Games Are Artificial. Videogames Are Not. Games Have Rules. Videogames Do Not.

Mar 31, 2011

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.]



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28 Comments

  1. Jasmine says:

    What a fascinating perspective!! This is also why ‘skill’ can be developed when playing games like Mario or Quake, much like a mental analog of physical skill in baseball, running, etc. You can’t get better at not dribbling, you either follow the rule acceptably or don’t. But you can get more optimal at navigating the play field.

  2. sdhawk says:

    why call it a ‘parkway’ when you don’t park on it?

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      The same reason we call another thing a driveway even though we park on it?

      I’m not quite sure what point you intend to make, but are you suggesting that this distinction is an unimportant, purely semantic one? Research on videogames often begins with the assumptions that games are artificial, games are defined by their rules, and videogames are games. Disagreeing with those foundations is my attempt to call attention to what we in videogames research may be overlooking by assuming too much in common between games and videogames.

  3. tartley says:

    This reminds me a lot of what Laurence Lessig says in his book ‘Code’, about how the enforcement of law is increasingly being handed over to implementations in code.

    Usually, law enforcement is a ‘game’, in the above sense – people can choose whether to obey the law, detection of infringement is imperfect, and people can choose whether to enforce the law when infringement was detected.

    However, sometimes nowadays the law is enforced by code, such as by DRM schemes to prevent you copying something you ostensibly don’t have rights to copy. This changes the whole ‘game’, because you no longer have the option to break the law if you want to.

    Many people’s initial reaction to this is ambivalent, because they don’t see why giving people the flexibility to break the law and get away with it could ever be a good thing.

    However, many laws are drafted with the knowledge of imperfect detection and enforcement in mind. It is intended and deliberate that large-scale infringement, such as commercial organisations which deliberately rip off other people’s novels to reprinting and sell for profit, would be detectable and would be caught by this law. However, it was never intended that individuals, lending books to each other, or performing or singing ‘copies’ of famous songs, would be affected. The fact that detection and enforcement would be impossible was considered fine, because the scope of the law was never intended to prevent these activities.

    However, in a digital world, these infringements become much more detectable. The scope and power of the law increases substantially – without it ever having been reworded, and without and consideration of whether the new balance is good for society or not. In a world where such activities take place online, we now have less choice whether to obey the law or not. It is decided for us, implaccably. Such across-the-board prohibition, implemented in code, sometimes ends up having larger scope than the original law ever intended. People are forbidden from makng copies even when they would legally have the right to copy a work, for example under free use, or because they actually have purchased the work.

    I got carried away, sorry!

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      There is similar contention over automated cameras which are designed and deployed to photograph and ticket drivers who are either speeding or driving through a red light. In both cases, sure it’s technically the law, but police enforcing rules often apply subjective judgment about whether safety is endangered by mild speeding, and have themselves been caught on camera treating red lights as stop signs (and/or as yields, doing rolling ‘stops’ into right turns) late at night in minimally populated areas while on patrol.

      Though these are still rules in this case, not inherent to the structure of what’s possible, only more rigidly enforced. They can still be violated, by choice, in exchange for some penalty.

      Closer to an actual (not rule) would be if cars were built to lack the power to drive at unsafe speeds (in what you’re referring to as better DRM, at least the sort that complicates copying, as opposed to simply tracking when/whether it gets copied).

      Consider what happens in a car wreck – it’s not a ‘punishment’ for breaking the law, it’s the physically undeniable side effect which the presence, declaration, and enforcement of laws (as rules) hopes to avoid. In the piracy case, no one ever paying for media ever again would likely lead to lower investment in the creation of big budget products like Mass Effect 2, Avatar, and Lady Gaga’s persona/wardrobe/music. That isn’t rule enforcement – it would be a result of structural underpinnings stretching between the psychology and survival needs of people currently employed in supporting roles or as distribution/marketing middlemen. Rule enforcement in this case applies to the idea that people should not be allowed to access media they have not paid for – which whether loosely enforced by human judgment or more strictly enforced by machine tracking, people can opt to ignore in exchange for risking stated punishments – and just as how speeding or red light laws intend to avoid car wrecks, intellectual property laws (again, as rules) are shaped with the intention of avoiding the dilution of value historically rewarded by big media creation.

