Rules in Computer Games Compared to Rules in Traditional Games is now available as an updated and improved version of this essay, presented in video form.
This is something I have tried to explain before, on a few occasions, framing the argument different ways. I’m trying another way here, which I think may be clearer.
If I place tape on the ground, for example in the form of an intricate maze, and declare that it’s a rule to not step over the tape, we are engaging in rule-based behavior. If I put something you want in a basket at one corner of the maze – perhaps a DVD – and move you to the other corner, then say you have 45 seconds to get the DVD without crossing over or moving the tape, we have constructed a game.
This is all artificial. You are capable of stepping over the tape. You are capable of taking the prize even if it takes more than 45 seconds to reach it. Adhering to these rules is a choice. If I serve as an umpire/referee role, adhering to the rules is my choice, and just as easily, I could ignore any or all of them. I could be bribed, by you or someone else, to take advantage of the artificiality of these rules by sometimes overlooking their enforcement. Or, you and I could both mean to keep to the rules, but fail to do so on account of imprecise judgment – we can’t agree whether you stepped over a line, whether it was 44 or 46 seconds based on when you started, etc.
As the maze runner, there is a temptation to cheat, and the possibility of acting on that temptation is real, because the game is artificial.
What if this scenario were not artificial? Now the prize is catching a plane before it taxis onto the runway. Instead of tape on the ground which must be imagined as impassible, there are obstacles in the form of people, walls, and other physical barriers which cannot be moved through. No one has to referee. Zero mental energy goes toward recognizing and adhering to the “rules” – because there are none. The limits in this situation are not artificial, but actual. They are not subject to flawed, inconsistent, subjective interpretation. There is no temptation to cheat, because it isn’t out of good conscience or fear of being caught that you avoid running through walls.
Playing a videogame is more like running through that airport, than walking through the taped lines. It’s not out of respect for the rules that we decrease our health when our avatar is too close to where an explosion occurs. The explosion is artificial, and the avatar is artificial, in the same way that this is not a pipe. However the consequences are real, in that they can actually render the player unable to access the next level, or obtain a desired item, due to being unable to determine and execute a successful strategy to overcome such challenges.
This is very different than our relationship to, and experience with, rules, which we may encounter within a game or otherwise. These are physically impassable barriers in the airport, not tape on the ground.
Of course, in the airport rush, we may be tempted to cheat laws and social norms: punching people that are in the way, screaming at everyone else to clear out, trying to take a shortcut through employees only areas. Laws and social norms are artificial constructions, rules rather than reality. As rules, these decisions are subject to enforcement and imposed penalties, not automatic like gravity, the passage of time, or the impossibility of two physical objects occupying the same location in space.
A videogame is not a definition of rules, which are then enforced by the software-as-referee. A videogame is a definition of a simplified alternative reality, where what often get mislabeled as “rules” are not rules at all, but rather ways of referring to the constraints and possibilities of that artificial universe. The word “rule,” in such usage, is being used as a metaphor, and although it’s common to use the word in connection to videogames, I believe it’s a source of needless confusion to do so.
What makes the runners, in either the tape game or the airport situation, experience bodily fatigue? A myriad of complex physiological factors. These factors are revealed in greater detail through chemistry, biology, physics and psychology: the runner’s fatigue gets affected by what they ate that day, when they last used the restroom, how oxygen and blood flow through the body, the sort of body they have from genetics and diet / fitness habits, whether they are in sunlight, what the air quality is like, the mass of the earth – and the end result of all this complexity is not a number, but more complexity, irreducible, creating an internal struggle with the mind attempting to overcome the body’s evolved warning signals that it may be being pushed too hard.
Exhaustion is not rule-driven. Whether it happens in the tape game, the airport situation, playing football, or staying awake for days at a massive StarCraft LAN party, body physiology is never written down as a rule. (When we attempt to crudely model exhaustion in games, as many FPS games do by disallowing constant sprinting, the experience produced is altogether different from exhaustion, though it is similar in that it is also not an artificial rule, but the actual way of things in an artificial universe.)
When, in a deathmatch videogame, we declare no one should use the chaingun, perhaps because we think that item is overpowered, we are creating and adhering to a rule. That is artificial.
When you and I don’t get the chaingun because it’s not implemented in this videogame, not present in this level, or beyond our capabilities to get past obstacles to where it is, there is no artificial rule at play. Those restrictions are actual, in the structure of that artificial universe, extending into the realm of actual possibilities of the real universe in which we are playing the videogame.
In the videogame, we may be tempted to use cheat codes: activating level skip mode, turning on invincibility. This is a very different concept of cheating than we use when rules are relevant, because this is not violating the rules (of which there are none), it is staying within the real restrictions within the videogame, using mechanisms that exist as part of that videogame. That is, one way to get to level 3 is to beat levels 1 and 2, whereas another way is to push the secret button sequence at the title screen, however both are equally valid to the videogame.
The “levels” in mini-golf, for comparison, are artificial. Level skip in mini-golf means picking up the ball and walking over to a more interesting hole. This can be done because which level the player is on in mini-golf is defined only as rules, not actual constraints. In videogames, the opposite is the case.
Rules need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, and enforced to exist. This is because they are artificial.
If something which we’re tempted to call a rule does not need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, or enforced to have full effect, it is not a rule. It is actual.
A basketball will bounce off the ground when dribbled – not a rule.
A basketball must be dribbled for the player to move with it – a rule.
A basketball will bounce in certain ways when it hits the edge of a hoop, based on its incoming vector, angular momentum, air pressure, surface material, hoop manufacturing details, etc. – not a rule.
A basketball will be taken away and given to the other team if the player in control of it steps out of bounds, over the line on the floor – a rule.
Videogame adaptations of games are artificial universes in which the actual constraints attempt to mirror those constraints which are, in the game case, adhered to as rules. It is creating a universe in which the only possible interactions connecting one moment to the next can be metaphorically understood as all players (and referees) perfectly following the artificial rules of Poker, Monopoly, chess, or basketball. But in the videogame versions, there are no artificial rules, unless the players make and maintain special agreement outside the videogame’s spatial and causal possibilities.
This is why, to me, Super Mario Bros, Bubble Bobble, Quake, Gravitar, Tetris, Resident Evil, and the vast majority of other videogames which cannot be reproduced as games of artificial rules – typically those which did not exist first as an actual game of artificial rules – are not games. The trajectory of Mario’s jump, and the way in which he slides while moving – and the same can be said of the space marine in Quake – are not rules, in the same way that a real basketball player’s ability to jump or slow down from full sprint is not a product of artificial rules. Though when points are scored in videogames, unlike when points are scored in games, they likewise reflect an actual relationship, not an artificial one, every bit as inherent, automatic, and unavoidable as physical constraints in real space. In a basketball videogame: dribbling while moving, scoring a basket, and the consequence of running out of bounds are no more the consequences of artificial rules than how the ball deflects off the rim on a miss, or how the artificial ball bounces off the artificial floor.
[Update: Videogames and Rules, Part 2 is now available. It's more thorough and diplomatic, in addition to being updated to account for some of the common questions that arose in response to this entry.]
[Feb 2012 Update: I've just found Michael Liebe's 2008 paper on this subject, "Magic Circle: On the Difference Between Computer Games and Traditional Games". Liebe covers the question (or one very much related to it) quite thoroughly, and I recommend it strongly as further reading for anyone with an interest in this subject.]