames. Suppose we try to accept the crude analogy that a game’s code is its ‘rules’. We are already on shaky ground when we think of a polygonal texture (which is part of the game’s code) as a ‘rule’. Moreover, just like dice are not rules, a game controller is not a rule, nor is a video display, an audio speaker, text duplicated in EFIGS languages, or the bits and bytes of a save game. There is much more to a game than the parts that lend themselves to being described in rules, however broadly we construe that term.
The unavoidable conclusion is, unless we take a very narrow view of what counts as a ‘game’ (and many do just this...), we must concede that games are not made of rules. Indeed, perhaps a better way of understanding the relationship between rules and games is not that rules are constitutive of games but that the constraints upon play within games can be readily expressed in a verbal translation we call ‘a rule’. In other words, rules can be understood as a translation of the practices that make up a game, and this includes both player practices (things the players do) and creator practices (such as those that lead to executable code in a videogame).
In tabletop games, this process of translating the play of a game into written rules was precisely how game designers both formalised what happened in the game they were creating, and later communicated that experience to its eventual players. Prototypes, however, rarely required written rules to be played, so these usually came later. Rulebooks were thus both ‘analogue game code’ and a tutorial – usually a very bad one. But the game itself, however that term is understood, consisted of players exercising player practices with the material components of the game (up to and including physical spaces, written descriptions, air modulated into words etc.).
Importantly, the actual player practices of the pre-videogame era differed from group to group, not just because of intentional ‘house rules’ but because the rulebook was already an imprecise translation of the creators’ player practices, and this brought in all the problems of translation. As the Italians say, “all translation is betrayal.” So the ‘game’ of Dungeons & Dragons from this perspective was not equivalent to the rulebook but rather the set of all player practices from all the groups that played it, which is why the same rulebook could inspire such radically different videogame lineages as the rule-play focussed Rogue-likes on the one hand or the role-play focussed The Elder Scrolls series on the other.
When we come to videogames, the most significant change is that one of the players is a computer or, perhaps more convincingly, the creators of the game artefact are surrogate players in every game played with it. I speak of ‘the game artefact’ here to preserve the idea that the games played are those conducted by the players engaging with the game artefact, which constrains that play in certain ways, but which can never entirely be in control of the games that happen when those artefacts are put into the hands of actual players (hence the concept of metagames). The game artefact is what links creators of any game artefact with their eventual players, and in videogames the computer device (console, PC, smartphone etc.) serves as a local proxy for those creators, echoing their intentions in so much as they are not modified by the players, hardware problems, porting coders etc. Because computers are such reliable mediators in this regard, rulebooks (manuals) have fallen by the wayside, along with the very need to express the player practices through translation into verbal rules.
Except, then we come to Minecraft’s regimes of play, Oblivion’s difficulty slider, or Windward’s ‘options’ – and these are rules once more, because there is a necessary translation without which the player could not understand what they were selecting. Go back to the wordings in the screenshot of Windward above: these precisely-termed ‘options’ patiently explain what checking a box will cause to happen. And these ‘options’ are rules, just like those in a tabletop rulebook. What they are not, of course, is atomic to the play of any of these games, since what makes possible any game (however that term is understood) is not so much the rules as it is the kind of being that has the capacity to play in the first place. A kind of being like humans, dogs, and birds that imagines itself in a world.
Games are not made of rules at all: games are made of players and the things they play with. Rules are simply one especially significant manner that players – including those particularly special players, the creator of any given game artefact – use to communicate their player practices to one another. But there is no atomic element at the base of all play and all games, neither rules, nor ‘ludemes’, nor mechanics, nor code... Play is the interrelation of beings who have the capacity to imagine with a world that permits them to exercise that faculty. If games are anything in relation to rules, they are the forms of play that are best suited to having the practices of their players translated into words.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!