      Though, and also a bit off topic, on the matter of stricter enforcement, I’m reminded of what I believe is an Abraham Lincoln quote: “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

  4. Manax says:

    I think you’re conflating two different ideas. I agree that what is frequently called “rules” in videogames are actually more like physics/physical laws. But those laws need to be learned by the player like rules, and are created “artificially” by a designer, whether it’s a real life game or a computer game. Realizing that there is a distinction and a difference is useful.

    The part where I think you’ve gone astray is where you come to the conclusion that videogames are not games because of the nature of the constraints. Others have written about that more extensively and thought about it more deeply than I (one example: Danc on Lost Garden), but the basic conclusion, I think, is something is a game because it has goals, constraints and choices. From your example, Super Mario Bros is a game because it has goals and constraints on how you can accomplish those goals, and many choices to make along the way. It’s physics is only relevant in-so-far as it enables the goals, constraints, choices.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      Thank you for taking the time to reply!

      I hope that you will pardon the length of this response – I am receiving a great deal of questions outside of this WP post, and I will be trying to clarify at least some of those questions within this comment. I will be writing a full-length follow-up this month, but in the meantime I will take this opportunity to try out another approach or two.

      > Realizing that there is a distinction and a difference is useful.

      Our purpose is the same: to call attention to what is different, out of belief that there is utility in doing so. We’re on the same team here.

      > I agree that what is frequently called “rules” in videogames are actually more like physics/physical laws. But those laws need to be learned by the player like rules… whether it’s a real life game or a computer game.

      But said laws do not need to be learned by the player like rules.

      In order to play chess, I need to learn how each piece is allowed to move, so that I do not produce moves which are nonsensical. When I play Bubble Bubble, every movement and interaction that is possible through the controller is valid. It will benefit my ability to make progress if I develop a practical sense for how the bubble projectiles and enemies behave, but I do not do so by learning the rules by which they operate, any more than a football player learns the rules of aerodynamics to gain a sense for how the ball will move when kicked (I contend that they do not), or a martial artist gains a doctor’s type of explicit anatomical knowledge through practice using their bodies (I contend that they do not). The videogame player does not internalize rules in order to play, as they do in a game, but instead refine their feel for how to respond successfully to opportunities and constraints. (This also occurs in games, however it happens within an artificially constrained possibility space defined by rules, rather than a possibility space with real constraints defined by program code operating on certain hardware.)

      > But those laws… are created “artificially” by a designer, whether it’s a real life game or a computer game.

      In my hypothetical running games above – the tape maze and the airport run – the designer (at least in the former case, it being a rules-guided game; the latter has no designer) did not specify how the continuity of space is structured, how light operates with eyes to determine perception and visibility from the perspective of the runner, the nature of inertial persistence (that things stay where and as they are unless force is exerted to make them otherwise), how time progresses (continuous vs discrete), that backtracking is specifically allowable, and so on. These were all assumed by what we can, by crude analogy, call the real-world equivalent to a game engine: physical reality.

      Videogames require no such structural assumptions, unless the developer goes out of their way to define space, rendering, physics, time, and progress in a way that attempts to recreate how these elements work in reality.

      Space wraps in Asteroids and Pac-Man. Does space wrap in our maze games? We assumed it did not, because we cannot do that with real space.

      Time is defined by turns during combat in (old) Fallout or menu-driven RPG battle, rather than continuous. Does our maze timer only advance while our runner is in motion, or more analogously, only when our runner makes a new decision? This is impractically harder to track accurately in reality, so we did not even consider it.

      Many old platformers only allowed the player to scroll right, not to backtrack. Did we consider disallowing our maze runner to backtrack? It would certainly change the experience of how the maze is navigated, but we did not even consider it a possibility, perhaps because of the awkwardness of enforcing it in real navigable space. This feature would be trivial to implement in a digital maze.

      In an overhead racing game, we can see all cars around our vehicle, not just those in front of us – though not as far in front of us as if we had a first-person view. Did we decide whether to give the maze runner an overhead view? Although it could be set up at great expense with an overhead camera and a portable/wireless view screen, the physical difficulty of carrying and looking at it while running make this a much different possibility than simply giving a videogame player a different camera perspective.

      This is partly the danger I perceive in mistaking the foundations of videogames for being what we call “rules” from games – it assumes so much as a given, which in a videogame is not necessarily so.

