Rules are one of the things that define something as being a game. But I wonder what it is we refer to when we talk about the rules of a game.
Warning this is only of interest, and then only marginally so, to the particularly beardy.
Salen & Zimmerman suggest that we can understand the rules of a game as being made up of three layers: constitutive, operational and implicit. Where constitutive rules are the underlying logic of the game; operational ones are those that we often point to as the rules, ones set out in books etc.; and implicit include the social conventions around how we conduct given games.
I’ve wondered for a while whether it’s useful to think of rules along another axis. That is to think of rules in terms of a paradigm or quintessential rule set and a practical rule. This I think is what S&Z are almost, but not quite, getting at when they talk about constitutive rules.
For example: take any MMO with an economy. What artifacts are there that establish what the MMO is? Well, there are design documents, there will be internal emails and correspondence about aspects of the game, there will code, rule-books, forum posts etc etc.
But what happens when there is a ‘bug’? Say one that provides players with lots of funds. Now it may be the case that the code works fine, and that the code corresponds to the design document. And it is un-arguable (from a practical perspective) that this is part of the game as it is an affordance that the game artifact provides players. But if one uses it one might be accused of cheating. Here players might quite rightly say – but the game allowed me to do this, so by definition it must be OK or at the very least it’s your [the producer’s] fault that it went wrong.
It seems to me that the argument against this has to appeal outside any practical instantiation of the game and reach to some paradigm game. In this paradigm there is a perfectly balanced faucet-sink economy, where every element is in harmony and the code perfectly reflects this. Added to this there are notions of fair play and right conduct that game producers are also apt to draw upon when telling player’s what they should do – of course players have their own competing notions, but that’s another argument.
In this paradigm game, rules are also fully described and un-ambiguous. Whereas in the practical world rules are always under-determined as it’s impossible to fully describe every circumstance that a rule may conceivable be needed for.
What’s more as games evolve they tend towards a paradigm constantly being re-aligned to better meet the ideal. So in terms of sets, the practical rule-set and the paradigm rule-set overlap. In an MMO the majority of the practical rule-set my be in union with paradigm, but this is not to say that this is true for the majority of the paradigm, indeed I’d suggest (by the incompleteness of rules idea) that it is not and indeed cannot be as the paradigm rule set will always be substantially larger than any practical instantiation of itself. I think I would argue this for even the most trivial of games.
So when a producer talks about the game, I believe that the they are often making an appeal to a quintessential notion of game that can, in fact, never exist; but operates as a crucial concept in the way that we think about game and the way that norms are brought into operation. Thus any reference to a rule is potentially a reference to a highly abstract object and an appeal to an ideal. And it strikes me that this is different in character, in certain respects, from an appeal to the purely practical and explicit.
I offer this as a pure theoretical musing. I’m not sure it has any practical value. I’m not sure it has any theoretical value either, it’s possibly not even very original – I'm sure TN'ers you will tell me,,,,
[Ed. 6th Nov 2007: I realize that a number of people read this post then skip to comment. So just to update it, when I wrote it I had in mine a multiplicity of Ideals or an Ideal that was very complex in structure such that an individual or range of people could hold differing views of what the ideal is. For anyone that studies such things I would be interested if there is a stream of idealism that deals with a typology of ideals some of which are unitary in character some of which are multiple. - ren]