Rules in Computer Games Compared to Rules in Traditional Games

Sep 2, 2013

This YouTube adaptation of my recent DiGRA presentation expands on a couple of the more discussed entries that I’ve written for HobbyGameDev. I’ve added to the core ideas a few new ways of explaining and thinking about the distinction between digital and non-digital rules, while trying to better account for how readers responded to those old entries.

The PDF of the full paper will available soon through DiGRA’s online proceedings.

Similar to how I expanded my History of Games presentation on pinball into a longer form on YouTube – less rushed and with some additional details compared to what I presented in Montreal – this version is somewhat extended from the talk that I gave at DiGRA. When preparing a web video I’m of course not constrained to fitting the talk into a particular timeframe, in the way I had to for the live presentation since it was originally in an environment where people were attending days of back-to-back presentations.

If you have questions, comments, additional sources that you’d recommend I check out related to this topic, please let me know! This presentation and the corresponding paper is the start of my investigation into the topic, by no means is it intended to be the final word on it by me or anyone else, and so I am quite interested in any ideas that might affect my future work in this domain.


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  1. John Wrot! says:

    This is interesting to me, as for our game The King’s Armory (coming to Kickstarter in October) we took traditional video Tower Defense games and turned them into a board game! Very fascinating transition.

  2. […] Rules in Computer Games Compared to Rules in Traditional Games […]

  3. Andrew says:

    Something interesting to contemplate: Game glitches. I think that glitches would be the equivalent to a real world judge or referee making a bad call. The person who is the referee thought they were doing the right thing according to the rule book, but upon review, it may be apparent that a player did step out of bounds and a foul should have resulted. The same goes for game glitches. The game logic may think it is doing the correct thing, but the result to the player may be “breaking the rules”. This is an example such as walking through a wall they should not have been able to, or “duping” an item in an RPG.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      Hi Andrew! Thanks for taking time to comment. While there are some parallels between game glitches and a referee making a bad call, especially from a designer’s perspective where intention can be known authoritatively, in terms of player experience and at a technical level the game glitch shares most properties with the other actions that the player is able to take within a videogame. Whereas a referee making a bad call comes from her or his inability to know precise what takes place, the computer is always privy to highly exact information, since its measurements are one in the same as its operational elements – in other words broadly speaking the computer can’t really make bad call, it’s making the “right” (only possible!) call as programmed, the error isn’t at the computational level but is instead buried in how the implementer(s) created and constrained possibilities within the code. Such errors may violate authorial intention, and even player expectation as established from conventions or clear physical metaphors, but unlike a bad judgment call such glitches are consistently repeatable (though sometimes demanding such precision in input timing as to seem inconsistent, the inconsistency again here is at the player level not rule evaluation), highly precise in the execution of behaviors surrounding the loophole found.

      Our ability to often recognize these as “cheats” has to do with limitations we accept at a level outside of the game, inferring that it isn’t how the game was meant to be played (but can be) or isn’t fair because it shortcuts how the game was meant to be played. In this sense what’s violated is still “rules” of the sort found in board games or sports, in which it’s our sense of sportsmanship or tournament regulation that compels us to not do something that we are physically capable of doing. This domain can become even more complicated though on account of the fuzzy gradient between what constitutes intended vs glitch behavior. Some examples include:

      Running forward while strafing in old games like Doom and Goldeneye 007 allowed players to move faster (the forward and sideways movement vectors get added without normalization or rescaling), which some players consider cheating while others accept it as a normal part of competitive play. Sticky mines in Deus Ex could be climbed as though they were ladders. Rocket jumping in Quake, and by extension the original Team Fortress mod, was not an intended part of the game’s design, but became a generally accepted activity by the player community since the tradeoffs and complications in performing it right helped offset the advantages of doing it.

      I completely agree that glitches are an interesting thing to further contemplate! Their relationship to this rules discussion is nuanced I think, but that can only help shed further light on similarities and differences between the different things that we refer to as rules.

      Thanks again!

  4. JohnWrot says:

    Glitches are an interesting thing. Some people love them (those who include “i broke the system” as a glitch) and others hate them (those who loose save data).

    I fall into both categories.

  5. […] 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. […]

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