      In a game like Turok, fog restricts our view distance to maintain performance on N64 hardware at the game’s visual fidelity, and in Descent the monitor resolutions common to computers at the time of its development made visually determining the facing or actions of a far off enemies especially difficult to discern. In both cases, those were not “artificially” created by the designer, they were imposed by limitations of the platform, which developers then made the best of in designing around them. Likewise, in Atari Adventure fitting a maze videogame into such little memory involved non-euclidian connections between seemingly adjacent room exits, a trick which Warren got away with because the view moves instantly between discrete rooms rather than sliding as it does between screens in NES Zelda. But here we are getting into a different usage of the term artificial than what I am referring to throughout the above entry: the limit on view distance (or practical view distance, in the case of low-resolution Descent) is not an artificial constraint, asking the user to play along by ignoring all entities more than some distance from them, it is a real constraint, keeping them genuinely ignorant of information beyond some distance, which creates not just a difference in enforcement but in how cognitive load gets distributed for executing the tasks at hand.

      Ask me to walk around a big room ignoring the presence of anyone more than 15 feet from me, and my mind will have a very difficult time concentrating on much else. Or, in the case of the tape maze example, can we really make it a rule for the player to disregard their ability to see through/over these rule-based “walls” to other parts of the maze before those parts are reached? Knowledge and visibility of those areas surely affects what path the runner will take, but here again is an artificial rule which would be so awkward to enforce that we do not consider it, but in videogame space such a distinction is equally easy to handle either way.

      In case it isn’t clear in the above: my position is not that board games or sports are without these real constraints of which videogames are composed, rather the real constraints of board games and sports are adopted and assumed entirely by how reality is structured, and it is from the addition of rules to these natural conditions that board games and sports are created. In the case of videogames, they exist entirely without the need for artificial rules which rely on us as players to pretend are true.

      In an old interview, Will Wright mentioned that when he played Tribes, he liked to make a meta-game of getting all players to gather in the middle of the field without killing one another. That was his goal. It was an artificial one defined by rules he created atop the reality defined by Tribes, instead of defining rules atop the reality defined by the real world (as, say, sports do). His constraints for achieving it were what he could communicate via text chat, and it consisted large of getting others to abide by artificial rules (do not shoot each other, do not go for the other team’s flag). That was playing a game. Compare that to playing the videogame (Tribes), shooting at one another and trying to capture the other team’s flag, which does not require the invention of rules to operate, but is instead as inherently rewarded by the structure of the Tribes universe as the real universe “rewards” survival by eating food and avoiding getting killed.

      Real games defined by “rules” are similar to Will’s meta-game, except assuming reality instead of assuming Tribes as the backdrop, with the rules implicitly establishing, “Let us all put aside our inherent needs for food, water, and shelter for the next 48 minutes in favor of trying to put this ball through a hoop according to certain explicit guidelines on how we’re allowed to do it…”

      That rule specification can begin after the total complexity of Tribes as a videogame already exists as a shipped product highlights my concern with thinking of videogames as being composed of their rules. Said rules are generally irrelevant to discuss prior to creating, or assuming as an afterthought, the fundamental structure of time, space, vision, control, etc.

      > …something is a game because it has goals, constraints and choices.

      This definition encapsulates almost the entirety of human intention. Having a baby, buying a sandwich, and erecting a building are all games by this definition. I’m not even referring to the possibility of us designing a game based on those activities – I mean to say that with such a broad definition, the actual activities themselves would be called games. Riding my bike to school in the morning? A game. Using the restroom? A game. Getting my haircut? A game.

      If the definition you propose describes anything, then yes, in that case I may have difficulty making a compelling case that a videogame isn’t, um, anything.

      Though I’ll try, as you raise a point here certainly worth clarifying:

      > From your example, Super Mario Bros is a game because it has goals and constraints on how you can accomplish those goals, and many choices to make along the way. It’s physics is only relevant in-so-far as it enables the goals, constraints, choices.

      As a thought exercise, if I removed the castle/flag end of the first level in Super Mario Bros, and made the game one infinitely long (or looping) procedurally generated scrolling space in which the player could stomp on bad guys, explore tunnels for coins, jump between platforms, and acquire power-ups, would you deny that what is there is not a videogame, because it does not have a goal? Many arcade games from the late 70′s and throughout the 80′s were of this variety, effectively endless, looping content and playing until the player ran out of lives.

