Theory: The Limits of Rules

In discussing game design postulates, I proposed that one of them should be that a game is defined by its rules. What happens when someone acts in a manner which is plainly objectionable, but is not specifically addressed by the rulebook? Where are the limits of a game’s rules?

The classic example of this, in my mind, was suggested in one of Dave Sirlin’s articles: kicking your opponent in the shin. Obviously that’s not acceptable, but it’s very rare for a game’s rules to cover physically striking the opponent (contact sports aside). Surely games which do not explicitly make hitting illegal do not include hitting–but why?

Another, somewhat murkier example, can be found in a story about the Babylon 5 CCG that made the rounds years ago. For those not familiar with the game, it was based on a TV show which might be very briefly summarized as “the United Nations in space.” Like its namesake, the CCG was heavily political; it was played in a group and everyone was encouraged to wheel and deal.

As I remember it, the story went as follows: a husband and wife were playing in a game with several other people. One of couple offered the other a foot rub in return for attacking another player (or not attacking, or something). The other accepted, and the rest of the table was irked. I think there’s general agreement that this deal was fishy, and I agree, but I’ve never had or heard a really satisfactory explanation as to why.

Sirlin’s discussion of this sort of behavior concludes that “[a]ny reasonable person would consider ‘no cheating from outside the game’ to be part of the default rule set of any game.” That’s fair, but it’s more useful for tournament organizers than for designers. If I were running a tournament I could respond to a cheater who argued a lacuna in the rules by citing Sirlin. As a designer, saying “players shouldn’t cheat” doesn’t tell me when they’re out of bounds, or how far the bounds should extend.

In light of this issue, I’m considering modifying the postulate as follows: a game is defined by its rules and by the resources the rules make available to the players. When a player takes advantage of a resource not permitted him or her as part of the game’s design, the player is playing a different game just the same as if the player were using a mod or following a house rule.

This adequately addresses Sirlin’s example. Street Fighter and similar video games assign to players as resources their respective in-game characters (including special moves, hitboxes, canceling opportunities, and everything else that makes up a fighting game character). They also give players control over those characters, with all the skill, practice, and talent that players may bring to that control. Leg strength and pain tolerance are not resources provided to the players, and hence the game does not include the use of those resources.

I think it also provides a satisfactory answer to the spouses’ deal in the B5CCG. While the right to negotiate was provided by that game’s rules, foot rubs were not. As a result, offering and accepting one were outside the game’s parameters. From the perspective of the game in progress it was poor form and perhaps even cheating; from the perspective of the game’s design the spouses had begun playing a variant where some players begin the game with a special resource not available to others.

I’ve written more drafts of this post than any other, and even now I’m not entirely certain that I’ve reached a good resting place. Are there issues with the new postulate that I haven’t addressed? Situations it doesn’t answer? Let me know what you think.

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