      Perhaps, you might reply, the goal then becomes to get a high score. Let us then no longer track or display score. Is this still a videogame? I argue that it is, based on the activity which is occurring, without concern over its loss of game conventions. Someone skilled in videogames would be similarly skilled at it, someone familiar with videogames would easily recognize it as such, the exact same skills would go into the development of it… it isn’t my intent to argue word use, however, only suggesting some of the many reasons why I think it would not instantly be unrecognizable as a videogame on account of having its end goal removed (having one is commonly assumed as central in identifying something as a “game”).

      Is the point then to simply entertain oneself, and that becomes the goal? If so, is a skateboard a game?

      But here we dovetail into the many varieties of things which are most definitely not games, but which people would more readily identify as a videogame than by some other word.

      In a videogame that lets the player do or create something expressive, is the “goal” to make something they can be proud of? If so, is painting a game? Is a trumpet a game?

      In a videogame that is primarily a form of wish fulfillment, appealing to the desire to feel powerful or influential, is the “goal” to feel that way? If so, is reading a comic book about a hero that we identify with, which may produce a similar feeling, a game?

      In a story-centric videogame which offers little/no choice, but instead funnels the player through a series of scenes, songs, and dialog boxes, for which there is no lose condition, is the goal simply to finish before quitting forever? If so, is finishing a long book or watching a movie a game?

      I will close for now, before I open up even more threads than I already have. Thanks again for taking the time to discuss this.

      Though, one last note in closing:

      > It’s physics is only relevant in-so-far as…

      Its underlying structure of time, space, causation, rendering, etc. are the parts of the videogame which create the aspects of the experience that I find compelling. They are certainly not relevant only to the extent that they enable to user to achieve goals through making choices. This is why Super Mario Bros cannot be meaningfully prototyped as a series of decisions leading toward the achievement of some goal – decisions are not what that videogame is about. That videogame’s emphasis is not on what the player is doing (the goal), or why (the decisions), but how (execution) and the experience of exploring the fantastical environment (neither goal nor decisions) and the sensation of refining our ability to execute actions effectively within it.

  5. fmoralesc says:

    Hi, I’ve written a (sorta longish) reply to your article, here: http://fmoralesc.tumblr.com/post/4404890897/some-thoughts-on-games-virtual-realities-laws-and

    In short, I think that you put together two things which should be different, the videogame and the videogame world. That is, I object when you say that “A videogame is a definition of a simplified alternative reality”. To me, that is the videogame world. The videogame, however, is the set of rules implemented in a platform representing a world like that. I hope my text is more clear than this.

    I agree with you on a lot of other things anyway, and that’s the reason I don’t mention them there.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      > In short, I think that you put together two things which should be different, the videogame and the videogame world.

      The things I am referring to are not different, although there are different, unintended ways to interpret my statement there and the words in it which would lead to other statements about which I think I am in agreement with you.

      What I intended to say has nothing to do with immersion (in response to the point made in your response blog entry).

      When I said “simplified”, I meant only that the resulting construction is astronomically (some pun intended) much less complicated than reality. No quarks, no relativity, no consciousness, and no mysteries or unknowns besides what comes up in analysis of its emergent possibilities. We can fully grasp how it works, because humans defined explicitly how it works, unlike true reality in which we’re all stumbling about trying to understand things by making and testing guesses.

      When I referred to it as an “alternative reality”, I meant only one in which the constraints and affordances of physical reality are disregarded, and in their place are different constraints and affordances, though (and this is the argument made by the entry as a whole) those constraints are every bit as real. It was not my intent to refer to, in particular, navigable terrain or the perception of verisimilar/natural space, but rather I mean it in the sense, “Tetris/Bejeweled/Qix/Q-Bert is an artificial reality in which only certain things can happen.” Though this same notion of artificial reality extends equally into modern videogames which go to great lengths to create the impression of “alternative realities” in the sense that the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Lord of the Rings intellectual properties have created a narratively different universe, my preference here for older or more obviously abstract videogames is my means of trying to suggest what it is I am referring to as “alternative reality.”

      > The main thing to notice about this is that there are rules for playing a game with a toy, and this is always artificial, even in the sense Deleon proposes for the term.

      No, it is not artificial, and it is not a rule. I will try explaining it another way: consider, for a moment, the traditional horseshoe puzzle. Getting the ring off of the horseshoes is not a rule-based interaction, in the same way that moving pieces on a chessboard is rule-based. External constraints, unforgiving and objective – in this case properties of matter – prevent getting the ring off without “solving” it.

      A videogame is, in a very similar way, a physically and objectively constrained puzzle, which likewise requires no cooperation, rule-understanding, or rule-acknowledgement on the part of the player to be interacted with in valid ways. In fact, as with the rings, short of bringing in outside tools to destroy its structure, every interaction with it is a valid one in its scope of possibilities, leading to some other state. However in the case of the videogame, rather than twisting chains and wiggling horseshoes against each other, we are using the buttons and joystick(s) to twiddle bits – modifying electrical states – until the bit arrangement comes out favorably for us to progress further along toward “getting the ring off the chains”. That is, think of the videogame running on hardware as a maze of electronic connections, in which as the player you have a constrained number of ways to fiddle with bringing them toward a state which represents the end of the game, etc. Though explained by metaphor, this isn’t – the electrical underpinnings of how the software is carried out make this just as much a physically constrained challenge as the horseshoe ring.

      > A different example: you can have a ball, which allows you to play in many different ways; each way being a game, being a set of rules. Soccer is a game you can play with a ball, as is basketball.

      You are not distinguishing “play with” from “game.” There are many ways to play with a ball which are not games (“play in many different ways; each way being a game”).

      > A NES allows you to play in many different ways; each being a game, being a set of rules.

      Again, and to clarify the point above, playing with something is not the same as it being a game. I can play with a sword, or a trumpet, or a paintbrush, and that does not make any of those interactions a game. To return to my main example from the entry we are discussing, this is like suggesting that because there are multiple ways to run through that airport to catch the plane, we are somehow “playing” the airport run, or framing it as a “game,” either perspective which overlooks entirely the point being made.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment at length and in detail!

      • fmoralesc says:

        Point taken about not every way of playing being a game! I was thinking too narrowly there.

        Still, I think that when we play a videogame we understand and acknowledge rules, even though we don’t understand or acknowledge the ways the videogame is ultimately playing (the natural laws over the platform). For example, we understand and acknowledge that pressing a button will have consequences, and that when playing a certain game those consequences will be such and such. I think those rules are artificial (they aren’t naturally present in the platform), but are tightly bounded to the way the machine or “toy” works.

        The understanding we have of this is pretty much like the one we can have of riding a bike; it’s a practical, almost unconscious type of understanding. If we hadn’t acknowledgement of there being some rules about it, we could -and would- always ride it differently, but we (mostly) don’t.

        • Chris DeLeon says:

          > Still, I think that when we play a videogame we understand and acknowledge rules…

          My point, in case this has not come across, is that videogames do not have rules. What are you referring to here as rules? I will go on, hoping that the difference in perspectives/terminology here will make sense in what follows:

          > For example, we understand and acknowledge that pressing a button will have consequences, and that when playing a certain game those consequences will be such and such.

          Throwing a watermelon off a building and it hitting the concrete will have consequences, but what does this have to do with rules? Would we call that consequence a product of rules?

          Let me attempt to clarify what it is that I am referring to when I mention “rules” in regard to this discussion, and perhaps it will shed some light on why I consider these differences clear and non-trivial:

          Performing valid maneuvers within a game (not a videogame) requires understanding the rules. Consider what it means to move a chess piece incorrectly, for example to move a knight as though it were a bishop – or to set it nearly centered upon the corner of 4 squares, so that it is not clearly on any individual tile. This move is nonsensical, and avoiding it requires that we understand the rules. Such moves are impossible, by comparison, in videogame adaptations of chess, in which every operation results in a valid (even if unwise) board configuration, and attempts to perform such nonsense is either re-interpreted as a valid maneuver (dropped onto the nearest tile) or immediately undone with neither penalty nor progress.

          The other role of rules in games (not videogames), besides ensuring that only meaningful maneuvers are executed, is to prevent us from achieving a goal more trivially than is intended. Penalties are defined for the violation of such rules – penalties must be defined since the players are free to easily violate those rules – with the default meta-penalty of the game being nullified and forfeited if a rule violation is so egregious as to not have a clear in-game penalty defined (ex. using a knife in an ice hockey match won’t get you the penalty box, it will end your opportunity to participate, and possibly disqualify the team altogether). In golf we aren’t allowed to carry or kick the ball unless moving it between holes, and in soccer we aren’t allowed to use our hands unless we’re playing as goalie. Such maneuvers are likewise impossible in videogames – we cannot pick up the ball as a golfer and sneak it closer to the hole, or hit the ball with our virtual hand when not playing goalie. In some cases, when there are clear in-game penalties well-defined for specific maneuvers, especially when it’s possible in the real game to make a strategic tradeoff of accepting the penalty in exchange for its effect (films often dramatize the rare and unethical strategy of causing injury through foul to turn the tide of an athletic competition), videogames may attempt to crudely simulate that tradeoff, but it’s done with the same mechanical precision as the ball bouncing, and is as much a result of connective states as when digital Solitaire quietly rejects an attempt to place a card in an invalid position.

          > I think those rules are artificial (they aren’t naturally present in the platform), but are tightly bounded to the way the machine or “toy” works.

          If I build a physical labyrinth of impassable, unclimbable walls, and rearrange those into a carefully contrived maze, is their effect on navigation not real, even though their arrangement is “artificial” in the sense that it is man-made? In the same way, when I build a labyrinth of circuits, which will only allow the charge of certain goal transistors (“Boolean flagHasBeenGrabbed”) to be modified as a calculation of the charges in other transistors (“flagHasBeenGrabbed = (distance(player,flag) < player.radius)”), and I provide a contrived mechanism of input only allowing indirect modification of the goal values by enabling direct manipulation of other values in memory (press arrow keys to affect player position) in addition to structural consequences beyond the player’s control (overlap with walls will produce a counter-movement), the constraints on the navigation of that electrical puzzle’s possible states is every bit as real, even though their arrangement is likewise man-made.

          > The understanding we have of this is pretty much like the one we can have of riding a bike; it’s a practical, almost unconscious type of understanding.

          Cognitive psychology refers to that type of skill knowledge (vague, practiced, difficult to convey through explanation) as Tacit or Procedural understanding. This has nothing to do with rules. Unless you mean that bike riding is a game, or a rule-based behavior?

          > If we hadn’t acknowledgement of there being some rules about it, we could -and would- always ride it differently, but we (mostly) don’t.

          Huh? :)

  6. rbleader says:

    Well, what about “[insert self-limitation here] runs”?

    For example, I decide to do a “no power up run” in SMB1 (ability to accept the self-proposed rule) – basically beating the Super Mario Bros 1 without ever eating a single power up. Of course, the game will still give me the power ups as it is programmed and I can always eat a power up (ability to break the self-proposed rule).

    Also, what about external, memory value changing devices/programs (e.g., devices known as “GameShark”)? They are surely not a part of built-in “limitations” that lets you change the terms of limitation (ability to break the limitation of a video game that is not pre-programmed).

    Anyway, while I do not completely agree with your opinions, it was an interesting read.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      Great questions – thank you for pitching these my way, so that I may have a chance to clarify.

      > Well, what about “[insert self-limitation here] runs”? For example, I decide to do a “no power up run” in SMB1 (ability to accept the self-proposed rule) – basically beating the Super Mario Bros 1 without ever eating a single power up. Of course, the game will still give me the power ups as it is programmed and I can always eat a power up (ability to break the self-proposed rule).

      This is precisely the sort of meta-game rule which I refer to above as “neither of us are going to get the chaingun”, or in the Will Wright way of playing Tribes that I describe in another comment reply. This is the creation of an artificial rule – which must be known for it to apply, which is subjectively enforced, and for which it’s possible to violate it.

      Just to discuss analogs to this, because I agree it’s an interesting point to explore: Michael Jordan made a free-throw during a game with his eyes closed to show off. That changed neither the structure of physical reality (the possibilities), nor the rules of basketball, but was a restriction he imposed upon himself (a rule, if you will, quite apart from the rules of basketball) to impress others. If you try to do a Rubik’s cube one handed, or beat Ninja Gaiden playing it on a dance pad (!), you are showing off in a way consistent with the structurally connected possibilities, you are perhaps creating a rule for your own further amusement and display of prowess (e.g. “I’m going to win this fight one handed”), but it implies nothing about whether the thing which this new self-imposed limitation has been created atop is rule-based. Running with my eyes closed is more difficult to do well, but it does not mean that running is made of rules.

      > Also, what about external, memory value changing devices/programs (e.g., devices known as “GameShark”)? They are surely not a part of built-in “limitations” that lets you change the terms of limitation (ability to break the limitation of a video game that is not pre-programmed).

      Several others have expressed a similar question via Twitter etc., so it is clear that I have not done my job properly in explaining this.

      The argument, “Game Genie can be used to modify the videogame” is a bit like arguing, “Bulldozers exist, therefore walls in the airport are imaginary and rule-driven.” No, they aren’t – because the walls were really imaginary, you wouldn’t need a bulldozer to change them. Likewise, were a videogame based on rules, in the same way that Monopoly, Poker, and (though largely defined by the temporal/physical structure the rules are built atop) football are, you would not need a game genie/shark to modify the limitations by sending false values in response to access calls made to specific memory addresses. Sneaking your piece forward in Monopoly when others aren’t looking, using slight of hand in Poker to switch your cards, or injuring players on the other team in ways contrary to the rules without being caught/penalized do not require a hacksaw, like cheating at the traditional horseshoe puzzle I referenced in reply to the previous comment. Game Genie is a hacksaw in the horseshoes game, a bulldozer in the airport – it isn’t about cheating by breaking rules, it’s a matter of changing the structure of the reality within which the objective is constrained (get the ring off the horseshoes [easier with a cut chain], get to the airplane before it takes off [easier with walls torn down], reach the win screen without running out of health [easier when all attempts to read the health number in memory get intercepted by the debugging device to always reflect full value]). Other modifications made directly to the software or hardware, whether wall hacks, trainer mods, or motherboard tampering, are likewise not evidence that videogames are made of rules – the very need for using them to “cheat” by changing the underlying operation is proof that what’s being tampered with is something quite different than rules in the board game or athletics sense, that the barriers and limitations being overcome are not artificial but quite real.

      Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

  7. I’ve usually heard these referred to as “soft” and “hard” rules, the latter being what you see more as physical realities. I wish I could be helpful enough to say where I’d first heard those terms, but it’s escaping me at present.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      I’m having trouble finding good definitions for ‘hard rule’ and ‘soft rule’ – one site suggested ‘policy’ vs ‘guideline’ which doesn’t seem applicable, and there seem to be similar terms in AI (hard constraint and soft constraint) as well as possibly-related terms from law (hard law and soft law). A couple of passing references mentioned the possibility of elevating a soft rule to a hard rule, which perhaps is consistent with the definitions you have in mind? (Ex. if the ‘soft rule’ was nobody get the chaingun in the level, elevating it to a hard rule would mean modding or recompiling program code to prevent collection of the chaingun.) That still begins at a rule level, however, which is not true about most properties of how a continuous possibility space and its representations are structured (would we say that it is by ‘hard rules’ that an atom in our universe can be split?).

      If you recall or find where these terms came up, please do let me know, as I would be curious to read more about it – thanks for the lead!

  8. MichaelSamyn says:

    Nice read. Astute observation. Very helpful. Thank you.

    Reminded me a bit of this:
    http://tale-of-tales.com/blog/2007/06/25/ten-reasons-why-computer-games-are-not-games/
    :)

  9. Florent says:

    What about the process of creating videogames? I mean before the videogame is ‘done’ by developers and artists. Gamedesigners work in an ‘all possiblites open’ world (well, nearly, there always can be plateform constraint to take in account). Hence I would say that game designers are setting rules to their game, and then developers are fixing those rules into laws wich the player won’t be able to break. So, my point is: ok for the semantic thing about rules that are not rules in a videogame, but are they not rules in the head of gamedesigners at first, and is this not making videogames some kind of games?

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      Thank you for taking time to reply! You have summed up well a question which I suspect others are wondering about as well, but which until now has not been brought to the surface for discussion.

      > What about the process of creating videogames? I mean before the videogame is ‘done’ by developers and artists.

      I do that :)

      > Game designers work in an ‘all possibilities open’ world

      We do not. We start from nothing then add, line by line and structure by structure, we do not start from infinite density then subtract. It probably seems as though I’m referring to a technical rather than design angle, but this is not the case; we have to design and create the possibilities before we can constrain them. There is no background universe within which we can author rules until it has been created, in terms of spatial/temporal relationships, causality, input mappings, and representation. Developers alternatively can adopt patterned, pre-made answers to such questions in the form of middleware, but that’s still just a way of making those decisions in very specific ways.

      > (well, nearly, there always can be platform constraint to take in account)

      Agreed, that platform constraints are a messy factor defiying clear analogy. Interestingly, this fact counters my point above as an exception in the same sense and to the same degree that it complicates yours.

      > Hence I would say that game designers are setting rules to their game, and then developers are fixing those rules into laws which the player won’t be able to break.

      Part of my motivation in making this distinction, the other side of which I think you have framed very clearly here, is that this approach you are describing risks overlooking important details about what gets created. I am arguing that how those rules (in the discrete sense) become interpreted as fixed into laws can be just as important to the gameplay as what those ‘rules’ are. The follow-up entry to this one may explain it better, but the gist is that the input and mechanics of something like how Mario moves while in the air takes on at least equal significance to the discrete events that we recognize surrounding such action (landing on a turtle, jumping up into bricks, falling down a hole, whatever).

      The designer, for example, may identify as a rule of input that a plane plane turns when the player tugs the joystick toward one side or the other. In such a case, I believe that the rate of that turn, the decay of that turn, the continuous (but not necessarily evenly distributed) mapping between the analog input range and the behavior of that turn can make and break the gameplay (or meaning, in videogames for communication) as much as any other seemingly higher level decision. Does input have an accelerating effect or produce a directly mapped angular offset? Is there a decay only during no directional input, or also alongside the effect of input signal, or does it stop turning the moment input stops reading?

      In this way, I mean to extend this line of thinking into deeper and fundamental aspects of how code gets implemented and executed, which are even less apparent, discrete, or rule-like than player control or standard numerical tuning. One example is when animations are connected in code in such a way that how the animations get authored has implications on an enemy’s vulnerability, accuracy, or response time. Another is how the typical resolution of a game’s display affects a player’s ability to recognize, accurately categorize, and target an enemy at range in 3D space (this being an important gameplay effect, not arising from a ‘rule’, against which other gameplay design decisions must be conceived and balanced).

      Another way of thinking about these is that they are decisions not only for how relevant variables get tuned, but the decision about what variables exist as factors to be tuned (or derived dynamically from authored assets), or in that second case, consciously accounted for as unavoidable hardware effects/limitations.

      > So, my point is: ok for the semantic thing about rules that are not rules in a videogame, but are they not rules in the head of game designers at first, and is this not making videogames some kind of games?

      They are and have never been rules in my head as a videogame designer. For people that author digital simulations of games (which are possible just like digital simulations of plane flight), I suspect that they indeed do go about reasoning primarily about rules separately from details of implementation, because in videogames that carry on the turn-based or discrete traditions of non-digital games (originally arising as an artifact of human limitations in keeping track of rules) the details of implementation may be less significant, in the same way that the style of chess pieces doesn’t affect the game so long as they are not difficult to tell apart.

      To return to the earlier phrase:

      > Hence I would say that game designers are setting rules to their game

      For game designers, this is absolutely true, whether they’re creating their projects with pieces and paper or by simulating such elements in digital form. For videogame designers, the applicability of this approach varies by what the designer is attempting to create.

  10. [...] is a refinement and continuation of last month’s entry, Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not. Explanatory footnotes, additional examples, and sources are at the bottom, quickly reachable by [...]

  11. [...] is a excellence and delay of final month’s entry, Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not. Explanatory footnotes, additional examples, and sources are during a bottom, reachable by clicking [...]

  12. [...] room in how they are reconstructed. However I have explored the nature of that flexibility already at length in other entries, and for today we'll focus more on how the hurdler [...]

  13. [...] casually applied to videogames. Please ignore for now, if possible, that I believe this usage to be fundamentally different in nature than what we refer to as rules in board games, sports, and pinball/videogame tournaments. Briefly [...]

  14. [...] previous entries investigating games and rules (older HobbyGameDev entries include both a blunt, clear version and a slightly more academic follow-up), I had no choice but to resign pinball and other mechanical [...]

  15. [...] Games Are Artificial. Videogames Are Not. Games Have Rules. Videogames Do Not. [...]

  16. Guillermo says:

    Oh my god. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. I’ve been trying to find a way to explain exactly this to other people becasue Im wroking on my thesis right now wich is about narrative in videogames. This is just what I need. Games are a simulation more than a representation.

  17. [...] [1] Chris DeLeon goes into much more detail on all this in his essay, “Games Are Artificial. Videogames Are Not. Games Have Rules. Videogames Do Not.“ [...]

    • I’ve elaborated on this idea in my blog post above; basically, my argument boils down to the fact that software is concrete, while rules are abstract–and these two components of “games” can act as fully independent media. I would love to know what you think!

  18. […] Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not. […]

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